How I escaped my 'cult' in lockdown

Jasmine*, 20, a former member of the South Korean Shincheonji Church, recalls her experience of detaching from the group due to Covid-19

I was recruited into a cult during my second year at university, although I didn’t realise it at first. What started with a chat with two charismatic young recruiters outside the Salford University library last March lead to my attendance at Bible study meetings and services. I was in deep grief for my dad who died suddenly in 2016, and I was vulnerable.

Members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus drew me in by asking some very big questions, such as: “If you could have coffee with God, what would you ask?” They asked me a lot of questions about myself, and seemed so interested in me. My recruiters came across as serious theologians with a big commitment to promoting world peace, and they were offering friendship, too. They seemed to have the answers to some big issues, and they did it all with subtlety and skill.

Very quickly, I was attending Shincheonji meetings, sermons and study groups for several hours each day. I was feeling a part of something, and it felt good. I learned that it was a Christian group founded in 1984 in South Korea by a messianic figure, Lee Man-hee, who believes that only he and his followers will survive the end of the world – they are obsessed with ‘End Time’. The Shincheonji position themselves as a Christian group who carry out social work and cultural events, and they are known for holding big athletics festivals in South Korea. There are more than 250,000 followers worldwide, and they are on a mission right now to recruit more and more from UK universities.

There were about 40 of us in my group and we were broken down into ‘cells’ of five with a leader and assistant leader for each. I became our cell’s assistant leader after few months, and I ran my own bible studies group after I had been trained.

Gradually, I was distanced from my friends and my mum, a nurse who lives in Surrey, and before too long the Shincheonji had taken over my life. I was spending 90 per cent of my time either in cult meetings, going out evangelising or attending the twice-weekly sermons, which were held in a local business park. My university work began to suffer. I was sleeping just four hours a night. I was exhausted. This is one of the reasons recruits stay loyal.  They find they don’t have the time and energy needed to think properly and rationally assess what they have become part of.

All of my previous ideas about my faith and God had become replaced with the group’s beliefs, which were that we were helping to bring about world peace and that only we would survive the end of the world. Walking away would have been very difficult because I would have to ‘unlearn’ what I had been indoctrinated into.

But everything changed in February when news broke about coronavirus. I was already feeling very uncomfortable with some of the things I was having to do, such as policing the new recruits I had brought in and reporting them to our cell leader if they broke the rules. They might have met with a member of the opposite sex after the 10pm curfew, not turned up to Bible study or meetings, or not sat properly in the praying position, which is that you to have to kneel with the left hand on top of the right. Or they might have not said ‘Amen’ after a leader had spoken, or not done their homework. The rules are all set out in a PowerPoint early on in the recruitment process, and then repeated verbally until they have sunk in. They are very rigid about every single rule as it is a way of controlling people, even down to what you wear to the sermons – everyone has to look the same in white shirts and back trousers.

I really hated policing new recruits and I was having doubts, but you are conditioned to ignore your instincts and not to ask questions.

Then, one evening in February, I saw on the BBC News that the Shincheonji in South Korea were being held responsible for an outbreak of Covid-19 there, by holding tightly packed meetings and refusing to stop. I remember being very shocked. How could committed Christians do something that was putting lives at risk? We knew that lockdown was coming soon to the UK and I had started to feel extremely anxious. Were we going to be expected to carry on attending sermons after lockdown, and put our health at risk?

At the same time, my tutor expressed concern that I was missing tutorials and getting behind with my work. She suggested we meet. My friends were asking lots of questions about where I was and I just told them I was busy. We believed that only those who were part of the Shincheonji were going to be saved when the pandemic hit. After the news from South Korea broke and deaths from Covid-19 were being reported every day, we believed that God was close to picking just the 144,000 of his devotees who would survive and live forever, in line with old testament teachings from Revelations. What would happen if I wasn’t one of the chosen ones? Would I die? I almost didn’t leave through fear. I was absolutely terrified. I couldn’t decide what to do.

Later in February, we were all sent a message on the Telegram app – it’s more secure than WhatsApp – that all meetings, services, recruitment, Bible studies were cancelled because of Covid-19. Everything went online, but the virtual sermons had none of the power of an actual live service, which involved about 40 of us singing, swaying, praying and clapping, with some members so moved by the singing they openly wept. The emotion and the sense of importance and ceremony that the live sermons evoked was missing.

We watched pre-recorded sermons by Lee Man-hee, but the more they were repeated, the less impact they had – he wasn’t making any new recordings. By this stage, my doubts were overwhelming me, but I carried on taking part in everything online. I still felt under scrutiny from my leaders when I saw them on screen instead of live, but I found I could fake a decent “Amen” online far more easily than face to face.

Not being able to go out evangelising meant that we all had a lot more time at our disposal. I began reading a lot about the Shincheonji, that they are widely believed to be a cult. I couldn’t believe what I had become a part of, and I knew I had to get out. I just wasn’t sure if I had the strength. I wasn’t at all sure I could manage it. I had no one on the outside to rely on or who could help me, because no one knew about my other life. The Shincheonji are highly secretive and some believe that the devil will find his way in if you tell non-members – so I didn’t.

Just before the UK went into lockdown, I met with my tutor and told her that I had been a member of the Shincheonji for over a year. She was the first person I had told, and I broke down in tears. She immediately got me connected to the university’s wellbeing team who put me in contact with the Family Survival Trust (FST), which helps cult victims. Thanks to their guidance, I cut all my ties with the cult, changed my phone number and took myself off all social media. Then I got on a coach and went home to Surrey.

I later learned that two leaders had turned up at my university demanding to see me. They then went to my accommodation but my old flatmates turned them away. I had forgotten to block the cult leaders from my uni email and they emailed me quite a lot, and it frightened me because they can be so persuasive. The whole time on the coach home I was quite paranoid about being followed, and when I got home to Surrey I was constantly looking over my shoulder, but my mum calmed me down. They had had such a grip on me, I was frightened they wouldn’t let me go. I was in a terrible state at first because I didn’t know what I believed any more. I had believed everything they had taught me, but I now knew it was all untrue. My trust had been absolutely broken.

Life has been difficult in lockdown, but I feel free. I can sleep and spend time at home. The real me is returning and life is going back to normal. It’s terrible that so many lives have been lost to the coronavirus, but what happened during the pandemic gave me the freedom I needed to help me realise what had been done to me. The cult make you feel that they are your family. I lost a part of myself. My identity was all bound up with the cult, and I had no thoughts or beliefs of my own. Now I am back with my real family, and I am free once more to make my own decisions. I know of one other woman who left when I did, but I don’t suppose we were the only ones. I bet more have left since.

When I found out who I was involved with, I was shattered and broken. I am still in a state of shock, but it is receding. I couldn’t have done this interview a month ago. I didn’t know where I belonged at first, but the Trust has introduced me to other cult victims so I don’t feel so alone. I will find it hard to trust people again, to get close to anyone. The hardest part of the whole experience was when I felt I was losing my relationship with my mum. But I'm also sorry to have missed out on the social side of university, while I lived a secret life inside the Shincheonji.

You can be the smartest person on campus, but the recruiters can still get to you by making you feel special. The Shincheonji have been recruiting at universities in Birmingham, London and Manchester for over a year, telling young people they are on a mission to save the world. If coronavirus hadn’t happened when it did, I think I would still believe that.

*Names have been changed

As told to Lynne Wallis