Adventures with South Korea’s WMS Church of God

Adventures with South Korea’s WMS Church of God

posted in: Adventures, People | 0
Is it a Cult or New-Age Christian Offshoot?

During my year-plus living as an expat in Masan, South Korea, my social life left a lot to be desired. Locals were polite and friendly, but I found them generally shy and introverted, difficult to really connect with and form an endearing bond. I also didn’t mesh well with the tiny group of fellow expats in the area. To put it bluntly, I was an introvert during my time in Korea.  I often felt bored and unfulfilled, and suffered through extended periods of loneliness….

This is the story of how I came to join a peculiar Korean ‘cult’ called the WMS Church of God.

How I Became Involved With the Church of God

As I strolled aimlessly around Masan one fine autumn day, I was approached by a few attractive Korean gals. Desperate for some social interaction, particularly with these beauties, It didn’t take much prodding for me to stop and chat.

It was quite a rarity for locals to be so open. Actually, I found it difficult to even so much as make eye contact with locals of Masan. It seemed everyone I passed instinctively looked downwards, too shy to meet the eyes of the unfamiliar foreigner. These girls were quite different. Cheerful and outgoing (did I mention cute?), we began a pleasant conversation.

It didn’t take long for their motive to emerge. The girls belonged to a church, they explained, and were recruiting passers-by. Looking for souls to save. I didn’t mind because our chat wasn’t solely focused on their church. We mainly discussed my reasons for being in Masan, what we liked about Korea and the general area, our hobbies, and so on. The girls spoke great English and were clearly getting a kick out of practicing their language skills in a natural setting.

One of them seemed like she just might fancy me. When she finally invited me to her church, I figured, “What the hell? What else would I do?” Even if my motives (trying to impress this girl) were not exactly of the ‘pure’ sort, my experience in a South Korean church might be interesting and worth my time even if I didn’t manage to win this girl’s heart. Little did I know just how interesting it was going to be, or what I was getting myself into…

My First Trip to the Church

And so a few days later, I met up with my new friend (I’ll omit her name for this article) and she walked me over to the Masan chapter of the WMS Church of God.

I was greeted warmly by everyone in the congregation. The attention and positive vibes genuinely felt good. Everyone made a point to approach and provide me an enthusiastic welcome. Not all of them spoke English, but a surprising amount managed at least a conversational level.

Also surprising: I wasn’t the only foreigner. Also in attendance was a married couple from Peru, of all places. As a Spanish speaker, I grew excited to practice my Spanish with the couple, but was disappointed as I found them colder and more reserved than the Koreans.

Anyway, I wasn’t in the main congregation room for long. Within minutes, I was led upstairs to a smaller, more out-of-the-way room. My new friend told me to wait there, then promptly disappeared. Creepily, I never saw her again.

Before long, several older Koreans entered the room and greeted me. It appeared they were higher-ups in the church. They possessed a stack of Bibles and other pamphlets and books. Immediately after pleasantries, they summoned me to a chair and started hastily scanning through their materials. My indoctrination had already begun.

The next several hours were spent studying the Bible and accompanying pamphlets. They’d used pens and markers of various colors to highlight multitudes of phrases and passages throughout the books. My teachers kept flipping around to different parts of the Bible, asking what certain passages meant to me.

At first, their teachings were somewhat boring, but after awhile I got into it and grew highly entertained. It was fascinating how they could take the most incredibly vague phrases out of the Bible, and point out how those highlighted phrases “proved” this-and-that were absolute truths. I didn’t buy into what they were selling, but they had managed to pique my interest. It didn’t take much prodding for me to agree to return for more sermons and private indoctrination lessons.

The Sermons

And so I began attending the church on a twice-weekly basis. Sometimes I’d sit in on sermons, which were obviously spoken in Korean, but the friendly folks at the church made sure to sit me near an English-speaking colleague who could help translate important excerpts. Although I understood next to nothing, I was initially happy to be involved. I actually felt like I was becoming part of a welcoming group. The people were kindhearted and treated me with hospitality I hadn’t yet experienced in the country. I was starting to feel like I belonged.

Sitting in on the sermons wasn’t so different from attending a church in the USA or other Western countries, although there were noticeable differences. The congregation room was more modern than the usual, traditional churches. It was completely devoid of stained-glass windows and crucifixes. This confused me, as I considered these to be common staples of Christian churches.

Other than that, there wasn’t much out of the ordinary. It wasn’t like these people were wearing hoods, burning crosses, or sacrificing animals. They came well-dressed and presentable, and often there would be some short meet-and-greet dialogues before and after sermons, which I greatly looked forward to.

The Church’s Unorthodox Beliefs

At other times, I’d be led into the indoctrination quarters, where I’d sit with between 1 to 3 people and be treated to the heavily-highlighted Bibles. With the speed and precision they used to expertly flip through passages, it seemed my ‘teachers’ must have known the Bible by heart. My first few ‘lessons’ were relatively boring, I was subjected to material not so different from normal Christian beliefs. Stories of the old and new testaments, the life of Jesus, and so on.

During my third session, however, things began to get a little weird. My teachers used their impossibly highlighted Bible to flip to certain passages (most of which were incredibly vague and could have been interpreted in thousands of different literal ways). Using these passages from a regular New Testament Bible, they stated was proof, beyond doubt, of their beliefs. Among the tidbits I was preached:

  • Jesus Christ would rise again, this time in the East (Revelations 2:17, 3:11-12)

    The founder of the Church of God, the late Ahn Sahng Hong, was indeed a reincarnation of Jesus. According to church members, he fulfilled prophecies only Jesus could have fulfilled.

  • God has two different forms, Male and Female (Revelations 22:17, Genesis 1:26-27)

    My teachers showed me highlighted phrases of the Bible, ‘proving’ that God existed in both male and female forms.

  • The Female ‘God’, or “Heavenly Mother” is Alive Today and End Times are Near:

    Things got even more bizarre when they started ‘educating’ me on the female reincarnation of Jesus / God.  They referred to her as the Heavenly Mother, a Korean woman named Jang Gil Ja, who according to the church members is the living form of the female God. It was also heavily insinuated that the end times were near, perhaps the instant the Heavenly Mother passes away.

When I first showed up to the Church of God, I was positive I’d never become a ‘True Believer’. I’ve always been more spiritual than religious, and was joining more for a social opportunity and form of entertainment than anything else. After hearing the church’s latest round of bizarre beliefs, however, I had no doubt I’d never become one of them. I tried to hide my ambivalence from the teachers. After all, they were friendly and were just doing their jobs in trying to save my soul. I didn’t want to disappoint them. And so, I continued showing up to sermons and lessons.

The Weirdness Begins

During my first visit to the Church of God, I’d been prodded to provide my full address and telephone number. I didn’t think anything of it and left it without questioning the motives.

I didn’t have a cell phone at the time, rather a simple land-line in my apartment, so I couldn’t be bothered in that manner at all hours of the day. A few times, I received calls from congregation members, just to check in on me and see how I was doing. I wasn’t bothered by these, I figured they just wanted to practice their English, or were curious about the foreigner attending their church.

One afternoon, a small group of semi-familiar Church of God members showed up unannounced at my apartment. I was a little creeped out by their unexpected visit, but they asked if they could come in and I relented without argument.

As soon as they stepped inside, however, things got really creepy. The ladies immediately started snooping around my apartment, right in front of me, as if it were perfectly normal behavior! Without asking permission, they began opening cupboards and cabinet doors, rummaging through papers on my table, analyzing my book collection. They even went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, and took considerable time scanning through the contents of my fridge! I finally got the ladies to sit down and we had a little conversation over tea. It wasn’t long before they abruptly left.

The whole ordeal was exceptionally bizarre, and I felt highly uneasy. I figured they’d either been sent by the church, or did so on their own, to make sure I wasn’t an unscrupulous infidel. Good thing they didn’t find the porn on my computer!

The Baptism

By this point, I was getting bored with attending church sermons. The novelty had worn off. Besides, although the members continued being warm and friendly, they were far too straight-edge for my liking. I enjoyed living unencumbered by rules, while my new friends at the church were obsessed with them. I began looking for a way out; I wanted to simply stop going, but was too much of a nice guy to leave so abruptly; I didn’t want to offend anyone.

My teachers had been pressuring me to agree to become baptized. I was hesitant (for obvious reasons), but they prodded incessantly, almost as if it were a life-or-death scenario. They bugged and pressured me so much that I finally decided to just do it. I wasn’t even remotely a believer, but what the hell. Hey, it might be entertaining, after all, and would make for a good story.

I figured they’d need time to organize the ceremony, but literally as soon as I agreed to be baptized, my teachers led me into a small, closet-sized room. There, they instructed me to remove all of my clothes, and gave me a special bathrobe to put on. Yikes… what had I gotten myself into?!

Once the overlords left the room and shut the door, I began stripping off all my clothes. Although I was supposed to go completely naked, I felt so uncomfortable and left my boxers on, then covered up with the bathrobe they’d provided. (Does that nullify the baptism?)

When I opened the door to exit the changing room, I was shocked… there were dozens of congregation members crowding around outside the room. When I’d been led in there, I’d seen nobody in the area except for my two teachers. In the minutes while I changed, they’d somehow rounded up all these people and “surprised” me upon my exit.

The crowd began loudly cheering as I triumphantly exited the changing room, in only the bathrobe (and my boxers). It felt kinda… good, I guess. I was part of something, part of their church. Or so they thought.

Anyway, the baptism itself was unorthodox. Rather than dipping my head into a silver goblet of water, they literally poured a huge tub of water on top of me, and I got fully drenched! The crowd continued to cheer throughout the ceremony, then congratulated me afterwards. To them, I now belonged to the Church of God.

Unannounced Visit to my Work!

In the subsequent weeks, I received a few more phone calls and unannounced visits. It was becoming increasingly annoying and I teetered on the verge of breaking from the church.

The last straw of my tenuous existence as a Church of God member came when a few congregation members showed up, completely unannounced, at the English hagwan (language school) I taught at. They somehow managed to bypass the information desk near the entrance, and simply began wandering around the halls of the school… without permission! Glass windows separated the hallways and classrooms, so anyone in the halls could easily observe the goings-on during lessons. When my church colleagues stopped at my window and began creepily analyzing my lessons, I grew incredibly uneasy. Thankfully, the nosy church women were soon rounded up and unceremoniously hoarded out of the building.

Later on, I was called into my boss Mr Huh’s office. He obviously wanted to know What. The. Fuck. I explained that I had nothing to do with the invasion. Mr. Huh understood and dismissed me without any real lecture, but I felt really awful… I could have been fired by my church colleagues’ behavior! The church had been invading my personal and now work life with alarming frequency, and I knew without a doubt I had to break from them once and for all.

Finally, I Break with the Church

So, I simply stopped going. I didn’t want to tell anyone my decision (especially in person), because the congregation members I’d been in contact with were extremely persistent and didn’t like taking ‘No’ for an answer. I knew they’d try their darndest to talk me out of it, and I didn’t want to deal with that. So I just stopped going.

Of course, they called. Even showed up at my apartment a few more times. They asked if everything was alright. At first, I just made excuses, saying lately I was too busy to attend. But I was finally forced to put my foot down and tell them, in no uncertain terms, that I wasn’t interested in continuing my relationship with the church. They finally got the point and left me alone, but not for a good month-plus after my final visit.

Final Thoughts

I really don’t want to bash the World Mission Society Church of God, because members and leaders were always kind to me. However, I’d advise extreme caution when dealing with them. Maybe the odd treatment I endured wasn’t typical of the church at large, but rather a tweak that was only prevalent in the Masan branch (or regarding me personally). Whatever the deal, be cautious. Be direct and upfront with your expectations, as well as your boundaries. These are things I didn’t do, and they came back to haunt me. I realize a lot of the awkward situation was my own fault.

As for the church itself… again, its members were exceptionally friendly to me (if not persistent and invasive at times). Obviously, its beliefs are highly unorthodox and many might consider them quite strange. But the main things the church preaches are to be kind to others, try your hardest to keep free of sin, promote peace and happiness. So it can’t be all bad, right?

The Church’s Website (in English)

http://usa.watv.org/

 

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