Tina* is a new friend. We’re in that stage of bonding over things we have in common, like both studying Politics and English, loving podcasts, and being recruited by the same cult. Our stories are months apart, but have the same innocent opening. Enter two Korean girls who ask if we’ll do a survey for their ‘Bible study group’. Enter us being like ‘what the heck’ and agreeing.
The girls pull out a tablet and play a montage of animals accompanied by plinky music and narrated by a soft-spoken Korean lady. The image pauses on a pair of lions and the voice says that just as every animal has a father, God is our father. Now we see zebras and are told that just as every animal has a mother, God is our Mother.
Out comes a Bible and one girl points to Genesis 1:27. “God created mankind in His own image … male and female He created them.” A triangle of yellow highlighter links ‘male’, ‘female’, and ‘God’. “Therefore, God is Father and Mother,” she’s very insistent.
This is the point in the pick-your-path adventure where one storyline gets very strange very fast.
You see, I had somewhere to be and escaped just before I sold my soul. I was pretty stoked with the ‘God the Mother’ concept, and told all my friends. But I soon forgot about the whole thing.
Tina was too nice to get out of there. “I think they could tell I was bad at saying no.”
The girls started saying that as soon as you think of baptism, you must get baptised. “Maybe they’ll just baptise me in the Leith.” She told them she didn’t believe in God and “felt like it would be dishonest” to get baptised. She even said “eternal life sounds like too much life”. But they said it didn’t matter. They’d dropped the sweet exterior and weren’t taking no for an answer.
Next minute, Tina is in a car with two Korean girls she had just met, going to get baptised.
“In hindsight getting in their car was really dumb. But I just felt bad.” She felt like she was too far gone and just had to follow through.
They drove to what used to be the Roslyn Presbyterian Church. It’s your classic Dunedin Gothic Revival church, featuring Oamaru stone and designed by James Salmond. It doesn’t look like a base of a worldwide cult.
They made Tina change into a robe. The girls wore veils and Tina knelt in a bathtub while a man poured water over her. “He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and said that the sins of my life were being washed away. They told me when to say amen.”
After making her write her name in the Book of Names (which was more like a Book of Personal Details), they dropped her back at university. That was that.
That night, a quick Google revealed that she’d met World Mission Society Church of God. They’re a worldwide church with over 300 branches in New Zealand. Tina had been baptised in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, and a Korean guy called AhnSahng-hong. Apparently Christ was reborn in South Korea in 1964 and his name was Christ AhnSahng-hong. They believe an elderly woman called Jang Gil-ja is God the Mother and that they must obey everything she says. Oh and, apparently, they thought the world would end in 2012. Solid.
The frightening website www.cults.co.nz says that Church of God is a certified cult, and gives it a ‘DANGER’ rating. However, the website is pretty happy to slap the ‘DANGER’ rating on a lot things, including Oprah Winfrey. Though she says some weird things, I don’t think I’m going to run away from Oprah if she asks me to do a survey on Leith Walk.
Today, it’s more politically correct to use ‘new religious movement’ instead of ‘cult’. ‘Cult’ gets thrown around a lot, and carries serious negative baggage. Church of God rejects the title, saying that it is a form of “religious intolerance used to denigrate groups with views contrary to the norm”. They’ve filed a ridiculous number of lawsuits against ex-members to reinforce this point, and have prevented members speaking out online.
But what’s actually so dangerous about Church of God? Former members and experts say that the church uses psychological manipulation and brainwashes members. The Church itself says that “these malicious accusations misrepresent the World Mission Society Church of God, its belief and practices”. I quickly got sucked into the online back and forth. But the fact that such accusations are made and have to be ‘disproven’ is enough to suggest that the Church is not all good.
The church believes that Jang Gil-ja is God in the flesh, and that followers must give her total and unquestioned obedience. Though they got it wrong with 2012, Church of God still believes that the end is nigh. Members must commit everything they can before it’s too late. This includes money, and former members claim that tithes of 10–15% of their salaries were mandatory.
Videos on their website of their churches around the world give off the impression that these tithes generate a lot of money. That’s probably why the Dunedin branch experienced backlash in 2012 when they bought the Roslyn Presbyterian Church for $300,000 less than its rateable value. However, no one was really speaking up about the Presbyterian Church passing over the premises to a cult.
Members must evangelise ‘lost sheep’ in shopping malls, campuses, and on the streets for their own salvation. Members devote so much time to the church that they become isolated from their families (who are thought of as ‘non-believers’ anyway) and their studies. Former members also claim that the church leaders encouraged members to get abortions because it was selfish to bring a child into a world that was about to end.
Founder of the Cult Education Institute Rick Alan Ross said in People Magazine that such statements from past members are questionable, but “if that is, in fact, true, the reason is that they want total devotion. They want no distractions. That’s why everything must be permitted by the group, including who you marry, who you date, if you have children. They want the group to be maximally productive and a child is ultimately counterproductive.”
When I met recruiters on campus, they were very vague about who they were. I asked them multiple times what church they were from, but I didn’t get past ‘Bible study group on campus’. This is because certain teachings are only available to certain members in confidence. A former member Michele Colon told People Magazine that “they don’t tell you what they are all about upfront, because if they did, no one would join them”. Instead they spoon feed “information when they feel you’re ready to hear it … they just tell you that all of your questions will be answered if you keep studying.”
Ross calls the group a cult because while not “physically dangerous” to outsiders, they do not accept the idea that any other church is valid. Theirs is the only path to salvation. They use this to financially and emotionally exploit members and “dominate a person’s life so that they have no other life”.
But this is where I got caught in a loop. The church published a response to People’s article where they called Michele Colon a liar, and reporter Chris Harris unethical. They dispute preaching the end of the world in 2012, directing members to get abortions, and forcing 10 – 15% income tithes. The said that although they can prove their “belief in Second Coming Christ and God the Mother” in the Bible, “they [Ross, Colon and Harris] do not even believe in the Bible.” They went on to say, “If you really want to know the World Mission Society Church of God, you just have to come and see for yourself what the Church is about.” I personally won’t be taking up that offer.
Tina and I aren’t the only ones who’ve met Church of God. Two of my flatmates have been asked to do ‘the survey’ in the time I was writing this story. Another friend was approached outside Student Health and pretended to be deaf to avoid unwanted baptism.
The University of Otago Proctor Dave Scott said I was the second person to report “this religious group attempting to recruit on campus.” He advised not providing them with any personal information such as name, cell phone number or email address (too late Tina). Anyone who meets them should call Campus Watch as Scott wants a word with “the recruiters and [is considering] trespassing them from the campus”.
The Chairperson of Aotearoa NZ Tertiary Chaplains Association Andrew McKean warns that several Korean cults of this nature are operating in New Zealand tertiary institutions. The people I’ve spoken to who’ve been approached by Church of God have been female students, walking alone, particularly outside the Dentistry School and in St David. There are enough worries for girls walking alone around Dunedin, without being targeted by cults.
Tina’s story could have ended a lot worse, but she’s fine. The Book of Names wasn’t as confidential as she was assured, but she’s blocked all the numbers that have tried to call her. She did see the two girls in St David a week later, but pulled the classic technique of faking deafness and they left her alone.