Joanna Quinn was in the Oberlin College library when two women approached her for help on a theology project. She said one of the friendly seeming women asked her if she had heard of “God the Mother.”
Quinn was intrigued, thinking this was some kind of “alternative, feminist God.” The tone of the conversation changed abruptly when the woman speaking to her, “intently looking me in the eyes,” asked if she wanted to be saved through religion on judgment day.
“My stomach kind of dropped,” Quinn said. After that, the women tried to get her contact information and invite her to a Bible study, but Quinn gave them a fake phone number. Quinn later learned she was not the only student approached on campus that weekend by members of the World Mission Society Church of God.
Quinn was just one of dozens of students at colleges across the country who was asked about “God the Mother” in January and February. WMS members, often young women, asked students about God the Mother and quickly invited them to a church or Bible study at Vanderbilt University, Boston College, Rider University, the University of Mississippi, Boston University, the University of North Florida and more.
The universities or their police departments typically investigate a rumor alleging that WMS is involved in sex trafficking and sometimes have notified students of the group’s presence but do little else to inhibit the group’s activities, according to articles in those schools’ newspapers.
WMS was founded in 1964 by a man called Ahnsahnghong, who members consider to be Christ, according to the WMS website. The church claims to have over 2 million members worldwide.
In addition to Ahnsahnghong, WMS also believes there is a “Mother God.” A lawsuit filed against the group by former member Michelle Ramirez names the woman members believe to be this “Messianic figure” as Gil Jah Chang, a real woman living in South Korea.
That the group conceals Chang’s identity is just one claim Ramirez makes in her suit. She also alleges that World Mission New Jersey “deprived her of sleep and forced or coerced her to work or engage in other activities for extremely long hours for no compensation and alienated her from her family and friends” in order to control her.
Ramirez also alleges that because members are not allowed to become pregnant, she felt compelled to get an abortion, which caused her “to experience severe emotional pain and mental anguish, including depression, nervousness, grief, anxiety, worry, shock, humiliation, indignity, fright, mortification, embarrassment, apprehension, terror, and suicidal ideation, leading to a suicide attempt.”
World Mission New Jersey denied in court Ramirez’s claims regarding sleep deprivation, coerced work, family alienation and pregnancy rules. A representative from World Mission Society did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, Raymond Gonzalez is suing World Mission New Jersey to get out of a nondisclosure agreement his attorney said he was “forced” to sign. According to the suit he filed, his ability to speak about the group is important because “whether World Mission New Jersey is akin to a cult” is a matter of “public concern.” World Mission New Jersey denied Gonzalez’s claims in court motion.
Some cult experts said the church is cult-like. Cathleen Mann, who counsels members of former cults, said WMS is a cult with a “fear-based” doctrine in which members’ ultimate goal is to receive teachings directly from Mother God, who she said may or may not still be alive.
Steve Hassan, cult expert and author of Combating Cult Mind Control, said he spoke to former WMS members, their families, and their attorneys to learn more about WMS. Based on the information they gave him, he determined that WMS controls members’ behavior, information, thoughts and emotions. Hassan said this fulfills most of his criteria for what a “destructive cult” is (although he generally does not specifically label groups as cults and did not label WMS a cult). WMS is an apocalyptic group that predicted the end of the world in 2012, former WMS missionary Ron Ramos told Hassan.
Former member Michele Colón, who is also suing the church, told The Daily Beast she hopes anyone WMS approaches looks into the organization before joining.
“I encourage people to do all their research and really understand what they’re getting themselves into,” she said.