From Gloriavale to Destiny Church, more unusual incarnations of religion have always been a topic to tickle the curiosity of New Zealand’s public. But what happens when one of these types of sects has their eyes set on you?
In Spring of 2017, Otago University student magazine Critic Te Arohi covered student accounts describing the aggressive recruitment strategies of a group named ‘Elohim Academy’/’Elohim Bible Academy’. Students, usually young women, described incidents of being followed at night outside the campus library and asked invasive personal questions. Elohim Academy was since disaffiliated by the Otago University Students’ Association (OUSA) for breach of the OUSA’s constitution, and had been accused of being a cult. Worlds away in Auckland, I was shocked, though content that I was immune. Or so I thought.
This past summer, at Glen Innes Library, I was approached by two young women who surrounded me to ask for ‘feedback for a presentation’. When I saw the ‘Elohim Academy’ label on their clear-file folder, I knew my next story had fallen into my lap. I wanted to know what makes them so different and why everyone was so scared of them. What ensued was involvement in a police investigation and a tumble down the rabbit hole of worse allegations from campuses around the world.
Strangely, before the ‘presentation’ started, she was especially insistent in asking of my age and what street I lived on. The presence of the woman felt imposing and I was puzzled as to the personal questions.
I said “just show me something that you think makes your church really unique and different from everyone else”.
The woman flipped to a page which had a chart akin to this:
God –> The Father
God –> The Mother
“God is the form of a mother and father”
The woman answered my questions using Bible verses and flipping through her clearfile. As she was doing this, I caught glimpses of other pages and sections. More pages detailed the importance of mothers, or more specifically, the importance of ‘brides’ in the church.
At this point, my eyeballs were about to bulge out of their sockets with my instincts pointing to my ovaries about to be harvested. Just kidding. Suddenly, questions about my age made more sense. I began taking photos on my phone with permission of the woman, pressing the circle button like a doorbell on Halloween night at double speed.
I was interested to find out about the group themselves, how big their church was, where they were based in Auckland, what country their church is from and if they were established locally. The woman was restrained in her answers. She seemed shaken by my constant prodding, which seemed unusual, as in my experience faith communities are usually happy to be forthcoming with information and transparency about their group’s dogma.
Weirded out by the experience, I started packing up my things to go home.
Then, I saw a group of people, including the woman, come back into the library to surround me.
“YOU HAVE TO DELETE THOSE PHOTOS! DELETE THOSE PHOTOS AT ONCE! You MUST delete them!”
“Go to your bin! Right now!! Delete that!”
I was thinking to delete them and fish them out of my bin folder later. But then, they came close to my face and demanded to unlock my phone and open the bin app. Despite this sassy prose, I was no match for this kind of physical confrontation.
A call was later made to the library staff after my incident had been escalated by security, who promised vigilance towards this group. I later found out that local police were especially interested in my story, and particularly the fact that the group was operating in Auckland.
I called my friends at Otago University who had encountered this group, with many shared elements of our experiences. Some were even asked about their views on children or marriage in bizarre questionnaires.
I went home to investigate further, finding that universities all over Canada and the United States had made similar complaints to mine.
World Mission Society Church of God, the group behind Elohim Academy, was founded by Ahn Sahng-Hong, a man claiming to be the messiah. WMSCOG was founded in 1964 in Korea. This group reportedly believes in a Mother God in mortal form, Jang Gil-ja, the current leader. New Zealand Christian forums believe that the group is actively recruiting young women and members of the Polynesian community. In the United States, a July 2018 investigation by The Daily Beast revealed that former members experienced forced labour, sleep deprivation, isolation, intimidation and secrecy. YouTube is also filled with videos of former members urging people not to join.
Håkan Järvå, a Swedish psychologist specialising in cults, states that a warning sign of one is lack of transparency, as this indicates lack of free expression and critique. Indeed, the International Cultic Studies Association extends this analysis to including dictating personal habits of members, an elitist leader who is not accountable to the authorities, demanding subservience and disconnect to the ‘outside world’, obsession with evangelisation and using shame and punishment to disproportionately control others.
So little is known of what life may be like inside WMSCOG or their need to recruit young women.
But what I do know is this, no-one should make you take part, encroach on your boundaries or make you feel like you can’t be yourself and seek information safely.
For now, in our lockdown bubbles, we can rest easy. In Korea, the spread of COVID-19 from the Shincheonji church has reignited scrutiny towards a wave of similar churches, centred around a charismatic figure and demonstrating a lack of transparency. Like any community or group, churches should offer teaching, compassion and community. Like any group dynamic, thinking critically about what purpose a religious group serves can save your skin. Or in my case, my ovaries. Just kidding. Maybe.