A religious sect based on the teachings of a South Korean “messiah” and convicted sex offender has quietly infiltrated university campuses, schools and mainstream churches in New Zealand. Rosel Labone investigates.
Mark* was in his second year of a psychology degree at Victoria University in Wellington when he met Crystal in 2007. She was vivacious and outgoing; the kind of person who seemed to know everyone. Crystal was class representative, and made herself available for study-related questions. So Mark plucked up the courage to say hello. They started corresponding by email. Crystal invited him to dinner, then asked him to join her Bible study group.
Two years later, Mark was deeply involved in a religious movement with its origins in Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. Reflecting on how he was drawn into the sect, he talks first about the friendships he made, the sense of camaraderie. And, as the first New Zealander evangelised, he had status in the group. When Mark was asked to move to Auckland to help recruit new members, he had to move from accommodation he shared with other sect members to stay with “secular relatives”.
“I woke up one Sunday morning at my relatives’ and just felt burnt out. I decided not to go to church that day. Then I skipped the next service. I think if I’d gone back to Wellington, I might still be involved because I’d have been surrounded by members and would have been indoctrinated every day,” he says.
“Looking back, I feel I was spiritually violated. I lost all trust in religion and I’ve never been able to go back to church – any church – since.”
Sam* was a professional athlete when his best friend died in a car accident. In 2009, he was looking for something to fill the void after losing a couple of years “cruising through life”. Like Mark, he was first invited to dinner by a woman. She then asked him to join her at a church service in Wellington’s Cuba St.
For both young men, these innocent-sounding gatherings were the start of recruitment into Providence – also known as Jesus Morning Star and Christian Gospel Mission – led by former “Moonie” Jeong Myeong-seok.
Providence was founded in 1978 by Korean-born Jeong, now 73, known by members as “Joshua”. South Korea remains its stronghold, where it claims to have more than 100,000 followers. It also boasts of having more than 10,000 followers worldwide, including small but growing memberships in both New Zealand and Australia.
In 1999, following an investigation by South Korea broadcaster SBS that included allegations of rape, Jeong fled the country. A string of accusations followed and rape charges were filed against him in 2001. Alleged victims in Japan claimed he would initiate contact with women under the guise of performing “health checks”, then sexually assault them. In Taiwan, former Providence members told police they were ordered to have sex with Jeong to “wipe away their sins”.
In May 2007, after eight years on the run, Jeong was arrested in Beijing by Chinese police. He was extradited to Korea and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment after being found guilty of raping four female members of the sect. The sentence was extended on appeal to 10 years. Jeong was paroled from Daejeon prison on February 18 this year; he will be monitored via an electronic ankle bracelet for seven years.
Sam became friends with Mark when they were living at the Nikau Church premises on Wellington’s Cuba St (Nikau was a front for Providence). They were both 19 when they met; both are of European descent. The young woman who introduced Sam to the church later became his wife. “One minute you’re in a Bible study group – 30 lessons later, you’re part of a church,” he says.
Providence members are expected to tithe 10% of their earnings. Full-time workers often give more as their “service to God”, says Sam. Mark adds that students are expected to spend a lot of time scouting for converts – evangelising at campuses and shopping malls, and infiltrating mainstream Christian church congregations. The sect also operates behind groups such as dance classes, sports groups and modelling agencies.
Mark’s rise through the ranks resulted in him travelling to Korea and Japan in late 2009, helping evangelise English speakers in those countries.
Mark had been raised in an open Brethren family. As he progressed in his Providence studies, the contrast between the Korean sect’s beliefs and those he’d grown up with began to widen. Providence’s teachings are based on the so-called 30 lessons, or 30 principles, which state that only a Messiah – Jeong – can lead people to heaven. Female believers are taught they are brides of God and by inference, brides of Jeong.
Providence’s entry-level doctrine was “deliberately vague”, says Mark, and it was only after a number of lessons that the group started exposing him to their core beliefs. “Ten to 15 Bible studies in, you learn how Jeong was persecuted and jailed. At that point your mentality is that this guy could do no wrong... You’re encouraged not to Google. You’re told everything online is posted by people who are against [the church]… You go on what they tell you as gospel.”
Mark says that Jeong’s personal backstory – poor, disowned by his family, wrongfully accused – was used to further the teaching and make him appear more Christ-like. “They’d say, ‘Look, Jesus brought the truth and they didn’t believe him: they beat him, put him in prison. Jeong went through what Jesus went through. Can you see this is the truth?’”
Sam was raised an Anglican. Leaving a mainstream Christian faith to follow Providence meant not only “worshipping” Jeong, but also adhering to strict guidelines around study and social behaviour. There were restrictions around dating within the church, he says. Sam and the woman he was attracted to were not allowed to be together because of the group’s belief in arranged marriage. “You can only get married within the group, and it has to be approved.”
Indeed, Sam was expected to devote every waking moment to Providence, which affected his relationship with his partner. “She was in the cult from the age of 16 to 20. She now feels the church took away her youth.” In mid-2011, the couple left Providence, but the marriage unravelled in early 2017. Sam blames the stress of emerging from the sect.
Mark says the church preached no sex before marriage. “There was a Christian girl I was seeing; nothing had happened but I would sneak out to meet her. I felt so guilty; I told them about it and had to fast for a few days.” His two-hour prayer sessions moved from a 5am start to 3am. “I had to meet special conditions to get forgiveness for spending time with this girl, because in my heart I’d sinned.”
Mark was also asked to give up playing rugby, which he loved. One day, he chose to play sport rather than attend a Providence activity. He was injured, and church leaders told him it was God’s judgment for his actions.
Sam says the group systematically took control of his daily routine: “I didn’t even realise it was happening. I’d wake up at five, phone into the morning prayer sessions... work all day as an automotive technician, have an hour to myself, before going to the gym for two hours, then to sleep. Wake up and repeat.”
At university, Mark says it was common to see Providence members in class struggling to stay awake. “It was all about your mental toughness, conquering your body. People were living on very little. Some started going a bit mental, not being themselves.”
Sleep deprivation is a classic indoctrination tool because of its power to impair critical thinking, says Australian-born Peter Daley, who teaches English at a women’s university in Seoul and launched his cult-watch website JMSCult.com 13 years ago.
Some parents report finding their children in trance-like states. One family interviewed by North & South said their child became psychotic due to sleep deprivation. Having been taught the phrase “Say no to food and sleep”, he went into psychosis and was twice admitted to a psychiatric ward.
Worldwide, Providence targets attractive young women, especially those already with a Christian faith. The strict dating and no sex before marriage rules don’t apply to the sect’s “spiritual brides” chosen to meet the prophet; the ultimate experience for female members is to be “purified” by having sex with Jeong.
In 2013, Daley helped a female member of the Australian branch of the sect escape via an intervention. He says the experience was extremely stressful for him, the young woman and her family.
So far, no New Zealand members have come forward as victims of sexual abuse, but a number have travelled to Wolmyeong dong in South Korea – the cult’s base and Jeong’s birthplace. Daley says young people can be damaged by the group – with or without sexual abuse – and there are real threats of violence for some members who try to leave.
Reverend Dr Carolyn Kelly works as a chaplain at the University of Auckland, where she says Providence was “recruiting under my nose”. She describes the sect’s modus operandi as “an entire faith fabric and intense friendships built on manipulation and misrepresentation of Christianity”.
Kelly became aware of Providence in 2014 after a young woman turned up at the university chapel, asking to borrow a guitar. “I got to know her a bit, and asked her about her faith. After hearing her speak about the ‘leader-pastor’ and visits to his birthplace in Korea, I remember saying to her, ‘That to me sounds like a cult.’
“In mid-2016, a student came to me and said she’d been involved in a strange Bible study via a bogus modelling school, and had noticed the same people active on the Auckland University campus. She confirmed [the young woman] was involved. I discovered she was running a ‘Thank God it’s Friday’ lunchtime group and was employed in a campus-related service, so I alerted the appropriate channels. The next time she came into the chapel, I spoke to her directly about my concerns. She didn’t deny her involvement.”
Kelly began following Providence through social media; she talked to ministers at local Presbyterian and other mainstream churches and discovered they were having a problem with Providence “recruiters” operating in their congregations.
She describes the Providence member she met as a “personable young woman” who was ostensibly studying at the university, “but I have no evidence she was studying seriously. I warned a couple of students off friendship with her. I found out later this intense friendship approach is called ‘love-bombing’. I also noticed a couple of the student women were dressing differently – behaving out of character when they were with her. The connection was with this modelling thing… I realised [Providence members] were particularly keen to befriend tall, beautiful young women.”
Kelly says the university followed up her concerns and the young woman was asked to leave. The university also issued a written warning to its student clubs saying the Providence/Morning Star/Nikau Church group used modelling schools as a front. Providence-run Kotuku Models operated in New Zealand for several years, but is now defunct. The modelling was mostly for shows put on by Providence on university campuses and other venues.
A former Providence member from Canada, Barbara, who recruited young women to be “models”, told North & South her task was “to find women who are beautiful on the outside and help them be beautiful on the inside as well”. However, she was actively discouraged from persuading less physically attractive women, including some with disabilities, to join the dance and modelling groups. She said chosen “models” from Providence’s international offshoots would visit Jeong in Korea.
Providence members have also infiltrated a Wellington high school and Victoria and Massey Universities, by presenting to assemblies and setting up dance, sports and modelling groups. In Auckland, the sect ran a dance group called Make Wings Dance for children as young as three. Social media associated with the group was used for recruitment, with special language for young members; it refers to teenagers as “shining stars” and younger children as “milky ways”. This language is consistent across Providence’s child-friendly front groups – and in their sermons – around the world. Daley says while young children are not usually being directly recruited, they are being introduced to the sect’s terminology and doctrines.
Massey University religious studies specialist Professor Peter Lineham says the “sexual element mixed with religion” is the aspect of Providence that particularly worries him. “It’s a dangerous combination. The potential for damage, especially in minors, is huge.” He notes the sect appears to be associated with sexual exploitation of vulnerable young women worldwide.
Fringe religious groups are fearful of the outside world, Lineham says, and know people will try to use the law or “strong-arm tactics” to get members out. He believes it’s highly likely Jeong was operating from behind bars – and poses a threat to the community now he’s released. He adds there may be a power struggle within the upper echelons of the sect. “Groups like this have power structures with tensions we don’t understand. I think it will be an important moment for [Providence], like Gloriavale’s Neville Cooper [Hopeful Christian] leaving prison.”
Over the months of my investigation into Providence’s New Zealand activities, I put questions to the church leadership several times. Providence declined to answer specific questions about their operations in New Zealand, their recruiting methods and leader Jeong Myeong-seok.
I approached Taiwanese-born Nikau Church leader Crystal several times for answers. In response, she sent translated material from four Korean publications and websites, questioning the testimony of Jeong’s alleged victims and claiming evidence showed the women had not been sexually assaulted. I sent Crystal’s letter and references to Dr Ji-il Tark, a professor of theology at South Korea’s Busan Presbyterian University; he’s also an expert on Korean cults. He was not familiar with any of the publications, questioned the reliability of the sources and the English translations, and said, in his view, the magazines were “promotional advertising rather than reporting”.
Sometimes, those asking questions about Providence’s activities internationally have found themselves on the receiving end of threats. I got a sense of this when I received the following email from Providence. By then, Crystal had stopped communicating with me, and news of my investigation had reached head office:
Dear Rosel, Good morning. I am Andrew Choi who is now working at CGM HQ [Christian Gospel Mission, another name for Providence]. It came to our attention that you are writing an article about Providence, with plans to have it published by a New Zealand news outlet.
It has been our experience so far that the media is not interested in reporting on truths about Providence. News were [sic] produced with the agenda to ridicule and defame the organisation, by relying on unverifiable, sensationalist claims. Journalists deliberately chose to not investigate the accuracy of these claims...and turned a blind eye to the truth…
We are very concerned that the article you are writing falls into the same category. We strongly ask that you do not write such an article and submit it for publication. The list of claims you produced to Crystal in a set of questions are extremely unfair, distorted/untruthful and they misrepresent Providence... Where the reputation of Providence is unfairly damaged, we will pursue all necessary courses of action to ensure reparations for that damage, as we have done in the past against other major media companies and journalists. This case would be no exception.
We wish you all the best.
Today, Mark works for a government agency in Auckland. Sam is a successful businessman who splits his time between New Zealand and Russia. While neither received threats of violence after leaving the sect, they asked to remain anonymous for this interview as they fear the impact on their livelihoods if their identities are revealed.
“It’s not so much a fear of being attacked or threatened legally by these guys,” Sam says via email. “I have armed guards in my business in Russia and an in-house lawyer to deal with their nonsense if needed. It’s more that I don’t want to shake people’s confidence in my ability to make sound decisions.”
Both Sam and Mark “lost their faith” as a result of their Providence experience. Their trust in people was rattled. Mark says the year that followed his 2011 departure from Providence was “the hardest time of my life. When I joined, I thought I’d found the truth, 100%. I truly believed Jesus had returned through the Providence leader. I had extreme feelings of guilt when I left. I felt like Judas, Jesus’ betrayer. And Providence teaches that people who leave the church are going to hell.
“Evangelism in Providence is very much about ‘making friends’, making people feel loved, by cooking for them – they’re excellent cooks – or giving massages to newcomers, for instance. While members may genuinely care for people, the only reason they go out of their way to be so nice is to evangelise them. As soon as they decide a person is not worth recruiting – mentally weak, too much baggage, etc – they cut them off.
“I needed Providence members around to keep me believing. When I didn’t have those members around me, I slowly came back to reality. Time heals and, although I’ve not returned to any faith, I feel I have greater empathy for people who have come through mentally traumatic situations.
“I never witnessed anything in the church that made me think the pastor was a sexual predator, and I get why members stay with the church. But I now see many different cults around the world, where the followers believe Jesus has returned in spirit and is working through their pastor... 99% are cults.”
Mark says that while he misses the “euphoric spiritual moments” of Providence, he’s found happiness in a secular life. “I’m at peace; I’ve moved on.”
Sam describes falling into a “state of depression” after leaving Providence. “The world’s a mixed-up place after something like that. I didn’t know what was real anymore. Young, vulnerable people can become dependent on [groups like Providence]. It’s not always easy to get your life back on track. I see the damage Providence caused everyone I know – mentally, in terms of their spirituality.”
For those who leave the cult, the road home is a long one. Peter Daley says the stigma of victim-blaming stops people coming forward, allowing the group to continue to operate and to manipulate people. The only remedy, he says, is to keep talking about it.
His advice is simple - be wary of unsolicited invites and sudden friendships or groups that look too good to be true. He says groups like these cast their net as widely as possible, and they're out there - in your community, even next door.
This was published in the June 2018 issue of North & South.
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