In my Issue 9 story, “A Cult Tried and Failed to Recruit Me”, I detailed my unusual encounter with Elohim Academy, a new religious movement notorious for its aggressive recruitment of young women. I was asked for my personal information such as my address and age, and was later physically confronted by group members after I had taken photos of their doctrine.
Elohim Academy, part of the World Mission Society Church of God, faces numerous accusations of being a cult. My story garnered attention from law enforcement and students at the University of Otago over the fact that the group was now recruiting in Auckland. Since the article’s release, I received several messages from young women at the University of Auckland saying they were similarly approached by Elohim Academy. I wanted to hear their stories and to get to the bottom of this mystery. What are the activities of Elohim Academy? What is the purpose of Elohim Academy’s recruitment? And why are they seeking young women in particular?
Elohim Academy’s presence at the University of Auckland is a phenomenon which is not as new as originally thought. Alexandra* recalls an encounter at Albert Park in her first year of university, four years ago. Her experience shows hallmark elements of similar encounters at the University of Otago and universities in the United States; a seemingly friendly pair of young women insisting to sit with her and asking personal questions which were unlike those asked by typical groups. According to my interviewees, these included age, address, phone number, who they lived with, religious experiences, life story and views on marriage and childbirth. One common doctrine taught by Elohim Academy is that of “God the Mother”. While initially seeming to be a progressive view which seeks to dismantle patriarchy in Christianity, I contend this is a motive to adhere to Jang Gil-Ja, the female messianic figure of World Mission Society Church of God. This faux-feminism front may be a way to manipulate women and prevent them from seeing the interests of demagogues, who often run alleged cults of this kind.
Sefina*, Ella and Alisi* recalled being pressured in a public area by Elohim Academy, with the more rare presence of male recruiters watching.
Sefina’s story takes place in the Manukau Train Station, where she had repeated encounters with Elohim Academy. Just like in my story, and in Ella’s story later on, she was approached under the guise of ‘needing feedback on a presentation’. She noticed that only young women were approached. Her ride arrived mid-presentation, where the woman kept insisting to ask for her details, to which Sefina refused. During the second encounter, the woman started the presentation without asking, while Sefina noticed the woman’s male companion. Sefina remembered, “He would stare at me to try to intimidate me. The guys were always much bigger than [the] girls”. Even when Sefina gave a hard no, the woman continued to drill for a meeting at Sefina’s home and felt like the woman was “[trying] to counter [me] to make it a yes”. While confused and annoyed at the time, this feeling turned into one of fear after reading about Elohim Academy, making her realise she may have been in more danger than she thought.
Alisi reached out to me as she remembered a forceful encounter with Elohim Academy in Sylvia Park Mall. She had a feeling that something was wrong “when the female associate pushed for me to talk to them again”. Alisi felt that she was targeted as a Pacific Islander, as religion is an important part of the community and most will have existing religious knowledge. She felt afraid of saying no, because she was afraid of the group’s reaction due to the forceful nature of their members, and because it felt as though they had tied rejection to rejecting God. When Alisi received a message that Elohim Academy could meet her on campus for the next meeting, the discomfort became too much and the number has since been blocked.
Our own News Editor Ella has also been approached by Elohim Academy while at the University of Waikato library in Hamilton. Much like the other interviewees, Ella shared a feeling that she “sensed this was a different religious group, as most churches do not try to recruit people in public spaces”. She stated that it was unusual for a group to recruit inside a library. Despite the apparent familiarity with university spaces and student areas, Ella clearly remembers that the recruiters said that they were not students. This raises a question as to why students are the targets of this group. Friendliness to recruiters? Openness to new ideas? Or feelings of loneliness and alienation that students experience?
Mia’s* experience may answer the question of the modus operandi of Elohim Academy. Mia’s story echoes that of ‘Tina’, of a 2017 Critic Te Arohi piece by Esme Hall, involving a secret baptismal plan. Mia was approached in Albert Park by two women whose approach was to dispel scepticism calmly, and were inviting for calm subsequent talks on faith. ‘God The Mother’ seemed like a welcoming and egalitarian church. Mia recalls “at the time, I was easily influenced and quite alone, religion was something I always grappled with. I eventually did agree to get baptised, and they were going to take me to their church”. As meetings progressed, Mia felt as though the group members were trying to convey a sense of urgency when they stated that “passover is coming up…do you want to save your family?”, almost as though it was the ‘End Times’. Mia did not know the location of her baptism, and it was suggested for her to go there with the members or they would help her get a ride there. Mia felt as though she “dodged a bullet” when her mother called her to come home, later researching Elohim Academy’s controversial history.
This is where my trail ends, with more questions than answers. But, where there is a loose thread, there are people determined to pull it. And the snags are starting to show to Elohim’s shroud. From what we can deduce, there is a clear interest in seeking women that may already be from religious backgrounds, women of colour and women who are alone around campus. For women who may be more vulnerable, a support system can be their saving grace. But from the perspective of religious groups, they too see themselves as filling that purpose, which makes it more difficult to realise wrongdoing in manipulative and intimidating tactics. As a creed of safety, trust your instincts, look up unfamiliar groups before you join, and remember, a belief of Christianity is free will; anyone who tries to pressure that out of you may have other plans.
*Names have been changed to protect their privacy