In recent weeks, dozens of Oberlin students have been stopped on campus by religious proselytizers claiming to be theology students in order to engage them in conversation about “God the Mother.” These missionaries are affiliated with a group called the World Mission Society Church of God, a fringe sect of Christianity that has been falsely rumored to have ties with human trafficking — often referred to as a cult by former members.
Safety and Security is aware of the visitors and has encouraged all students to notify officers if they encounter the missionaries, as they are unauthorized to be on campus.
“Anybody who wants to talk to students needs to be sponsored,” Campus Security Officer Tyrone Wicks said. “If they’re not sponsored by a student organization or a college-authorized organization, then they’re asked to leave campus.”
Wicks added that due to the repeated nature of the unauthorized visits, the visitors are considered trespassers.
“The first time, you can say, well that’s an accident, even though we know that’s probably not true, as a matter of policy as far as courts are concerned,” he said. “The first time you can tell them, OK — don’t come back here. And then the second time we can take stronger measures to make sure they don’t come back here. That might involve getting assistance from law enforcement, for example.”
WMS missionaries approached College junior Joanna Quinn on the second floor of Mudd library, introducing themselves as theology students doing a school project. They asked for a couple minutes of her time and led her through a picture book of illustrations of biblical scenes.
“At first I was kind of intrigued, because they were picking out parts of the Bible that made God sound very pluralistic, that God could be a he, or also a she,” Quinn said. “They asked, ‘Have you ever heard of God the Mother?’”
From there, the tone of the conversation escalated quickly.
“She turned the page and asked, ‘When our souls come to be judged, do you want to be saved forever, or go to hell eternally?’” Quinn said, adding that she then became more suspicious about their motives. “It seemed like the story didn’t match up. They later told me they were part of a youth group.”
The missionaries, two college-age women, said the group met “near Cleveland” but did not specify where and did not provide any informational materials, according to students they interacted with. No information could be found online about the group to verify the women’s story. The women requested Quinn’s phone number and encouraged her to attend a meeting. When she offered her email instead, the women insisted on a number.
In most incidents, according to students approached by the missionaries, one or two individuals first introduced themselves as students doing a project. Students reported that they were asked to read from scripture and if they knew about God the Mother.
Wicks said students often forget safety concerns given the intimacy of the College campus.
“I think the most important thing that we tell students every day is that the residence halls are your private space,” Wicks said. “But frequently we’ll find the doors propped open, or students will hold the door open for someone that walks up behind them, and that person may or may not be a student. If it’s important enough for you to be concerned about, it’s important enough for you to call us. You’re not wasting our time by asking us to investigate things that seem strange.”
Reports indicate that the group is becoming increasingly active on college campuses across the country, strongly trying to recruit students. Former members have described the group as a “doomsday cult” which uses “psychological control tactics” on its members, according to a report from People Magazine.
In the last two weeks, individuals have been approached by WMS members all over Oberlin’s campus, in places like Wilder Bowl, outside of dorms, by off-campus housing, and even at a Robertson Hall practice room.
College first-year Ella Mosher was approached by a WMS member around noon last week in a hallway in the Science Center. Mosher described the member as a 30-year-old who introduced herself as a theology student.
“She pulled out her Bible and had me read a verse about the Holy Mother and how it related to God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost,” Mosher said. “When I said I had to go, she asked for one more minute, and kept on trying to flip to new pages and have me read new verses. Later I found out a similar thing happened to my roommate.”
Mosher’s roommate had been using a practice room in Robertson around 11:45 a.m. when an older man and a woman knocked on the door and asked if they could ask her a few questions.
The WMS Church of God was founded in 1964 by Ahn Sahng-Hong. Ahn, now deceased, was believed to be the Second Coming of Christ by followers. WMSCOG followers believe in a Mother God in addition to the traditional Holy Trinity of Christian doctrine, and they claim that God the Mother and God the Father have a spousal relationship. The church is currently led by Zahng Gil-jah, a woman in her 70s deified by her followers as “God the Mother” or “Heavenly Mother.” WMS has approximately 2.7 million members in 150 countries worldwide and has received multiple accolades for its community service initiatives. WMS has obtained a religious tax exemption from the Internal Revenue Service through supposedly fraudulent means and subsists through donations from its members.
Numerous posts warning college students to be wary of the group have been widely circulated on social media. Many people claim the group is associated with a human trafficking scheme, likely because of their aggressive recruiting practices on university campuses around the U.S. and tendency to target women. In January 2018 alone, Boston College, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Mississippi all reported WMS presence on campus. Over 70 percent of the group’s followers are women.
According to WKYT-TV of Lexington, KY, the rumors that the group is linked to human trafficking activity are unsubstantiated. Officer Jervis Middleton from the Lexington Police Department said that they, “have investigated the rumors and have found nothing to substantiate their potential involvement in any criminal activity.” The police departments of Kent, Ohio, and of Oxford, MS, released similar statements.
Although the human trafficking allegations may be baseless, many former members of the WMS have attested to their cult-like practices. In March 2014, former WMS member Michele Ramirez filed a lawsuit against the Church, citing emotional distress and financial ruin caused by the church’s deceptive practices.
Ramirez explained that members were expected to recruit new members, or “bear fruit” — an experience she found “humiliating and degrading.” She described a vicious cycle in which the more degraded she felt, the more she required support from the church. Ramirez also claimed the group misrepresented its teachings from the outset, coerced her to donate large sums of money, and used guilt and manipulation tactics to isolate her from friends and family members. Ramirez’s account has been corroborated by many former WMS members.
The group has been denounced by the Christian Council of Korea, a representative organization of Korean Christianity, as “heretical,” and the U.S. Cult Education Institute, based in New Jersey, actively tracks the group.