When a South Korean “Cult” Knocks on the Theologian’s Door

I come from the land of religious opportunity. In the United States, one can find every an outlet for every religious idea under the sun. So imagine my delight upon discovering that my adopted country of Canada harbors some of the most fascinating and obscure religious sects in the world. Imagine my further ecstasy when I realized that I don’t need to go in search of them – they come literally knocking on my front door.

Earlier this week as I was sitting at my desk, I heard a knock at the door. Like most 21st century people, I was startled. No one knocks at the door unexpectedly anymore unless it be UPS or a salesperson. As I walked toward the entryway I caught a glimpse through the window of two well-dressed middle aged Korean women.  Definitely not salespeople. In fact, the women informed me upon opening the door that they were missionaries from the Church of God, sent to share with me the good news of God, Our Mother. Well, perhaps they were salespeople after all.

I can’t begin to describe to you the excitement that overcame me. I’m moderately acquainted with this particular sect but had never met a member in person. Without any elegance at all, I burst out, “YES! GOD, OUR MOTHER! CHURCH OF GOD!”

Needless to say, the women were taken aback. Finally one of them spoke. “You know Church of God?”

“Yes,” I said excitedly, “God our mother!”

The other woman spoke up and said, “Are you sure you know us? There are lots of Churches of God.”

“Yes,” I said again, “God our mother! Jang Gil-ja!”

The women murmured together for a minute before smiling and leaving, all without having delivered their good news.

***

 

This wasn’t the first time I had members of a Korean sect knock on my door. Earlier this year, a group of people from another South Korean sect visited me. Their technique was different. They came as a registered charity, collecting money for an affiliate that then funnels the money directly to the sect leader and messiah for his private use. This is not terribly unusual. There are, by some counts, as many as fifty people in South Korea currently calling themselves the second coming of Christ. South Korea, for reasons yet unclear, has become a hotbed of messianic religion since the split of the peninsula in the 1950’s.

Let’s take a look at a few of the major players:

Perhaps the most commonly known South Korean sect is the Unification Church (aka “moonies). Founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon in 1954, the church is most well known for its mass wedding ceremonies. Though there are some reports of brainwashing and other practices, the church is largely seen as simply eccentric. In fact, though the Unification Church still exists, it has fallen into the background as even more eccentric and even dangerous new religious movements have emerged from the peninsula.

The next most prominent Christian messianic sect in South Korea is known as Shinchonji and also as “New Heaven and Earth” though its legal name is Shinchonji, Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony. Founded by Lee Man-hee, Shinchonji generated a significant amount of controversy for its use of benign sounding front organizations such as Mannam Volunteer Association, Mannam International Youth Coalition, International Peace Youth Group, International Women’s Peace Group, and Heavenly Culture, World Peace, and Restoration of Light (yep, that last one is real). The group has been accused of using bible studies to lure unsuspecting people into the church where communal living is promoted. Some former members have accused the church of using sleep deprivation and other mind control techniques to keep members isolated from friends and family. In 2016, the Church of England was alarmed enough to send out warnings to its members to be wary of Shinchonji which was operating a bible study from a warehouse in London and recruiting all over the country.

The women who came to my door are members of a prominent messianic sect as well. The World Mission Society Church of God was founded in 1964 by Ahn Sahng-hong, believed to be the second coming of Christ. Like many new religious movements in Christianity, the Church of God believes they are restoring truth to a corrupted church. They also believe in a duality called God the Father and God the Mother. God the Mother is believed to be an actual living woman named Jang Gil-ja.

I really feel like I can just stop here. So many of these new religious movements within Christianity in South Korea just sort of all blend into each other in my own mind so, I can only imagine the same is true of people who DON’T study this stuff for fun. Suffice it to say, there are a ton of these messianic South Korean churches and they send their missionaries to North America.

But here’s where it gets even dicier. Many of these churches set up various front charities to serve as a means to funnel money back to their leaders or messiahs. In many of these groups, the leaders live exorbitant and ostentatious lifestyles while their followers are forced to live communally and often in very poor conditions. Despite all this, the missionaries that come collecting for these “charities” come prepared with their government-issued charitable organization badges to show you that they are supposedly legitimate. It seems that, at least in the country in which I now live, Canada, the government doesn’t do much investigation into these groups. The missionaries are free, with the good wishes of the Canadian government, to go collecting money to send back to their leader.

So, my friends, though you may be like me and find these groups interesting enough to want to invite into your home, just make sure you keep your wallet to yourself. None of the money goes to help anyone other than one of fifty self-proclaimed messiahs needing a new jet.

 

 

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