An exclusive look inside the elusive religious movement recruiting young women around New Zealand.
Exclusive interview and research by Keeara Ofren, with support from Arishma.
Read Part I: ‘A Cult Tried (And Failed) To Recruit Me’
Read Part II: ‘Auckland Students Recount Experiences with Elohim Academy Cult’
Originally published in Craccum Magazine, Issue 19 (13 September 2021): http://craccum.co.nz/features/exclusive-former-elohim-academy-cult-member-speaks-out/
Featured image by Jorge Salvador of unsplash.com.
Content Warning: Emotional and sexual abuse.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, please contact 111.
If you have information regarding criminal acts such as abuse, please report to 105.
If you are in need of support regarding violence, please contact one of the following agencies:
Shakti 0800 742 584 (0800 SHAKTI)
Shine 0508 744 633
Women’s Refuge 0800 733 843 (0800 REFUGE).
It all began on one weird summer day in late 2019, where an encounter with a religious group in a public library later had me entangled in a physical confrontation with cultists and a police investigation. ‘Elohim Academy’ is a group known for approaching young women in universities around New Zealand, first covered in a 2017 piece by Critic Te Arohi, where Esme Hall introduces us to a Korean new religious movement where pairs of mysterious people would follow young women at night asking them to do bizarre surveys and to come along to a secret baptism. Later, I would discover the hard way that the group, ‘Elohim Academy’, otherwise known as the World Mission Society Church of God (WMSCOG) cult, was recruiting in Auckland, and seeking young people, going as far as insistent phone communications and intimidation tactics, covered in my 2020 pieces ‘A Cult Tried (And Failed) To Recruit Me’ and ‘Auckland Students Recount Experiences with Elohim Academy Cult’. I closed my articles with the thought that in our lockdown bubbles, we would be safe. Or so I thought.
In late 2020, I received messages from Howick, to Wellington Central from individuals who had been approached out and about or through doorknocking campaigns where the visitors requested ‘young people’ and that the pandemic was a sign of the ‘End Times’ and that only their church offered salvation. Since then, the /r/Auckland forum on Reddit has also been buzzing about recruitment attempts in West Auckland. With no further contacts, my leads dried up there. This would change one Facebook request later, one rainy lockdown day. In the message was a long thank you letter from a former member of seven years who was recruited at 15 and left at 22, she reached out to me in the hope that her story would solve the mystery and that she could empower others with her story to warn against cults. With this, I knew I had to share her story.
Arishma is a bright and expressive University of Auckland student with a warm disposition. However, behind the cheer, it was apparent that she and her family had gone through emotional extremes under years of severe control that they lived under, and that this continues to shape her warnings to others. Arishma’s story starts out much like some of the respondents of my articles, with her family as the subject of a doorknocking campaign. The introduction into Elohim Academy was a welcoming group they longed for, akin to a large family always asking what they needed and how they could help, but looking back, Arishma states that this was a lovebombing technique to entrap her family into withstanding unreasonable and abusive restrictions on their lives.
Arishma was baptised in her own home, with an Indian woman brought to the home the second visit to win the trust of her Indian family.
And so, her journey with Elohim Academy began.
Elohim Academy/WMSCOG’s Ideology
According to Arishma, WMSCOG has 7000 branches worldwide, with Korean originating members on temporary visas. The church has grown to the point that Deacons and Deaconesses are local and are seeking to target other religious minority and diaspora groups, namely Māori and Pasifika Christians.
The WMSCOG keeps the true name of their church secret, referring to themselves as ‘Elohim Academy’ or ‘Zion’ as Arishma states that they are aware of their bad reputation, but are insistent on recruiting as many people as possible as all other churches ‘will go to Hell’.
WMSCOG members are taught that Jesus would come again from ‘the East’, with a new name bringing a new Passover. To members, this meant that a man named Ahn Sahng-Hong and later, his female successor, Jang Gil-Jah were incarnations of the messiah and that emphasis on ‘God the Mother’ is to have members accept a female mortal form of God. Jang Gil-Jah is known as the ‘Heavenly Mother’, with members vying for a chance to go on a pilgrimage to Korea meet her.
Who and Why do they Recruit
WMSCOG’s aggressive recruitment preference towards young women has led to numerous universities in the United States raising the group to law enforcement, suspecting human trafficking. I ask Arishma straight away if this is the case. She explains that the aim of the church is to recruit as many people as possible, and that members are told to approach young women, as they are more ‘vulnerable and easy to manipulate’. Indeed, Mia* of Auckland Students Recount Their Experiences with Elohim Academy Cult stated that her reason for almost joining was because she felt lonely and isolated in her first year of university.
Arishma expresses to me that she was once one of the recruiters, saying “it was so hard to recruit people. People think you’re nuts. If anything, it was more of a tool to bring us together as a group and expose us to punishment and fear to prevent us from leaving.”
Inside the Group
Psychologist Dr. Michael D Langone is known for his methodology in determining cult behaviour. He bases his definition in his experience rehabilitating former cult members as well as enduring cultural markers of how society defines cults. These signs are listed but not limited to; being excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment to a leader, exploitative manipulation, harm to members of society, extensively dictating the behaviour of others, viewing themselves as having exhalted status or knowing a secret ‘goodness’ or ‘truth’, intense opposition and alienation from society, and employing mind control techniques including pressure, deception to create an environment of distress.
Arishma explains a set of bizarre conditions for WMSCOG members. Members are expected to separate themselves from social media and friends outside the church, have 100% attendance in mass, 100% attendance in recruitment sessions, give 10% of their income, conform to a non-denim dress code, reject music and masturbation, and to lose weight to fit with a Korean beauty standard. But perhaps the most damning aspects of WMSCOG were conditions which are consistent with emotional abuse.
Witnessing members breaking down due to harsh public condemnation and shaming was common. Members were ranked in terms of how many new members they would bring, with the lowest ranking ones rebuked, even if they were minors. Breaking rules of missing service, missing a recruitment schedule, forgetting to bow, missing mandatory donations, breaking dress code and even not showing proof of spending on the church through bank statements would warrant punishment.
Arishma states that church members were forced to watch a 44 minute video from another Korean church repeatedly, an animated simulation of the different punishments in Hell, saying that this video was ‘like torture’ to scare members into their recruitment drives. The video includes graphic depictions of rape, sexual torture and body horror. and Members were also encouraged to show this video to LGBTQI+ or anyone who they recognised as ‘sinful’.
Like many extreme political movements or religious groups, finding out external information about the world would only ever be on the terms of the group, thus trapping members into this mindset. Many members would end up leaving their day jobs, university degrees and families to accommodate this lifestyle.
A vital turning point in Arishma’s journey was the day where young female members would be interrogated on their reproductive choices and sexual experiences.
Abortion would be encouraged as the church was insistent that the world is the End Times, where mothers would struggle, citing Matthew 24:19 as ‘proof’.
Young women would then be separated into ‘virgins’ and ‘non-virgins’. These members would be discouraged from having a boyfriend outside the church, with the pastor instead organising arranged marriages. Often, parishoners would be arranged with a Korean partner to have the Korean members remain in the country. Arishma describes these weddings as having varying success, with some happy, to others married off to Korean members who were not fluent in English. The day when the pastor reneged on outside dating and encouraged young women to date and thus recruit outsider boyfriends, was the day that Arishma realised she had been lied to in order to fulfil the church’s interests. And if this was one lie, what else were they lying about?
WMSCOG members forcing her frail and physically disabled grandmother for money was the last straw for Arishma and her family. They all left the church. However, WMSCOG would bombard Arishma with threatening texts, implying that Arishma would get cancer as a result of leaving the religious movement. Instead of developing cancer, Arishma wound up questioning organised religion and its desire to evangelise. “I felt betrayed. I felt emotionally behind my peers. The isolation made me suicidal. I was determined to rebuild my life and study. I have dreams and an identity beyond my past involvement in a cult and now, I can build healthy and strong relationships. It’s important to support others who leave extreme movements so they can realise this for themselves too.”
I finish our interview by asking Arishma if she has any advice for anyone who will come across Elohim Academy/WMSCOG. “Run. Read about something before you join. I was 15, I was naïve and so easy to convince. I lost my youth and a precious part of my life growing up, to emotional abuse. And that is a part of my life I can never get back.”
*Name has been changed.