Two years ago, 1,200 young people wearing bright yellow shirts from churches connected to the World Mission Society Church of God in Ridgewood filled an auditorium to receive emergency response training, prompting Bergen County officials to praise their unbridled enthusiasm, which included a rendition of the wave.
“We love you,” they chanted in return.
Former church members say they, too, were overflowing with love when they joined the church, but at some point saw another side to a rapidly growing religion rooted in a belief that a South Korean woman in her 70s is the physical manifestation of God. These ex-members — from New Jersey as well as other parts of the country — offered similar, independent accounts of being lured into the church, slowly at first, without being told all of its beliefs, then frightened into devotion and donating large portions of their savings by talk of the impending end of the world — in 2012.
Some of them, as well as several experts, have gone so far as to call the church a cult.
Leaders of the Ridgewood church, an offshoot of the South Korean World Mission Society Church of God, which boasts more than 2 million followers worldwide, responded to its critics by saying in statements to The Record that the label “cult” is a form of “religious intolerance” used to denigrate groups with “certain views that are contrary to the norm.” They denied preaching that the world would end four years ago.
And in a court filing, they said their “unfamiliar beliefs,” which include devotion to Zahng Gil-Jah, or the Heavenly Mother, left them “vulnerable to persecution as any new religion throughout history.” They called accusations made against them “fabrications.”
Over the past seven years, the church has quietly blended into the North Jersey landscape as its local membership grew tenfold and it opened what it called numerous affiliated churches along the East Coast. It received accolades from political leaders, including Governor Christie, for public service that included cleanup efforts after Superstorm Sandy. Indeed, its website features a letter from Christie praising the group’s “spiritual outreach in the community.”
But former members say the church has a largely hidden dangerous side, recruiting young people at malls and on college campuses and showering them with affection before eventually encouraging them to cut ties to family members who are critical of their new beliefs.
Two former members have alleged in lawsuits — one was dismissed and one is pending — that they gave substantial amounts of their money to the church after it drew them in without initially revealing its true theology. They alleged that they were pressured to spend most of their free time at the church and were kept so busy they did not get enough sleep, which made them more susceptible to the teachings.
The Record examined court documents from three lawsuits, including one filed by the church against a former member. It also interviewed eight former members, including three from the Ridgewood church who requested anonymity and one who agreed to use her name. Four others, who also spoke for publication, belonged to West Coast branches that are not legally connected to the Ridgewood church but are offshoots of the South Korean church and practice similar beliefs, the members said.
Among the findings:
One former member, Michelle Ramirez, who attended the Ridgewood church and now lives in Brooklyn, said in a pending federal lawsuit that she became pregnant in 2010 and that the church coerced her into getting an abortion. Other former members said the church discouraged followers from having children because they believed the world would end in 2012. Ramirez alleged that she was so emotionally distraught that she attempted suicide and had nightmares about the apocalypse long after leaving the church in 2012. She and her attorney declined to comment for this article.
Ex-members said they agreed to donate 10 percent or more of their incomes in tithes and other offerings as a show of devotion to the Heavenly Mother. Several said it was widely understood that money was sent to her in South Korea, though the church said on a federal tax-exemption form that it did not send money to foreign organizations.
Former members said it was common for people to give up dreams of careers and families because church leaders asked congregants to devote themselves to the gospel as the apocalypse neared. Brian Taylor, a former member of a Seattle-area branch of the church, said he dropped out of college after leaders there told him “our time was precious” and preparing for the “kingdom of heaven” was more important than school or saving money.
The Ridgewood church and its pastor, Dong Il Lee, declined interview requests but prepared answers to some questions and delivered them through an attorney, Steven Procaccini. The church denied encouraging abortions, saying that such decisions were a “private matter” and that many members had children. Many of its members, the church said, remain close to relatives who are not part of the church.
It also dismissed allegations of doomsday predictions, saying “you will find no church material proclaiming the apocalypse in 2012.” Instead, the church said, it comforted people confused by reports that an ancient Mayan calendar had predicted the end of the world, assuring them they could be saved “whether 2012 were true or not.”
The church said that it didn’t send money overseas and that “there is no evidence that any distributions have been made to a South Korean entity.”
Passaic woman sues
Michele Colon, a nurse from Passaic, said in a lawsuit filed in state court that church leaders had ostracized her and had contributed to the end of her marriage when she quit the church in 2011 while her husband remained a member. Her lawsuit was filed after the World Mission Society sued her, contending that she had damaged its reputation by calling it a cult on an Internet blog. A Superior Court judge in Hackensack dismissed both lawsuits last year, citing First Amendment protections. Colon is appealing the decision.
Colon said in interviews that she “trusted” the church when she attended her first meeting in Ridgewood in 2009 because people she knew told her it was “a non-denominational Christian church.” On the first night, she said, she was ushered into a shower stall to be baptized with a cup of water poured over her head. After six months, Colon said, she was told a South Korean woman is a physical manifestation of God, as was the woman’s late husband.
“No one joins a cult,” Colon said. “People are systematically influenced to join cults by members who are trained to manipulate and use fear and guilt as weapons.” She said she left the church in 2011 after she read more about it on the Internet: “I snapped out of it,” she said.
The New Jersey World Mission Society, which was recognized as a tax-exempt church by the Internal Revenue Service in 2009, told the federal government that it had 100 members in 2008. It told The Record it operates “numerous” other churches — mostly on the East Coast — from its Ridgewood headquarters, with a total of more than 4,000 members. It purchased its building in Ridgewood in 2006 from First Church of Christ, Scientist, for $5.8 million, according to tax records.
The church said in court records that in 2014 more than 1,000 people attended services at its three North Jersey sites — in Ridgewood, Bogota and Passaic. Those records listed an additional 18 churches on the East Coast. It is not clear whether all of them are operated from Ridgewood. The records also showed that the church more than doubled the money it received in tithes and other offerings over a two-year period ending in 2012, when it took in more than $7.5 million and had almost $21 million in total assets.
As the church has grown, it has gained a reputation for public service, including holding large blood drives that draw members from its East Coast branches and showing up at Bergen County picnics for the elderly. Church members, wearing their distinctive yellow shirts, took on difficult tasks, such as removing downed tree limbs after Superstorm Sandy.
“They were very helpful after Sandy,” said Kathleen Donovan, the former Bergen County executive, adding that she did not know details about the church’s beliefs. “They were wonderful.”
A World Mission Society video posted on YouTube shows a large contingent of members taking part in a day of Community Emergency Response Team training in 2013 as government officials, including Donovan, marveled at their boundless energy. County officials said the training typically was given to groups that requested it, and focused on preparing civilians to help first responders.
The church website displays a 2014 letter from Christie offering congratulations on the 50th anniversary of its founding in South Korea. In the letter, the governor praised the church as “an example of the positive impact of spiritual outreach in the community.” The governor’s office declined to comment when told that former members have alleged the church is a cult.
Colon and the seven other former members interviewed offered similar accounts of experiences with the church. They said some ex-members kept quiet because they had signed non-disclosure agreements. The church said in court papers that Colon had signed such an agreement, but a judge ruled it was invalid and noted that it was a one-paragraph clause tacked onto a larger contract about an unrelated issue. Colon said she had not read the clause.
None of those interviewed recalled witnessing a member being told to have an abortion, but one former California church leader, Ron Ramos, said that at his church, “It was insinuated. It was more like, ‘Why are they still having kids?’”
Colon said a church leader in Ridgewood had told her it was “pointless to bring a child into the world because the end is near.”
The former members said it was widely understood that some donations were sent to South Korea. “They were collecting money for Mother,” Ramos said, adding that members were told that “it was an expression of where your heart is.” Taylor, the ex-member from the Seattle area, said members were told donations helped “start new churches overseas.” Colon said Ridgewood leaders told her and others in a group that money was “sent to South Korea to be redistributed,” in some cases to other affiliated churches.
Ramos said he had been instructed to bring new church members along slowly because you “don’t feed a baby solid food.” They would be taught early on that the church observes Passover and the day of rest is Saturday, he said, but it might take months to mention the Heavenly Mother. “When everything else made sense, that made sense, too,” said Ramos, who lives in Texas.
Members were told not to tell their families details about the church’s teachings because “they wouldn’t understand,” Ramos said. And church leaders advised them to be wary of family members objecting to their new religion because it might be “Satan masquerading as a relative,” Ramos said. Monitors were assigned to watch over new members and report back to church leaders, he said. Those who asked too many questions, he said, were asked to leave.
Colon said she was ordered to sit apart from other members after returning to the church following a hiatus because talking to them would “infect them with my doubts. I was told I would kill them spiritually.”
Several parents interviewed said they were heartbroken over their children’s transformation after joining the church. They asked that their identities not be revealed for fear of further alienating their children.
“It’s like something out of that old movie ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’” said one mother who lives in another part of the country. “He and his church people are the only ones who have ‘the truth.’ … It’s like you have lost a family member. They aren’t dead, but they’re not there anymore, either. I miss him.”
A familiar look
Steven Hassan, [Warning: Steve Hassan is not recommended by this Web site. Read the detailed disclaimer to understand why.], a counselor who makes his living helping people recover after leaving cults, said the World Mission Society in general had a striking resemblance to a group he belonged to years ago — the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. Hassan said his old group believed that Moon, who died in 2012, and his wife were messiahs and the parents of mankind.
“It seemed they had stolen some of the ideology of the cult I was in,” Hassan said of the World Mission Society, adding it fits his description of a cult partly because of secretiveness and isolation of members from family. “The group does not tell people upfront what they believe. They indoctrinate them with fear. They are alienated from their friends and families very fast. … The key is a lack of informed consent.”
Hassan, who has been outspoken about the World Mission Society, has been criticized by church members in Internet postings, with at least two pro-church sites attempting to debunk him by pointing to a negative review of a book he wrote about cults. The reviewer, another cult expert named Cathleen Mann, said the use of her review by followers of the church was “disingenuous.”
“I agree they are a cult,” she said, adding that the World Mission Society has traits that she said are common to cults, like “deceptive recruiting” and isolation from family.
Some other groups that have been labeled cults by former members, like Scientology and the Unification Church, also have been granted tax-exempt status as churches by the federal government. Religion experts say such recognition gives them a legitimacy that is difficult to challenge in court and underscores the potential danger of trampling on their religious freedoms.
In dismissing Colon’s lawsuit, Judge Rachelle L. Harz of Superior Court in Hackensack wrote that the First Amendment prohibited her from “determining underlying questions of religious doctrine and practice” and that “the court may not give an opinion on the validity of a religion.” The church made similar arguments in its motion seeking the dismissal of the federal lawsuit against it. Last month, the church withdrew that motion and said in court documents that it planned to answer the complaint instead.
The Ridgewood church told the IRS in its tax-exemption application that it didn’t send money to foreign organizations, made no distributions, had no close ties to other groups and was not “part of a group of churches with similar beliefs and structures.”
Yet it told The Record that it operates other churches, and on its website does not hide its spiritual connections to the international World Mission Society. In its IRS application, it listed one of the founders of the international church, Joo Cheol Kim, who lives in South Korea, as a trustee with an address at the Ridgewood church. Asked whether those connections make it part of a “group of churches with similar beliefs,” church leaders said through their attorney, “We are looking into this.”
A California church member for 12 years before quitting in 2011, Ramos said he had nagging doubts about his faith after meeting Zahng Gil-Jah in South Korea about 15 years ago. He wondered why she needed a translator to talk to him and noticed she seemed startled by a fire alarm. “I was thinking, ‘Why would God be surprised?’” Ramos said.
Diane and Jeff Sims, ex-members from California, said they had a similar impression when they met the Heavenly Mother, wondering why she wore makeup, fixed her hair in a mirror and needed to be carried when her back hurt. “I put it out of my head,” Diane Sims said. “I wanted to go to heaven.”
Taylor said he began questioning the church after he said it abruptly altered its teachings when the world did not end in 2012. In November 2011, he said, he went home “terrified” one night after a church leader said “we only have two more months.” Later, he said, leaders backtracked, at first saying “the Heavenly Mother has blessed us with more time” and then denying ever predicting the apocalypse.
“People should have been jumping out of their seats,” Taylor said. “That made me think: ‘I’m in a cult.’”