It’s not everyday we get visited by a group whose founder is considered to be a deity.
That’s what happened Sunday when volunteers from the WeLoveU Foundation participated in a cleanup effort in Sheepshead Bay. The organization’s founder and chairwoman, a 72-year-old Korean woman named Zahng Gil-ja, is reportedly referred to as the “Heavenly Mother,” and believed to be the physical manifestation of God, by followers of the South Korea-based World Mission Society Church of God.
The WeLoveU volunteers had coordinated with City Councilman Chaim Deutsch’s office to scoop out trash from the bay. They chartered a boat from the Mirarmar Yacht Club and pulled bottles, plastic six pack rings, and even a rotting fish from the water. After the three-hour cleanup was complete, they filled more than a dozen plastic garbage bags.
Iven Rodriguez, a director of development for the WeLoveU Foundation, explained the effort was part of the organization’s “Clean Day” day initiative, in which 60,000 volunteers helped restore polluted sites around the globe.
“Following the example of our chairwoman, Zahng Gil-ja, we go out and we clean,” he said. “We don’t believe that having a clean environment and having clean drinking water is a luxury.”
During the event, Rodriguez used the phrase “Following the example of our chairwoman Zahng Gil-ja” a lot. Something about his repeated deference to the group’s founder sounded a little odd to me.
So I Googled her name. My search turned up articles in People Magazine and New Jersey’s The Record in which some former members accused branches of her religious organization, the World Mission Society Church of God, of operating like a cult.
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.
One expert interviewed by The Record compared the church, which was founded in 1964 and has more than 2 million registered members worldwide, to the “Moonies” — another Korea-based religious group whose founder has been accused of leading a cult.
Church leaders responded to The Record’s allegations by arguing the use of the term cult is a form of “religious intolerance” used to smear groups with “certain views that are contrary to the norm.” They also denied ever preaching the world was going to end in 2012, according to The Record.
Rodriguez, who I called back after reading the articles, said any allegations against Gil-ja’s church are immaterial to the WeLoveU Foundation.
“They are two completely independent organizations,” he said. “Of course, we are connected internationally. But The WeLoveU Foundation is open to everybody — all different cultures, backgrounds, ages — regardless of religious affiliation.”
This isn’t the first time a foundation, claiming to be secular but linked to a controversial religious group, found its way to southern Brooklyn. Last year, the The Foundation for a Drug Free World, which was running anti-drug education program at dozens for the city’s public schools, including JHS 14 in Sheepshead Bay and JHS 278 Marine Park, came under fire after it was discovered they were backed by the Church of Scientology.
City Councilman Chaim Deutsch said he was not aware of the WeLoveU Foundation’s association with a controversial religious organization.
“They reached out to my office and said they wanted to bring volunteers to our area,” he explained. “I’m not going to refuse a cleanup.”
The WeLoveU Foundation — which advertises citations received from the White House and President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation on their website — certainly helped out by removing trash from the bay.
Julio Nater, one of the volunteers, said they received a lot of gratitude during the cleanup.
“A lot of neighbors approached us and they were very happy. They said they run or they walk around here everyday and they look at the garbage, and when they saw what we were doing they were very happy and they thanked us,” he said.
The volunteers completed another cleanup later in the day at the path under the train trestle next to the West 8th Street-New York Aquarium subway station — another local site in need of some cosmetic work.