The South Korean church accused of being responsible for massive COVID-19 outbreaks throughout South Korea has secretly recruited UC Davis students on campus for years, former members say
When Individual A* was a second-year, a student approached her in the Memorial Union and asked her if she could spare a minute to help out with an assignment. Individual A pulled out her headphones and said, “Sure.” “Do you believe in God?” they asked. “Yes,” she answered. “How would you rate your relationship with God?” they asked in response.
Individual A was intrigued. When the student invited her to a Bible study group with Newsong Fellowship, she shared her phone number. The student never mentioned the assignment again.
Throughout her years at UC Davis, Individual A was approached twice more by others who were completing this same assignment. During summer session, when a student recruiting Individual A mentioned that they also attended her church, she said that she felt at ease and decided to give the Bible study a chance.
“At the time, I was curious,” she said. “Since I’m a believer, I thought to myself, ‘Is God trying to tell me something? Is God trying to tell me to go and study with this group?’”
For two years, Individual A intermittently attended these small Bible study groups. She recounts that initially the Bible study groups felt pretty standard—the attendees studied parables. The teacher mentioned that they were missionaries and not a student-run organization.
Then, Individual A said subtle, unsettling incidents started to occur that left her weary and confused. In her denomination, Saturday is a holy day. After a Bible study leader implied that Saturday isn’t a holy day, she texted the student who attended her church to ask how he accepted this discrepancy. He brushed it off and promised that her concerns would be addressed: “Don’t worry. I had the same questions that you have. It’s all going to be clarified.”
Eventually, Individual A attended larger meetings. The first one took place in a classroom on campus and later in the basement of Kobe Mini Mart downtown. The same teacher who instructed Individual A’s small group years prior stood in front of the group and explained that the Second Coming would be a silent event.
Individual A shared that when she confronted the teacher after Bible study and said this secretive Second Coming was contradictory to what is presented in the Bible, the teacher became aggressive, frantically pulling Bible verses and telling Individual A that she needs to look at the bigger picture when studying scripture.
“I remember I felt so guilty that day that I texted her and apologized to her,” Individual A said. “From then on, I kept attending the meetings, but I attended online because they had a Zoom option as well.”
On a walk in the Arboretum with the teacher who had snapped at her, Individual A said that she was pressed about her relationship with God; her teacher said that she should really be more serious about Bible study and discouraged her from watching a Christian YouTube channel that Individual A had been enjoying. She was constantly told to attend meetings in person and was berated with text messages whenever she was absent.
“In a sense, I didn’t want to go anymore, but I felt guilty about not going because I knew people now,” Individual A said. “I felt like they really wanted me to go, and I didn’t want to make them feel bad if I didn’t. I was also always really impressed by [how] they would recruit people and two days later those people who were just recruited would be going around campus recruiting others.”
At one meeting they were presented with the Parable of the Sower—the same parable that Individual A was presented with at her first Bible study session with the group. The parable explains that there are three seeds planted: one on pavement, the next in rocky soil and the third in healthy soil. The condition of the soil determines whether the seed flourishes into a strong tree or withers away.
“At the end of the meeting, the pastor that was presenting said, ‘Hey everyone, at the next meeting we are going to ask you about what we talked about and what each of these seeds represents,’” Individual A said. “‘If you don’t remember, we will know what kind of seed you are.’”
Individual A described feeling uncomfortable.
“I remember closing the Zoom and I googled Newsong fellowship,” Individual A said. “I wasn’t finding anything. I googled fellowships on campus. I was looking and looking. A Reddit post appeared that said, ‘Warning cult on campus. They go by Newsong, but they also labeled themselves all of these other names. They’re Shincheonji.’”
The New York Times has deemed the Shincheonji Church of Jesus (SCJ) the “most vilified church in South Korea.” Others have classified the South Korean church as a cult. The church recently also received international news coverage for its disregard of COVID-19 safety regulations, which had resulted in the rapid spread of infections throughout South Korea.
The “shadowy” church has been recruiting UC Davis students for years, starting students in a small group Bible study examining parables then moving them into larger classes, according to the three students The California Aggie spoke to. For fourth-year undergraduate Individual B, the group was appealing for its logical and nondenominational analysis of the Bible.
Individual B was first recruited during his freshman year; he was approached by two girls in front of the Segundo Dining Commons and asked to attend Bible study. He went, and it was nothing out of the ordinary. Later, he was approached at the Memorial Union which resulted in him attending another unexceptional session at Wellman Hall. Eventually, Individual B was attending Bible study and a larger theological class made up of about 15 students for nine to 12 hours a week.
Individual B said he grew skeptical as he began to notice considerable red flags. The meetings were mandatory and his friend was prevented from attending after Individual B asked if he could bring him. Recording the Zoom meetings was forbidden. When he expressed being overwhelmed with school and proposed a lighter commitment, his mentor suggested that Individual B should follow in his footsteps and drop his course load and take a fifth year.
“Finally, [my mentor] said, ‘If you really believe in God and you truly want to be in heaven, then you’ll sacrifice some of your time in school,’” Individual B said.
Despite Individual B being heavily invested in the group, they didn’t explicitly reveal their affiliation with SCJ to him.
“They never mentioned [SCJ],” Individual B said. “They would refer to, ‘The Him Who Overcomes.’ That popped up a bunch throughout the Bible study. They derived it from the last book of the Bible, Revelation.”
To Individual B, the true biblical meaning of “The Him Who Overcomes” was anybody who perseveres through hardship, rather than representing a single person as presented in their Bible study. When he searched the phrase online, he discovered a blog post about SCJ and called a fellow group member who he considered a friend to share this revelation.
Followers of SCJ believe “The Him Who Overcomes” to be the group’s founder Lee Man-hee, according to Individual B. Man-hee, who is also known as “Chairman Lee Man-hee” and “the Promised Pastor,” was acquitted of conspiracy charges for not cooperating with COVID-19 protocols in January 2021.
On the evening after he uncovered the blog post, Individual B was invited to dinner at Thai Canteen with his mentor and his teacher. His teacher confronted Individual B about the blog post (that he had only shared with a close friend in the group) and denied any affiliation with SCJ.
Like Individual B, Individual C was also drawn to attend meetings for the fellowship’s “truth-seeking” textual analysis of the Bible. When she was recruited on the Quad during her senior year, the organization’s name wasn’t provided. Recruiters offered the explanation that they are a new group or that they’re missionaries from all different denominations, Individual C said. Individual C, who didn’t have many friends at UC Davis, was seeking in-depth Biblical analysis.
“I always had been critical with most Biblical teachings as they were vague and only feel-good, yet I was always seeking and driven by wanting to do the right thing, which was to pursue truth,” Individual C said. “I assumed [the truth] would be found within my Christian faith because I was raised in it and had convinced myself for it to be true. So this was the perfect Bible study for me, because they taught with so much detail, with logical reasoning that pieced all their interpretations together, everything cited with a Bible verse.”
Individual C had surpassed Individual B in his studies and was regarded as a high-level member. Once she obtained this status, she said that the group revealed themselves as SCJ.
Individual C said that they used logic to rationalize previous lies and manipulation tactics, referencing Schindler’s List as an example of justified deceitfulness. Individual B and Individual C both came to the conclusion that fellow members that they were confiding in were not actually UC Davis students like they had claimed.
“People pretended to be new students with you at the small group Bible studies—later you find out that they were a ‘plant’ and it was their job to make you feel welcome, ask you questions about what you thought about the lesson,” Individual C said. “I felt betrayed when they revealed afterwards that they’ve been with SCJ for like one to three years. They made it seem like it was just a fun surprise, but I honestly felt lied to, because I was.”
Individual A and Individual B both said they were able to walk away from the group without significant psychological consequences. They remain connected to their previous churches and their experience didn’t alter their core spiritual or religious beliefs. In contrast, Individual C no longer identifies as a Christian.
“I wanted to see a counselor because my faith, which I had spent all my life trying to fit and build my worldview, was ruined,” Individual C said. “I had nightmares here and there for several months.”
Individual A said that she thinks college students are especially vulnerable to forms of manipulation and deceit as they are away from their homes, experiencing the many newfound freedoms of young adulthood for the first time. There have been reports of SCJ activity at other campuses across Northern California, according to a former member of an SCJ-affiliated fellowship.
Individual A suggested that the university administration take action to protect students from harmful groups by better vetting of classroom reservations.
“Because of the fact that they were having some of this stuff inside of classrooms, I really thought that it was affiliated with the university and that it was a safe community,” Individual A said. “It does get to a point where you start to question if this is mentally beneficial for the people that they are recruiting, because if they are dropping out of school—if they are being pulled away from their families—is this something [UC Davis administration] should act on? Something that could be done is to monitor a little bit more the way that the classrooms are being used.”
Students interviewed declined to share their contact info, citing fear of harassment; Individual C said that her driver’s license was photocopied by members of the church. The California Aggie was unable to get in touch with SCJ after multiple requests for comment.
Individual C struggled to exit the fellowship even after learning its true identity.
“It’s hard to think you’re in a cultish spot because the SCJ members who are UCD students are also very normal UCD students with social lives, diverse interests, friends outside of SCJ, great jobs,” Individual C said. “I often referred to that when I was getting suspicious sometimes. But, I think that’s what made this one so hard to be identified as a cult.”
*The names of the sources, who spoke to The California Aggie on the condition of anonymity for fear of harassment, were changed.
Written by: Rebecca Gardner — firstname.lastname@example.org