In late 2020, I received messages ranging from Howick to Wellington Central from individuals who had been approached by Elohim members, requesting ‘young people’ and that the pandemic was a sign of the ‘End Times.’ 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. One recent rainy lockdown day, this changed. In the message was a grateful 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 door knocking 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, and an Indian woman was brought to the home on the second visit to win the trust of her Indian family. And so, her journey with Elohim Academy began.
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.’ 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 to meet her.
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,’ something I have noted in previous Craccum articles.
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.”
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 exalted status or knowing a secret ‘goodness’ or ‘truth,’ intense opposition and alienation from society, and various deception tactics. 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 Korean beauty standards.
Witnessing members breaking down due to harsh public shaming was common. Members were ranked by recruitment success rates, with the lowest ranking ones—even minors—rebuked. Breaking rules (missing service, missing a recruitment schedule, forgetting to bow, missing mandatory donations, breaking dress code, etc.) would warrant swift punishment.
Arishma states that church members were forced to repeatedly watch a 44 minute video from another Korean church. It was 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. Members were also encouraged to show this video to LGBTQI+ or anyone who they recognised as ‘sinful.’
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, then with the pastor instead organising arranged marriages. Often, parishioners 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, WMSOG 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.”