By Gianluca D’Elia
A female student was walking back to her sorority house late at night on Jan. 24 when she was approached by a short, young woman carrying a drawstring bag with Rider’s logo on it. What began as a simple interaction turned into what the student thinks may have been an attempt to recruit her for an alleged cult.
“She asked me for my number and I said yes because I didn’t want to be rude,” said Keara Prystash, a sophomore psychology major. “I assumed she was just from a campus ministry, so I wasn’t that worried.”
But then Prystash saw viral tweets that have been circulating the internet over the past month, claiming that a Christian group called the World Mission Society Church of God is a front for sex trafficking. Since the beginning of the semester, multiple students on the Lawrenceville campus have reported similar encounters, describing the group’s aggressive recruiters to Public Safety, according to Capt. Jim Flatley. Two of those were just this week.
Cristina D’Averso-Collins, Catholic campus ministry coordinator, said she has not heard of World Mission, nor has she seen them on campus. Flatley and Dean of Students Cindy Threatt and sent an email to students on Feb. 16 regarding the recent phenomenon. They said the religious groups are not affiliated with Rider and their meetings are not held on campus. TCNJ’s campus police contacted the church’s headquarters directly and told Rider’s Public Safety there is no credible threat of the church being involved in trafficking.
“Simultaneous to these reports, we have been made aware of social media chatter that one of these organizations, which solicits at TCNJ, Rider and William Paterson University, is a sex-trafficking group trying to lure women into the sex trade,” the letter said. “TCNJ police have shared with us that they have investigated these reports, spoken directly with people associated with this group and have found no cause for concern.”
According Rider’s student handbook, “solicitation is defined as the selling of a product, service or the collection of moneys. This does not apply to the distribution of leaflets or other sources of information.”
Rider students have reported encounters with recruiters in Cranberry’s, Sweigart Hall, the Science building and outside the bookstore, as well at the Shoprite in Ewing and the Walmart in East Brunswick.
Based on students’ recollections, most of the recruiters are connected to World Mission. The South Korea-based religious group preaches that there is evidence in the Bible of not only God the Father, but a female deity too: God the Mother.
Founded in 1964, World Mission started as one church, founded by minister Ahn Sahng Hong, who members believed to be the second coming of Christ. He died of a heart attack in 1985. The group also sought to introduce the idea of a “spiritual mother,” or God the Mother, embodied by a woman named Zahng Gil-Jah who is now in her late 70s. The church now boasts over 4,600 locations and 2.7 million members worldwide, according to its website.
In response to the frenzy of social media posts about the sex slavery rumor, World Mission’s headquarters released a statement online, emphasizing that they have no ties to human trafficking. They have also dismissed prior claims about being called a cult, claiming that labeling them as such is a form of “religious intolerance.”
In the statement, the church wrote, “Recently, we were made aware of a social media post in which someone appears to accuse the church and its members of being linked to a ring of sex/human trafficking. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are a church of Christian love and denounce any such activities, wherever they may be carried out.”
Although the sex trafficking rumor has led to a spike in attention toward the religious group, this isn’t their first time making the news. Former members of the Ridgewood church came forward with personal stories in the Bergen Record in January 2016, claiming the religious group is a cult. Seven of them who spoke to the media claimed that World Mission initially showered them with affection and praise, but then gradually started to micromanage their lives and isolate them from outside friends and family by using fear tactics and manipulation.
Ex-member Michelle Ramirez filed a lawsuit against the church in the U.S. District Court in Trenton in 2014. According to the case Ramirez v. World Mission, the church engages in three main activities: services, studies and recruiting. Ramirez claimed that members are subjected to a great deal of pressure to help acquire new members, some New Jersey churches having even imposed a recruiting quota.
Ramirez was first approached at the Jersey Gardens Mall in Elizabeth in 2006. After joining, Ramirez allegedly was not permitted to drive to the church herself the first time she went. A pastor picked her up. This came after months of pressure to attend services since she first encountered recruiters in the mall. The group allegedly grew increasingly demanding and manipulative, to the point where Ramirez even transferred to a college closer to the church. Her family tried to get her to leave, but fellow church members told her the devil was trying to speak through them, the lawsuit says.
Another lawsuit, filed by ex-member Michelle Colon, accused the group of fraud, infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy. World Mission claimed Colon was lying and that she was just trying to build a career as a “cult expert” by defaming the church. The case was dismissed by Superior Court Judge Rachelle Harz in Hackensack, who said she could not determine a religion’s invalidity because of the First Amendment, according to a 2016 article in The Bergen Record.
Despite the claims about the church, World Mission New Jersey has also been praised by former Gov. Chris Christie in 2014 for its cleanup and relief efforts following Superstorm Sandy. In a letter, he wrote that they were an “example of the positive impact of spiritual outreach in the community.” Over 1,000 of the church’s members participated in emergency response training following the storm, and state officials lauded their contagious enthusiasm.
According to World Mission’s official website, it has won awards from the American and South Korean governments, as well as from Queen Elizabeth II for its members’ participation in volunteer efforts such as disaster relief, environmental cleanups and blood donor recruiting. “The driving force behind these deeds is God the Mother,” the website says.
The sex trafficking allegations against the group may only be a rumor, but students’ uncomfortable encounters with recruiters have led them to believe what the tweets are saying.
Known for their aggressive recruiting, the church has been compared to Jehovah’s Witnesses, who often preach to people at street corners and train stations and canvass door to door.
Sophomore biology major Tolga Guven was sitting outside a research lab in the Science building during the first week of the semester when he was approached by a man who appeared to be in his 30s, accompanied by a teenage girl who didn’t say anything.
“He asked if I read the Bible and if I’m a Christian, but I told him I’m Muslim,” Guven said. But even a difference in religion did not stop the recruiter from preaching. The man went on to explain that there is scientific evidence Jesus was once alive and that he resurrected, just like the Bible says. He then asked for Guven’s email, shook his hand and left.
“I didn’t think anything of it, but when I started to see the social media posts, I realized it was similar to what a lot of people were saying online,” Guven said.
Leah Corcillo, ’17, was sitting at a phone-charging station in the Quakerbridge Mall in Lawrence when she was approached by a man and woman almost a year ago. Similar to what Guven experienced, the young woman was silent and the man did the talking.
“I was scared it was sex trafficking because this guy, who was probably in his late 20s, was with this young girl but he wouldn’t let her talk. She just kind of stood there and nodded along while he tried to recruit me. She looked really uncomfortable most of the time. He said she was new to the church.”
The man told Corcillo their group worships God the Mother. Corcillo, a Catholic, assumed they were talking about the Virgin Mary, who is often referred to as the Mother of God. The man encouraged her to check out their Bible study and commit to a time that she could come visit them. Corcillo said he also offered to have someone pick her up from the mall and drive her to the Bible study.
“In my head, I was like, ‘This guy is crazy,’” she recalled. “He asked me my name, where I worked, what school I went to — I lied about everything.”
The more aggressive and impatient he became, the less Corcillo wanted to talk to him. He asked for Corcillo’s contact information and she refused, but told him she was willing to take his. Then, he tried to take her phone so he could call himself and get her number, but she took the phone back and ran off.
In his attempt to recruit Corcillo for his group’s Bible study, he also gave her an address: 1440 How Lane in North Brunswick. A Google search brings up an office building that is home to a World Mission church, as well as a daycare center and a couple of offices.
In addition to the North Brunswick location, there are currently four other World Mission churches statewide in Bogota, Belleville, Ridgewood and Passaic, according to the group’s New Jersey headquarters’ website.
Corcillo said the man who she met at the mall also gave her a link to World Mission’s website.
“When I looked at it online last year, it was not as nice-looking as it is now,” she said. “It was way more sketch. But the whole thing still seems off to me.”
Encounters with pushy recruiters have occurred at TCNJ and William Paterson as well, according to Threatt’s letter. Nationally, there have also been recent reports at Kentucky State University, the University of Memphis, and Kent State University in Ohio.
Andrea Socas, a freshman biology major at TCNJ, recently posted in the school’s class of 2021 Facebook page that she was approached at the beginning of the semester. Two individuals walked up to her at a picnic table outside the dining hall while she was listening to music with her earbuds in. They told Socas they were theology students and asked if she had time to talk about God the Mother.
“They kind of cornered me so I wouldn’t be able to move or escape, and they started telling me about their off-campus Bible study group and a seminar they were having that evening,” Socas said. “There was a Hispanic-looking woman in her younger 20s and a fairly young-looking Asian man. The woman was the one talking to me, asking me if I believed in God.”
Corcillo said she hopes students will be vigilant about who they talk to.
“I’ll never forget it,” she said, looking back on her encounter at the mall. “The entire thing was so weird.”
Public Safety encourages students to stay in groups when going out, to use Student Escort when possible and to report any suspicious activity to their emergency number: 609-896-7777.