Sep 7, 2021

‘I think I’ve accidentally joined a cult’

Alex’s Bible classes started taking over his life. Then he found out who was pulling the strings.

As told to Nick Baker and Siobhan Marin for RN Presents: This Much is True

ABC Radio National
September 7, 2021

 Alex* and I’m from Hong Kong.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to study overseas, because I thought the experience would open my eyes to the world.

I’d travelled to Sydney a few years ago and loved the city.  So, I decided to move here and study law, to do my JD [postgraduate law degree] at the University of Sydney. It was a scary, but exciting decision.

I knew some people in Sydney, but building up a social circle was something I definitely had to work on.

A new housemate

Luke*: I’m Luke and I first met Alex in our first semester of law school at the University of Sydney.

We were both in the same starting cohort. We studied together a few times and became friends.

A year on, I was looking for a new housemate in my share house. Alex saw the ad that I posted on Facebook and was keen to move in.

For the first few months, we did normal housemate stuff, like watching TV together and playing video games. 

Alex was an easy-going, nice guy.

A chance meeting

Alex: One morning, I was outside Central Station on the way to the law firm I was interning at, when two men approached me.

They told me that they were looking for international students to do this interview, a questionnaire about our background. It was all simple and easy.

At the end, they asked me if I was interested in catching up later, to have a coffee or something like that. I thought, why not?

So, we met up in the food court in the Central Park mall, just near where I was working. There were the two guys who approached me at Central Station and also another girl.

It was just a random chat to get to know each other. We each introduced ourselves, talked about our backgrounds, where we grew up, things like that. They all seemed nice.

Then one of them started talking about some classes on offer and asked if I’d like to come along. I said yes.

Alex started to change

Luke: I started to notice a change with Alex – I was seeing less of him.

It was odd. We’d be watching TV and he’d get a call and say he’d have to go to his new classes or to make time for study.

But he’s an international student and didn’t necessarily know a huge amount of people in Australia. So, I thought he was looking for a sense of community with these new people.

I asked him about it, and he just said, “oh, I’ve joined this Bible study group.”

The classes

Alex: I was brought up Catholic. My mum’s side of the family is very devout. Growing up, we went to church every week and I actually served as an altar boy.

But when I used to go to the mass, I felt like they would randomly pick the Bible verses and read them to us. I didn’t really understand the context or anything about them.

These new Bible study classes were different. They tried to give lots of explanation and refer back to certain verses to support their doctrine and whatever they taught.

The whole thing seemed a lot more logical and a lot more organised. It made more sense to me. That’s what drew me in.

It started with these small group meetings for three to four months. They were always in the Central Park food court, which was really convenient for me. Then an older guy told me about a larger Bible study class.

He said, “if you pass the aptitude test, you can go to this class, it will be for nine months, and you have to commit to going three times a week.”

In the aptitude test, I was asked questions about the obstacles that may stop me from going to the classes.

I had to come up with solutions to get around these obstacles, to make sure I could go.

The new classes were held in Surry Hills, in a very big room, usually with around 100 students. They were held from 6:30pm and could last all the way up to 9pm or 10pm.

And if you missed a class, the group would organise [sic] a catch-up class afterwards. So it took up a lot of my time.

‘His life revolved around the classes’

Luke: Alex was spending more and more time going to these classes. It clearly became his priority, almost like there was no leeway around them.

I remember one night we were grocery shopping together, and he got this call from the group out of the blue. Midway through shopping, he just said “sorry, I have to go” and immediately left. It was definitely odd.

And when he couldn’t attend a class, they would organise study sessions around his schedule. So, he would sometimes be studying from midnight to 2am or 3am.

‘Keep it a secret’

Alex: At these bigger classes, there seemed to be a lot of international students like me, many of whom were from Asia. Most of the instructors and teachers were Korean.

What do you believe? There’s some very unusual stuff out there. From fringe ideas to full-blown conspiracy theories, we dive into the rabbit hole and come out the other side.

At one point, an instructor very casually mentioned that, “this place is on a commercial lease, it’s rented, and we would appreciate if all the attendants can contribute a little bit financially”.

They asked for $30 per fortnight. At the time I thought it was a little pricey. But it was still an affordable amount. I enjoyed going to their classes — the people were very friendly and it was a way to meet new people that shared the same faith.

So I felt it’s the right thing to contribute.

All along, the group labelled itself as a non-denominational Bible studies group. But there were certain things that didn’t feel right to me.

I remember they would say, only they have the right interpretation of the Bible and everyone else who said something different, their interpretation was wrong, it was the Devil speaking through them.

And I also remember they said, some people might think that their teachings are cult-like. So we were told, we should try to keep it a secret from our family and friends.

They said, “your family and friends might not want you to spend time with us, but that would be the Devil working behind them — trying to stop you learning the Bible.”

The group became my social centre.

The realisation

Alex: After a few months of this, I started working and I had less and less time to attend the classes.

I had to do a lot of catch-up classes during the weekend. I sometimes did two consecutive catch-up classes, which lasted five hours. I was exhausted.

So one day, I decided to Google keywords to see if I could find the doctrine they just taught and catch up like that. This Google search changed everything.

One of the search results was a Reddit thread where people were sharing their experiences of a Korean Christian church called Shincheonji. I remember seeing various references to it being called a cult. I’d heard of the group before, because it was responsible for a lot of COVID-19 cases in South Korea last year.

But as I started reading this thread, I noticed a lot of the Shincheonji teachings were exactly the same as what I was learning at my Bible study class. So, I did some more Googling, I read some more articles. And that’s when the penny dropped.

I realised, “Damn, I had joined Shincheonji”. Luke was the first person I told.

‘He was freaked out’

Luke: One evening, I got home from work, and Alex just said, “I think I’ve accidentally joined a cult.” He explained it all to me and said he’d cut off contact with the group.

He wasn’t emotionally distressed, he was more freaked out — freaked out that he accidently got so involved with this group.

And I was pretty surprised too, because Alex is quite a smart guy, he’s definitely a critical thinker.

I’d heard of Shincheonji, but I didn’t realise they were in Australia, let alone recruiting at Central Station.

And I actually felt a bit stupid myself, because I was aware that he was spending a lot of time going to these meetings and getting all these calls.

I should have asked him what he was going to, how did you meet these people, have you looked up the group?

Betrayal and shame

Alex:  I was totally shocked, because joining a cult always sounded like a joke, something very fanciful that would never happen to me.

It made me think — this could happen to anyone, no matter how smart you think you are, no matter how much critical thinking you have.

Over the coming weeks, I felt betrayed and ashamed. I’d wasted so much time with this group. I could have spent that time with other people, enjoying my new city.

Alex came to Sydney for the experience of studying abroad, but got sucked into a time-consuming group instead. 

Looking back, they were clearly trying to separate me from many other aspects of my life, so that I’d devote all my time to them.

It was like they wanted me to stop being myself and to become a servant of the group.

That’s not how a religion should be. That’s what I felt really made it a cult.

What is Shincheonji?

The Shincheonji Church of Jesus was established in 1984 by South Korean Lee Man-hee, who claims to be the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Followers believe that on judgement day, Mr Lee will help 144,000 believers receive eternal life, a figure set out in the Book of Revelation.

The church claims to have more than 200,000 members in South Korea and many more around the world, all in the hunt for eternal life.

Former members and other mainstream Korean Christian groups have labelled Shincheonji a doomsday cult, because of what they claim are opaque practices, “brainwashing” and the role of 89-year-old Mr Lee.

The group has previously denied it is a cult and says its members face discrimination, particularly in South Korea.

Professor Kyung Moon Hwang, a historian of Korea at the Australian National University, said the reality is far more complex than a binary of church or cult.

“It’s a very subjective perspective to call something a cult or not a cult, there’s a fuzzy boundary,” he said.

“[Shincheonji] has strong levels of secrecy, and strong levels of intensive conversion through a communal process …

“Its founder proclaims he is the new prophet of Christianity, that he is the new messiah,” he said.

“And there’s also a feedback loop that has developed — more secrecy arises from the fact that it’s been labelled a cult by other mainstream Korean Christian groups.”

Professor Kyung stressed Korean modern history has many other examples of similar Christian groups, such as the Unification Church, founded by another self-declared messiah, Sun Myuung-moon, in 1954.

“But Shincheonji has created tremendously powerful and painful rifts within Korean families, especially between parents and children who may become part of this group and they end up leaving their family in some cases.”

The sect made international headlines last year after it became the source of a major COVID-19 outbreak, when at one point 60 per cent of South Korea’s cases had links to the group.

“They were in defiance of all sorts of government regulations that were in place to prevent mass gatherings,” Professor Kyung said.

Mr Lee was later charged with breaking virus control laws but was acquitted. However, he was found guilty of the embezzlement of the equivalent of $6.5 million, receiving a three-year suspended sentence.

ABC contacted the Shincheonji Church of Jesus for comment but did not receive a reply.

Losing faith

Alex: The whole experience has made me much more sceptical, especially about any sort of religious group that’s trying to recruit people.

I stopped going to any church, because after going to those classes, I feel like I don’t know what’s true and what’s false about Christianity anymore. I can’t tell.

Now, whenever I look at a Bible verse or a Bible story, I can’t help but go back to what they taught me, going back to their interpretation.

So, I’ve mostly stopped practising my faith.

Looking back, it seems to me that Shincheonji targeted international students in Sydney, and that could be because they may not have strong connections with the community yet.

They might sometimes feel lonely because they’re in a foreign country, their family is back in their hometown.

So I’d just say if you’re devoting time and resources to any group, which results in being very isolated from your family and friends who actually love you, this is a big warning sign.

Take notice of these warning signs.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

This story comes from ABC Radio National’s podcast RN Presents: This Much is True. Find it on ABC Listen, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, RSS or wherever you listen to podcasts.

No comments: