For two years, Michele Colon believed with complete conviction that the end of the world was imminent and that an elderly lady from South Korea was God. For those same two years, Colon, a nurse, attended services at the World Mission Society Church of God in the New Jersey suburb of Ridgewood.
Colon tells PEOPLE she defected from the World Mission Society Church of God more than four years ago. She says she did so because she believes she had been brainwashed into what she alleges is a doomsday cult.
Colon further claims in a civil suit she filed against the 50-year-old World Mission Society Church of God, a copy of which was obtained by PEOPLE, that the group is a “profit-making” cult that “uses a number of psychological control tactics…to prevent its members from exposing its criminal and tortious behavior.”
In its motion to dismiss Colon’s complaint, the church called her allegations “entirely fabricated.” The motion states that Colon’s claim is part of a larger effort by her to “position herself as a veteran of the ‘cult war’ and build a career as ‘cult expert’ to the detriment” of the World Mission Society Church of God’s reputation.
But interviews conducted with six other former World Mission Society Church of God members, including a former member of 12 years, echo Colon’s claims. All seven former members tell PEOPLE the religious faction isolates its acolytes from their families and friends by controlling information and using brainwashing techniques.
“Fear and guilt – that is what fuels this cult,” Colon tells PEOPLE. “They fill you with this fear that the world is going to end at any moment and you feel guilty for not doing enough good before the end comes.”
In a prepared statement, the World Mission Society Church of God dismissed all cult characterizations as “religious intolerance” and urged any examination of it include “how the Church serves the community and how it adheres to the standard of Christianity, which is the Bible.”
Colon: Communal Living Encouraged, Members Deprived of Sleep
The World Mission Society Church of God, which does not recognize Christmas or Easter, claims membership in more than 175 countries, with over 150,000 worshippers in the U.S. alone.
The church’s prepared statement says the characterization of it as a cult in Colon’s suit stems from reaction to its non-mainstream beliefs: “If someone belongs to a group we disapprove, we call it a ‘cult’ or worse,” the statement reads.
“When we disagree and have difficulty understanding the reasoning an organization maintains certain views that are contrary to the norm or to what we expect, we label them as a ‘cult.'”
But Colon and the other apostates that PEOPLE spoke with insist the World Mission Society Church of God, whose leaders allegedly predicted that the world would end in 2012, bears all the hallmarks of a cult.
“Before I left, they expected me to spend all of my free time there,” Colon says. She adds that communal living was encouraged among members and that followers were prohibited from stepping foot inside another church.
“We would be there until 1 or 2 a.m. some nights. It became totally consuming and I was always sleep deprived. Suddenly, the hobbies and people that were important to me before were no longer important.”
Colon alleges church leaders tried “micromanaging” her life, demanding she spend hours in services or studying the Bible. The church, she claims, controlled the music she listened to and forbade her from using the Internet.
“They can’t control you if you’re not there,” Colon explains. “Everyone is sleep deprived, and this group is constantly repeating things, and regurgitating things, and it becomes engrained in your head. They’re opportunistic. They look to recruit people who’re going through a transition period in their lives or have some void to fill – and they will fill it.”
‘They Don’t Tell You What They ARE All About Upfront, Because If They Did, No One Would Join Them’
The World Mission Society Church of God is led by “Mother God,” a gentle-looking doyenne in her mid-70s who’s also known as Jang Gil-ja, Zhang Gil-jah, Chang Gil-jah, Heavenly Mother, God the Mother, New Jerusalem Mother, and Mother Jerusalem.
Colon says it isn’t until you’re already committed to the faith that you’re told of Mother God’s existence.
“They don’t tell you what they are all about upfront, because if they did, no one would join them,” Colon tells PEOPLE. “It’d be fine if they said, ‘There’s this lady we believe is God and we’ll convince you to give up your family and your money and your hobbies.’ If you still want to join after that, good for you. At least you’re making an informed decision.”
Instead, she says, “you’re spoon fed information when they feel you’re ready to hear it. If you ask questions, they just tell you to ‘Study more’ and that all of your questions will be answered if you keep studying. They dangle a carrot in front of you.”
The church’s prepared response claims “the biggest difference between our Church and other churches” is that “we believe in God the Mother as well as God the Father. … According to the prophecies of the Bible, God the Mother is to appear in the last age of redemption.”
Gil-ja also serves as chairwoman for the We Love U Foundation and the New Life Welfare Foundation, both non-profits based in Seongnam, South Korea, the country’s second largest city. Seongnam is also home to the World Mission Society Church of God’s headquarters.
Founded in 1964 as the Witnesses of Jesus Church of God, the World Mission Society Church of God was the brainchild of a man named Ahnsahnghong, who is believed to be Mother God’s late husband. Former members say they were told Ahnsahnghong – who died in 1985 – was the second coming of Christ, and together, Ahnsahnghong and Jang Gil-ja are jointly known as “Elohim God.”
Upon “accomplishing his mission” to restore “the gospel of the new covenant,” Ahnsahnghong “ascended to heaven,” according to the church’s website. Ever since, “our New Jerusalem Mother has been leading the gospel work of the Church of God to deliver the word of God from Zion to the world, just as was prophesied in the Bible.”
Allegations Leaders Directed Members to Get Abortions
Colon and the other former members allege that church leaders would direct congregants to get abortions, telling women it was “pointless and selfish” to bring a child into a world so close to the brink of annihilation.
The former members all claim that tithes of 10 to 15 percent of their salaries were mandatory, and that the church even encouraged members to donate possessions that were later sold at church fundraising events.
They also allege that recruitment efforts targeted young Caucasians who appeared wealthy, and that members were dispatched multiple times a week to malls and colleges for recruiting drives. According to the former members, the church also emphasized recruiting recently-returned army veterans who might be more psychologically vulnerable.
Some of the ex members say they were encouraged to drop out of college, quit their jobs, and ignore their families so they’d have more time to recruit. They claim church congregants – even children and infants – were also expected to fast for days.
The former congregants that PEOPLE spoke with allege the World Mission Society Church of God also worked to deliberately dissolve marriages between devoted members and their unconvinced partners in order to arrange weddings between American and South Korean church members. It even happened to Colon, she says; her ex-husband remains a member of the church.
The church’s statement to PEOPLE denied members have ever been encouraged to seek abortions or that recruitment efforts were geared towards specific races or vulnerable veterans. It also denied exerting control over members’ lives or their sleeping habits. Additionally, the church claims it has never offered a timeline for the world’s demise.
Cult Scholar: Church ‘Thrives on Financial the Exploitation of Its Members’
Rick Ross, who has been cited internationally for his work on destructive cults, says he has met several former members of the World Mission Society Church of God who claim church leaders urged pregnant women to abort their babies, but isn’t sure he can believe such claims.
“If that is, in fact, true, the reason is they want total devotion,” Ross explains. “They want no distractions. That’s why everything must be permitted by the group, including who you marry, who you date, if you have children. They want the group to be maximally productive and a child is ultimately counterproductive.”
While not “physically dangerous” to outsiders, Ross is certain the church meets the cult criteria.
“They’re not talking about mass suicide or stockpiling weapons, but this group doesn’t accept the idea that any other church might be valid, because they’re the only valid church,” Ross said.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re the Pope – you’re doomed and you’re in need of Mother God if you’re even remotely interested in salvation … there is no alternative.”
Ross says the World Mission Society Church of God “thrives on the financial exploitation” of its members. He said that the church’s communal living is designed, in part, to enable leaders to get free labor out of its followers.
“The people in this church will ignore their own bills in order to give more to the church, which expects this of them,” said Ross.
He added, “This cult dominates a person’s life so that they have no other life.”