A version of this piece was published in Columbia News Service on April 13th, 2013.
One day in November 2008, Erika Cordova was approached in New York City by two women with an interesting question.
“Have you heard of God the Mother?” one asked.
Cordova, a Mexican native whose parents were Christian missionaries, admitted she had not.
“I said no, and I thought it was weird,” Cordova said. “I thought ‘what is this church in New York?’”
A week later, she studied with members of the church, the World Mission Society Church of God, and she was convinced about the idea of a female form of God and the church’s other beliefs, because of how well the members knew the Bible. They said, for example, that she should hold the Sabbath on Saturday, because the Holy Book said Jesus worshipped on the last day of the week.
As a result of similar outreach, membership for the Church of God, a Christian church based in South Korea, has risen exponentially after a campaign that started in 1997; it opened its first American branch in Los Angeles that year and another in Chicago a year later. Now there are about 45 branches across the country, in 45 states, according to a church representative.
“I try to be here as much as I can, because I like it here,” Cordova said inside the Manhattan branch. She comes every Saturday and Tuesday for service and “whenever I have time and I’m free.”
Worldwide the church has about 2,200 branches in more than 150 countries and nearly 1.8 million members. In 1985 it had only 13 branches and 1,000 members in South Korea.
“The Bible says that the gospel of the second coming would start from the east and spread all the way to the west,” said Victor Lozada, the New Jersey branch’s multimedia director. “Before 1997 the gospel had only spread in Korea.”
He added: “It was time to start letting the world know.”
The Church of God was founded in 1964 with the belief that South Korea is the holy land and that the Messiah had returned in the form of their founder, Ahnsahnghong. It also teaches that God’s female form, known as God the Mother, is the church’s current leader, Zahng Gil-Jah. This stems from a number of lines throughout the Bible, which hint that God had more than just a male image. For example, Genesis says: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
But a number of former church members and families of current members have called the church a money-hungry cult. Cult expert Steve Hassan, president of Freedom of Mind Resource Center, examined the church after receiving calls from former members and concluded the church was cultish based on their testimonies when compared to his warning signs, like surrendering assets, and his model to define mind control in which a group controls a person’s behavior, information, thoughts and emotions.
Until 1976 Hassan himself was a member of the Unification Church or Moonies, which was considered a cult by many. That church was under Sun Myung Moon, another South Korean preacher who claimed to be the second coming of Christ.
Hassan said the World Mission Society leaves out information to attract members. For example, former members have said, the church doesn’t immediately tell new members who Anhsanghong is and that their Messiah has been dead for nearly 30 years. Some members said the church tells people that family members are “Satan” if they tell them to leave the church, and that those who do leave have fallen into evil.
“They are a pyramid-structured authoritarian regime, where they control people’s lives, they control their minds, they control them emotionally and people are unable to think independently and act independently,” Hassan said.
Lozada, the church’s multimedia director, rejected the idea that the church is a cult.
“The so-called experts are the ones who define what a cult is, but a cult expert is a self-made profession,” Lozada said.
Diane and Jeff Sims were Pentecostal, but joined the church after a Bible study in 2003, when they lived in Sunland, Calif.
“Every question that I asked, they showed us the answer from the Bible,” Diane said. “That was amazing to us.”
The couple enjoyed going to the church until their business became more popular in 2006 and Jeff was too busy to attend frequently. Because he wasn’t regularly attending he wasn’t learning or donating enough money and Jeff felt the church started to try to split the couple up. They told Diane he was “weak” and he would not be saved. “I was fearing for my salvation,” she said.
A year later the branch started to warn members not to go on the Internet, the couple said, because people started posting negative things about it.
“It put a red flag in my head,” Jeff said. He stopped showing up to the church, but couldn’t convince his wife.
Diane eventually quit after she read about Anhsanhong online in 2011.
Mindy Harwood, a former physical education teacher in Polson, Mont., has been trying to get her oldest son to leave the church for more than three years.
Her son joined the church’s Chicago branch in 2008. A year later, she said, he started acting strange. A corporate engineer, when he wasn’t at work he spent most of his time at the church. Mindy discovered that he gave the organization about $60,000 since he joined, including $25,000 from his pension without consulting his wife, who isn’t a member of the church.
He also began frantically recruiting new church members, because he believed the world would end in 2012. All attempts to force him to quit just pushed the mother and son farther away.
“It feels like he’s dead, but he’s still living,” Mindy said. “Like the person he was is dead, but this other person they’ve built up is walking around.”