Rebuilding their young lives after Shincheonji: Former members talk about the secretive sect and how they escaped
“Among the patients in Daegu, a majority of them are in their 20s,” said Jung Eun-kyeong, director of the KCDC, in a press briefing on March 2. “We think it has to do with the fact that women in their 20s and 30s make up a majority of the Shincheonji members who have tested positive.”
According to a report released about the group on Feb. 29, put forward by Eschatological Bureau, a group of researchers who studied the sect for years, as many as 35 percent of Shincheonji’s 210,000 members in Korea may be in their 20s or 30s.
If that’s true, it accounts for more than 70,000 young adults in Korea.
To find out more about what may be drawing in the younger recruits to the group, the Korea JoongAng Daily recently spoke with two young adults who were previously members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus.
Kim Choong-il learned about the group through an acquaintance of his older brother in 2004. Kim had just turned 18 and was a freshman at Handong Global University in Pohang, North Gyeongsang. Kim said he quickly rose in the ranks within the group, becoming one of the youngest members in his chapter to spearhead local recruitment efforts.
Kim En-na was 25 and fresh out of college when she was introduced to members of the sect for the first time. Kim’s name is a pseudonym, as she spoke with the paper under the condition of anonymity.
“A very close friend of mine from college, who I didn’t know was a member of the sect, introduced me to another member and it went from there,” she said.
Within a year, Kim had quit her job as a pansori (Korean traditional narrative singing) singer and was “completely focused on being a member at Shincheonji,” which she said involved attending workshops to learn how to lie to her friends and family about her membership and spending most of her day recruiting members on the streets.
For both Kims, it all began with a conversation with someone they knew and trusted. Little did they know how much that conversation would impact their lives.
While Kim En-na was considered lucky to find a job straight out of college, she had her own struggles. “Some of my relationships were suffering and I had lost hope in people,” said Kim En-na. “There was a close friend of mine, we went to the same college. I told her about my troubles, and she told me she knew a psychologist […] I didn’t know they were both Shincheonji members at the time.”
The three met up at a cafe, and after a chat, the psychologist also told Kim that she was a professor of culture and arts.
“My friend said that maybe this professor could help me get ahead in life since she knew so many people in the field,” Kim said. “So they put together a time where I could perform in front of people, who they told me were also professionals in the performing arts world.”
However, the more time she spent with the two, the more she was forced to shift her priorities away from her career.
“They slowly introduced me to what they called ‘Bible studies,’” she said. “What they teach you is to use a system of re-interpreting the Bible, so that you can read the Bible as if you’re solving puzzles […] Those who easily believe the paradigm, like myself, are people who do not have a solid understanding of what the Bible is actually about.”
It was in the middle of one of this Bible study sessions that Kim came to learn she was actually on a process of becoming a registered member of the sect and that her friend and the person she had introduced as a psychologist had approached her with the intention of recruiting.
“I felt betrayed after I learned that they were acting and playing roles,” she said. “But I came to believe that they did it for my good, because the Bible studies quickly changed the way I thought.”
Kim Choong-il specialized in recruitment and re-education of the members during his involvement with Shincheonji. He said the sect’s teachings change the very core of one’s moral standards.
“Once you become a more rooted member, Shincheonji believers are taught to think that anything that is of God is good and everything else is of the Devil,” Kim said. “Their basis for deciding what is good and evil is based on what’s for God and against God. And what is for God? For Shincheonji members, everything that is for Shincheonji is for God. God exists only for the sect and works only through the sect.”
Shincheonji members are told to keep their involvement a secret from non-members, including their relatives and close friends.
“They interpret a passage in the book of Romans to say it’s okay to lie for the glory of God,” said Kim En-na. “We’re brainwashed by the paradigm that they created to the point that we start lying and don’t feel a pang of guilt about it. I’ve even been to a workshop where the leaders in the sect teach us how to lie to lure new members into the group or how to lie to our family.”
Kim recounted how she would ask her parents for some money to attend a private academy for English language classes, but would use that money to pay for her daily expenses as she spent most of her day recruiting strangers on the streets. She soon quit her job to recruit all day instead.
It’s not uncommon to find members of Shincheonji who give up their jobs or drop out of school to proselytize on the streets full-time, Kim Choong-il said.
“They say that the Shincheonji members are the fruit of what’s been prophesied in the book of Revelation. That only Shincheonji members will be part of the 144,000 priests [mentioned in the book] who will rule the earth and live forever.”
And when will this day come? The group does not specify the date.
“They keep repeating, it’ll happen within the next year, it will happen within two years, and so on. And when it does, [the founder of the group] Lee Man-hee will become like God and like Jesus. So you think that you’ve got to give all that you have for the sect in the next year or two since you believe that the end will come soon. That’s how they exploit the members without a deadline,” he said.
Shincheonji members do not reveal their membership to strangers when they’re recruiting.
Kim said that her team would bring in about 20 new members to the team per month. After about three months of training, they would finally reveal to the new members who they really were.
“About half of them would stick with us and be sent off to the next level of re-education,” she said. “The other half would recognize the name Shincheonji as a cult organization and drop out.”
But the sect would not give up easily.
“By that time, we would have figured out the new recruits’ homes, where they worked, their schools,” Kim said. “So we would wait for hours at these locations to spot the person and to try to convince them to stay with the group. Two to three members would be assigned to mark each new recruit this way.”
It is a group that runs stricter than an army unit, Kim Choong-il said.
“In the morning, the leader of each chapter of the group collects the daily schedule of their members to report to their superiors,” he said. “The members report to the leader their schedule for the day that is divided into 30-minute time periods. So they know exactly what you’re doing at what minute.”
Because the sect controls the members’ daily schedule and what they are to tell their friends and relatives, and because they are spending most of their day with other members, it doesn’t take long for the fresh recruits to swap old friendships for the new ones at the sect.
But it’s not so easy with family members.
“If a member is a young student who still lives with their parents, the parents will find out one way or another that something is wrong with their child,” said Kim En-na. “My parents found out that I was lying all the time and that my life was consumed with the sect. They consulted a Christian agency that works with parents to help free their children from the sect. The agency advised them not to act rashly because then their child would flee from home and submit a report to the police falsely testifying that they are abused by their parents at home and that they would like to take shelter at Shincheonji.”
It’s not clear how many young adults in Shincheonji have fled their homes this way, but some of their parents can be spotted protesting in front of Shincheonji-run facilities, pleading that Lee Man-hee stop exploiting their children.
“The sect makes you watch these videos they made to teach you how to fight your parents if they try to force you to stay at home and away from Shincheonji,” Kim said. “I also threw a tantrum - hitting my parents and my sibling as they tried to stop me. My mom passed out in the fight. My dad tied his feet to the front door so that he would wake up if I tried to sneak out at night. I thought about sticking my hand over the fire on the stove so that I would be hospitalized and escape from home to continue to work for the sect. That’s how the sect had wired me to think.”
Kim Choong-il was known among his team members as a hardcore believer of Shincheonji. Nothing could crack him, they believed. He fled from home six times using the methods the sect taught him. He was even ordered by leaders in the sect to attack a Christian pastor, Jin Yong-sik, who worked for an agency to help disillusion members of Shincheonji.
“I tried to attack him when he was giving a lecture at Handong University,” Kim said. “As I lunged at him at the podium, people stopped me and I was dragged out of the lecture hall.”
Kim’s parents did not give up. They promised him that if he attends the counseling sessions at the agency that Jin works for, they will not interfere with his life and his attachment to Shincheonji anymore.
Kim took the deal.
“I cracked after three weeks of counseling,” he said. “They helped me see the loopholes in Shincheonji’s teachings. Once I saw how they concocted the story about Shincheonji being the fruit of what’s prophesied in the book of Revelation, I realized that I had been scammed.”
Re-integration into society
Both Kims emphasized that they would not be here were it not for their family members who refused to give up on them.
“But there are so many others still slaving away for the sect that worships a man,” Kim Choong-il said. “As far as I know, Shincheonji is able to recruit 3,000 new members a month.”
“In my team there were so many talented young people - artists, actors and musicians who were giving all of their time and money to the sect,” Kim En-na said. “I tried to reach out to them after I had left the group, but once you leave, they call you a fallen one and tell the members that whoever gets in touch with a fallen one will also be ‘the one who eats the forbidden fruit.’”
Kim Choong-il now attends a seminary and works as a counselor at the agency alongside pastor Jin.
“Since their involvement with the coronavirus outbreak, it’s probably the most media attention the sect has ever received,” Kim said. “Some members are becoming disillusioned after watching the news. We had several call in to the agency to ask for counseling.”
Because a member would have lied to all of their friends and family for the duration of their membership, transition back into their life before Shincheonji takes time.
“Some people lost faith in me after I confessed to them and asked them to forgive me,” Kim En-na said. “Even my own parents couldn’t trust me for a while, and every time I left home I had to report to them with whom I was meeting and where.”
For Kim, one of the hardest parts was finding her way back to faith.
“I couldn’t tell if I was living the truth or a lie,” she said. “Was I scammed by Shincheonji, or am I now being scammed by Christians who tell me Shincheonji teaches lies? Which one is true? These were the questions I’d ask myself over and over.”
Kim said she found peace when she returned to the Bible.
“It says in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that Jesus who had no sin died for mine, so that I can be made right with God,” she said. “After six months from my departure from the group, I could finally accept that truth. How freeing it was to realize that as a believer, you were already glorifying your creator by your existence.”
BY ESTHER CHUNG [email@example.com]