“I’ve been told that I’m in a cult,” South Korean church recruits MSUM students
“They keep telling me I’m going to hell,” junior Jes Kalina said.
“They” are the World Mission Society Church of God, also known as the church of God the Mother. Recently, they’ve been evangelizing to students at MSUM. The group has approached Kalina on four separate occasions, most of which have occurred between midnight and two a.m.
“Right outside of Grantham, they were hiding behind some trees,” Kalina said. “At first we didn’t see them, but they jumped out in front of my mentees.”
The MSUM campus isn’t the first university the group has targeted. According to WREG-TV, the group has been banned from the University of Memphis for “aggressively attempting to discuss religion and distribute literature.”
“It feels like when you’re talking to a sales rep, and they’re trying to get you to say yes three times,” Kalina said. “It usually ends with them asking me to get in a van and come with them somewhere.”
Kalina says the group makes him uncomfortable.
“In that situation, anyone would feel a bit of terror,” Kalina said.
The church believes that the Christian messiah was reincarnated as Christ Ahn Sahng-Hong in 1948. Sahng-Hong founded the Witnesses of Jesus Church of God, now known as the World Mission Society Church of God, in 1964. His first four churches were established in South Korea by 1970.
The church’s website claims 2.5 million members across 175 countries. Some of its proudest achievements are the many awards it has won for volunteer service in various nations. Jang Gil-ja, who is said to be the manifestation of God the Mother, is still alive today in South Korea.
The group is often labeled a cult. According to The Record, a New Jersey newspaper, former members have come out to say the church is dangerous: it recruits young people, then encourages new members to cut ties with their families.
“I’ve been told that I’m in a cult,” said Robert Isbell, a member of the World Mission Society Church of God. “But many times when that is said, I remember in the Bible the apostle Paul too was told that he was in a cult.”
After an initial meeting, a member named Cedric Mahonga said that they could not disclose any information, including the church’s location or their personal experiences, without gaining permission from their pastor in Colorado. A month later, Isbell agreed to an interview.
“I first became involved with this church of truth as someone approached me to invite me to a Bible study,” Isbell said.
Isbell was baptized in the World Mission Society Church of God three years ago. The group initially approached him in Kansas City.
“Our church really makes an effort to study with everybody, no matter the time or hour,” Isbell said. “Just in this area, 30 members keep service time, and we’re growing more and more.”
Isbell said that the church has grown from 2,500 locations in 2015 to 7,000 churches today.
He sympathizes with those who misunderstand the church’s intentions and wishes them well.
“We need to resolve the misunderstandings and seek the truth in the word of God,” Isbell said.
Isbell said the Moorhead church is located in a house across the street from campus. There is also a Fargo location, along with 43 other Midwest branches. The goal of the followers of the church is to help community members find salvation with God the Mother.
“God the Mother has come down to this earth to lead us to the kingdom of heaven,” Isbell said. “The people of this world need to receive salvation.”
“I don’t like the word cult,” Michael Hughey, a sociology professor, said. “It’s too pejorative.”
Hughey compared this new group to another religion called the Unification Church, colloquially known as “Moonies,” referencing their leader Sun Myung Moon.
“Moon suggested that Jesus was God’s emissary, but he botched the job,” Hughey said. “He basically declared himself the new Messiah and made a religion around it.”
The group thrived in the 1970s. They mirror the World Mission Society Church of God in many ways: they originated around the same time in South Korea, they try to separate new members from the outside world and they use similar recruiting techniques, including direct conversion attempts.
“Proselytizing tactics are aggressive because they have to be,” Hughey said. “Early Christians were heavy proselytizers; Mormons are heavy proselytizers—there’s really nothing particularly unique about it, except for the ambush.”
Many groups like this use public spaces, mostly with high concentrations of young people, to practice their evangelism.
“People of university age trying to find themselves, sometimes unsettled, living in a new place—it makes them more vulnerable and more likely to convert,” Hughey said.
Online, rumors have surfaced that the group is connected to human trafficking. No actual connection has been made, and these rumors seem to stem from viral social media posts.
“There are allegations that they’re linked to sex trafficking, so we checked with MPD, and from what they relayed back to us that is not the case,” Interim Public Safety Director Jean Hollaar said.
Hollaar said there have been only two reports from students concerned about the group. One was called in after the fact.
“When you see it happening, call us then,” Hollaar said. “Having it reported allows us to document what happened, then make a plan to address or mitigate it for our students’ safety.”
Hollaar says Public Safety is trying to establish communication with the group and would like to help students feel safer about their presence on campus.
“If there’s a particular spot that they’re doing this at, we can have extra patrol throughout the night,” Hollaar said. “That may deter them from even being in the area.”
Overall, Hollaar urges students to stay safe and be smart about these interactions. She says to report individuals who are too persistent to your resident assistant or Public Safety immediately.
“Certainly don’t go in a van with a person you don’t know,” Hollaar said.