I had just recently come back from what I was telling people was “the best experience of my life.” Over my winter break at Rutgers University, I decided to try something different and embarked on ten-day trip sponsored by a Korean organization called the Good News Corps that eventually brought me to Monterrey, Mexico, where I participated in the IYF (International Youth Fellowship) English Camp. The camp aimed to teach English to Mexican students of all ages over the course of three days. The whole trip only cost $300. The memories were still fresh in my mind: the laughing, the dancing, the singing, the half-dozen girls holding me crying, thanking me for coming. Except now all these warm fuzzy feelings were being replaced with something else, something much more unsettling. I was having trouble processing what I was reading on my computer screen. It was an article about the trip that made the front page of nytimes.com, titled “Traveling to Teach English; Getting Sermons Instead,” sent to me by another student who went on the trip. The article details the account of two students who went home early in the trip while we were still in Dallas, Texas for four days of “training” in preparation for teaching in Mexico. They felt they were victims of a scam, and were unhappy with how much of the camp centered on religion and the “Mind Lectures” of the program’s leader, Ock Soo Park. This wasn’t surprising, as I had met plenty of kids there who were upset for the same reasons, myself included, but most of us toughed it out for the sake of being able to go to Mexico. It was the comments section that was causing my state of disbelief.
“Evil. Creepy and Evil.” “Sounds an awful lot like the bad parts of Jonestown.” “While editorial concerns must have precluded Mr. Dwyer from calling a duck a duck, we all know these unwitting students got trapped in a recruitment session for a cult.” “Typical cult strategies.” “This sounds like the Moonie cult from years ago.” “This organization essentially considered a cult in South Korea, known as “Saviorists” (구원파)…”
And they went on. “This can’t be right,” was all I could think. Different flashes of my trip started replaying in my head. The mass baptisms in the hotel pool. The two-hour mind lectures. The lack of sleep. My moment of revelation. Could it be true? Did I willingly drink the Kool-aid? Did I become part of a cult recruitment session for ten days?
- Members of the Jonestown Cult
Jonestown. The Moonies. The Manson Family. Mass Suicide. Cults. Only crazy people are involved with those things, right? They’re supposed to be groups of mentally ill people doing bizarre things, far away from the rational world of everyday life. Right? At least that’s what I thought. And so began my research. According to statistics from the Cult Hotline & Clinic (an organization dedicate to helping victims of cults and educating the public about them located in New York City), 5 to 7 million Americans have been involved in cults or cult-like groups. If we took the lower estimate of 5 million, and created a separate country consisting of only Americans that have been or are involved with cults, it would have a larger population than about half of the countries in the world. The next country on the list would be Ireland, with a population of 4.5 million. There are anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 cults active in America, and approximately 180,000 more people are recruited every year. So what makes an organization a cult? It’s one of those words with many definitions due to the various ways we use it, such as something have a “cult following” or when we describe a dictatorship based around a “cult of personality”, such as in the case of North Korea’s fanatical devotion to its glorious leader. According to Rutgers Professor of Sociology Benjamin Zablacki, a cult in terms of a formal organization is defined as “an ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and the demand of total commitment.” But when do we decide that a group should be considered a cult instead of some other less sinister classification? The general consensus among sociologists is that some form of coercive persuasion or “mind control” must be involved. This doesn’t mean you are strapped down in some Kubrickian theatre with clamps on your eye-lids while you are forced to watch propaganda. The process of “brainwashing” can be extremely subtle, and most of the victims of mind control are willing participants every step of the way. One man who knows this first hand is Allen Tate Wood, a self proclaimed “author, educator, and consultant on thought reform and the psychology of the cult phenomenon.” While in his twenties, Wood spent five years of his life as part of the Unification Church, more commonly known as “The Moonies,” the organization that many of the comments in the nytimes.com article drew allusions to.
The Unification Church is classified as a “new religious movement.” Founded in South Korea by Sun Myung Moon in 1954, it now has anywhere from 5 to 7 million members in countries all across the world. Much controversy has surrounded the organization due to a variety of reasons including its practice of mass weddings, the claim that Sun Myung Moon was personally asked to save humanity by Jesus Christ himself, and numerous accusations by ex-members and academics that the organization is a cult. This hasn’t deterred the Moonies much however, as today, the scope of the organization remains absolutely massive. For example, if you have ever eaten sushi in the United States, there is a good chance you ate a restaurant owned or supplied by the Unification Church as it is the largest owner of sushi restaurants in the country. Sun Myung Moon and his Moonies have funded, founded, or supported an extremely large amount of organizations in a numerous different industries. (Full list here.) Allen Tate Wood’s experience with the Moonies (recounted here in a personal essay) began in 1969 when he found himself broke and homeless on the steps of the student union on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. He was approached by a young man and offered a place to stay at the “Unified Family” commune. Within a week, he had received five lectures from the communes leader about the religions philosophy, been informed that Sun Myung Moon was the “Messiah,” and was fully on board with Unification Church and its doctrine. In the coming years, Wood would be groomed to be a future leader of the group, becoming president of one of their American political organizations, flying around the world to various countries, and even appearing on the CBS evening news while in Cambodia, asking for more military aid for the country in its fight against “Communist aggression.” (His trip had been paid for by the South-Vietnamese government under the agreement that any information gained would be used to garner support for the Vietnam War on U.S. campuses.) Wood would eventually gain a private audience with Moon himself. During the audience, Wood quotes Moon as such:
Moon said to me,” You have a great responsibility. It is your job to initiate the work of winning the academic community in America to my side.” Further he said, ” The allegiance of the scholarly community is a vital key in my plan to restore the world. Since universities hold the reigns of certification for all the major professions and since universities are the crucible in which young Americans form their basic attitudes and life directions, we must forge a path toward influencing and ultimately controlling American campuses.”
Soon afterwards in 1971, Moon came to U.S. to take direct control of the American Unification Church, and forced all members to dedicate themselves to the cause full-time in exchange for room and board. Wood would continue to aid Moon in expanding the organization, which included helping him fund raise $294,000 (strictly through selling candy and flowers on the street) for a down payment on an $800,000 estate in Tarrytown, N.Y. named “Belvedere.” Belvedere would be used as Moon’s residence and as a training ground for the organization where certain followers would be “reprogrammed”.
Eventually, Wood would be raised to the “exalted position of imperial taster for the royal consort,” which meant he switched all of his servings of food with Mrs. Moon’s and sat at her left-hand side. Shortly after this however, Wood lost faith in the group and broke away from Moon and the Unification Church with several others. While in the organization, Wood was considered the highest member of the political arm of the American Unification Church. After separating from the church and coming to terms with his experience, Wood began working on helping cult victims and their families. This eventually lead him to work with alcoholics and drug-addicts, as he claims there are parallels between the way the brain is affected by both. My experience with the Good News Corps did not take me on such an expansive journey, but I found that there are disturbing similarities between the teachings of the Moonies described by Wood and the content of the “Mind Lectures” I received during my time with the organization from the program’s leader, Ock Soo Park.
The content of the “Mind Lectures” I received during my trip was frightening to me at first. Ock Soo would start by instructing us to follow along as he read a passage from the Old Testament of the Bible. Over the next two hours he would use the passages as a loose base for his stories of how he has personally helped wayward souls who were struggling with depression, suicide, and other issues that arise from having a “closed heart.” He asserted that the human heart and mind were weak and full of sin, and that the only way to reach salvation was to stop exercising your own will and opinions and to open your heart to allow Christ to work through you. All sin and suffering are a result of trusting your own thoughts and instincts and acting upon them, which closes your heart to Jesus. This metaphor of a closed heart versus an open heart would be hammered into us repeatedly over the course of the trip. Anyone who was having problems or any kind of negativity in their life (or as I would find out later, broke any of the rules of the trip or voiced any displeasure) was said to have them because they had a closed heart and followed their own thoughts instead of Christ’s, and the remedy always came in the form of opening your heart to the messages in the lectures to allow Jesus to work through you. For comparison, here’s an excerpt from Wood’s account of how members were “reprogrammed” at Moon’s Belvedere estate:
“The training program at Belvedere was aimed at breaking down the individual’s identity by subjecting him or her to an emotionally and physically exhausting schedule of repetitive lectures…The restructuring of the trainee’s ego was based on Moon’s theology that projects absolute faith in Moon as the essential building block of a “restored” personality. It attacks the validity of the individual conscience. It explicitly denies the individual’s capacity to make morally responsible existential decisions. Somewhere along the line in the theology, love of God is translated into blind obedience to Moon and his representatives in the hierarchical chain. One is finally left with submission to Moon as the only answer to fallen man’s condition of moral paralysis.”
We received two of these two-hour Mind Lectures every day for the four days we were in Dallas; one in the afternoon and one in the evening, interspersed among an exhaustive schedule that had us awake at 5:30 in the morning and going to bed at 12 ‘o clock at night. After every Mind Lecture, we were lead to a smaller room and given another, more personal lecture that lasted about an hour from Ock Soo Park’s interpreter, Joe Park. We were served three meals a day, but they were of small portions and with minimal protein. We were not allowed to leave the hotel for any reason.This was especially frustrating as there was no place to get food in the hotel aside from a small Starbucks that sold a very limited number of sandwiches and pastries, which meant we only ate what they provided us at the scheduled meals, as we were not allowed to order room service. After the first day, we were given meal tickets before most meals to assure that we could not get a second helping of food.I learned to perpetually exist in a state of exhaustion and hunger. I really didn’t mind too much at the time. Now I have to mention a particular comment from the nytimes.com article that struck me particularly hard:
“This sounds very much like a cult and the practices are quite similar to those employed by the Moonies (Unification Church), The Way . Often they claim they are hosting something innocuous like a “non-denominational Christian retreat”; they never indicate the real name of their organization. Often the venue is in a remote location which makes opting out difficult. The subsequent controlled environment resembles a lot of corporate retreats with a few differences. If possible, subjects are provided with minimal calories – especially protein – and at the same time, constant group activities using peer pressure to minimize sleeping time. On the 3rd or 4th day when most subjects are physically and mentally exhausted, they may be invited to “relax” and meditate; around this point, the cult’s true philosophies may come out in the form of a hypnotic recorded lecture. Not everyone gets “hooked” but many do – and indicate later (if they get de-programmed) that it was the start of the “brainwashing”.”
Not only did it manage to capture the experience extremely well, but in particular, the part about the third or fourth day hit me like a ton of bricks. On the morning of the fourth day, I’d say I was at the peak of my exhaustion. I almost fell asleep in the morning English lecture. However, later on as I sat listening to the Gracias Choir (the Good News Corps’ official, world-class choir that played before every Mind Lecture), something peculiar happened. After noting how exhausted I was only moments before, all of a sudden I was wide-awake. The music started to sound fuller, like it was coming from inside my head. Everything seemed brighter, like it had a faint glow to it. I sat upright in my chair, my eyelids peeled back.
- The Gracias Choir
When Ock Soo Park came on stage, I wasn’t really following what he was saying, but a stream of thoughts ran through my head about how religion seemed to be motivating all these people around me to do such great things. I questioned what I was doing with my life, and somehow got the idea that I should study religion, that maybe I should try to educate people about all the great things religion can do for a person. Even though I didn’t believe in the Bible, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the great lessons it taught people if it was taken metaphorically. I figured that I could change my major from journalism to some kind of religious study, and then maybe I could travel with the IYF to another country, like Japan, to learn more about the bible while experiencing a different culture. Throughout the trip, the group leaders always stressed that if we had any kind of spiritual trouble or had a desire to get further involved with organization, that we should tell them, and that they would arrange a meeting with a pastor to help us. I asked my group leader for one of these meetings during this lecture, intent on discussing my plans with someone. My group leader was extremely excited when I told her, as earlier we had a discussion about my lack of faith in Jesus, where she promised she would get me to see the light over the course of the trip. I told the other members in my group about my moment later in the day, and they all seemed excited for me. None of them questioned the logic behind my choice. Luckily, logistical problems resulted in me never having a meeting that day, and later on (in a much more regular mind-state) I told my group leader that it wasn’t urgent and I just wanted to speak with someone about getting more involved after the trip. In retrospect, it was one of the most irrational thoughts I have ever had in my life. I was thinking about changing majors, taking a year off of my studies, and going with this organization to a foreign country for an extended period of time to learn about a religious text I didn’t believe in. The experience of the moment this thought came to me was very distinct; I had never felt anything like that before in my life, and I was left wondering if other people had a similar moment with a different outcome. This excerpt from Wood’s article “Five Elements of Cult Counseling” seems to confirm my suspicions:
The net effect of the cult indoctrination is to produce a shift in consciousness, a shift in affect. Often this shift is accompanied by a “snapping moment”; a moment in which the cult’s manipulative techniques bear fruit in the production of a “spiritual experience”. This experience (the outcome of a tried and proven system) becomes, for the unwary initiate, existential proof of the existence of God, the supernatural confirmation of the truth of the teachings and an affidavit guaranteeing the character and motives of the leaders of the group.
Luckily for me, my “spiritual experience” did not result in me finding proof of the existence of God. This is probably due to the fact that I was quite set in my religious beliefs before coming into the camp. I was raised in a Catholic family, and grew up going to church every week. My mother was even my CCD teacher. However, when it came time for me to be confirmed when I was 13, I told my family that I didn’t feel comfortable going through with the ceremony because I wasn’t sure I believed in God. This caused a huge controversy in my family, and they all rallied together to try get me to regain my faith. I ended up getting confirmed due to the pressure, but the event set off an early journey of spiritual exploration that caused me to research various religions and forms of spirituality like Buddhism in my teen years before settling into an agnostic belief set; something I had to explain and defend several times on the trip. I believe having gone through this spiritual crisis early in my life caused me to frame my “spiritual experience” in a different light than most would. My “spiritual experience” aside, another odd thing about the fourth day is that the schedule differed from the others, as the last Mind Lecture was replaced by a traditional Korean wedding between two members of the organization that we were all required to attend in the large auditorium. We were all excited for this for multiple reasons, as we got to eat much better food that day, the wedding would end early and leave us some free time, and we didn’t have to sit through another Mind Lecture.
We should have realized that this sounded too good to be true, as after the wedding we were told to go to the smaller auditorium because Pastor Ock Soo Park wanted to have a personal talk with us. The talk consisted of him repeating bits of his previous lectures verbatim (literally word-for-word replicas of various parts of his previous sermons) as he walked around and interacted with the audience by doing things like pulling students from their chairs and wrapping his arm around them, or intensely staring into the eyes of an unlucky audience member from just a few inches away as he preached. That day they baptized at least over 100 people in the hotel pool in assembly line fashion, 3 at a time. As I sat by the side of the pool, watching two of my group members wait in line to get baptized, I couldn’t help but think that this seemed like a rather odd time and place to declare your faith. Shouldn’t they be doing this with their own church and their families?
In addition, the long-time members of the Good News Corps had striking similarities to how Wood described himself and his fellow Moonies while they were involved with the Unification Church. After the first day of the training camp, we found out that a fifth person we were unaware of would be staying with us in our hotel rooms, which made five people to a room with two beds. The fifth person in my room was a Good News Corps volunteer from Korea who introduced himself as Jeremy instead of his Korean name, and he told us he had been in the United States for eight months, travelling from city to city promoting the Gracias Choir. He enthusiastically talked our ears off about his experience and was eager to know what we thought of the Mind Lectures and Ock Soo Park. He had been to many countries around the world. When we talked about sleeping arrangements, he told us that he was expected to sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag. Every night, after the conversation dried up, he would begin reading a book by Ock Soo Park and would continue to do so until he fell asleep. There is a suspicious lack of information about the International Youth Fellowship and the Good News Corps on the web. It is hard to find any website with information about them that didn’t come straight from the organizations themselves. After some digging, I did manage to find a statement about how the organization is perceived overseas in the form of an article from the Nagaland Post, an English newspaper published in India, titled “NBCC Cautions On ‘Good News Mission‘” that states:
Warning India of the dangers of Ock Soo Park’s Good News Mission, the secretary of Korean Presbyterian Church Council, the Synod of South Atlantic, P.C.U.S.A, Rev. Won Tae Cho said “all of the orthodox denominations in Korea have officially stated that Ock Soo Park’s Good News Mission is clearly heretical and have issued warnings regarding this cult.” Rev. Cho in a statement informed that Organizations affiliated with this cult included International Youth Fellowship (IYF) and Mahanaim Bible College. Rev. Dr. Cho also said that the members of the cult, besides their practice of tempting Christians of third world countries using aggressive tactics funded by their abundant capital, had recently infiltrated healthy Korean churches in America.
So in regards to that, it’s finally time to confront the issue and call a duck a duck. While I have no idea what happens when someone gets further involved with the organization, and have no evidence that anyone has ever come to harm as a result of it, it is my opinion that the Good News Corps, at the very least, functions in the same manner as a cult. And they almost got me. I consider myself a pretty rational person. I’m not religious. I’m not an alcoholic and I’m not addicted to drugs. I have a family that loves and supports me. I simply decided to go on a trip to teach Mexican students English, and ten days later I was ready to go to a foreign country with a cult. How does this happen to a person? What do Allen Tate Wood and I have in common? Well, it turns out there’s only a single criterion necessary for someone to be vulnerable to this type of psychological manipulation: being human. The tactics of cults haven’t changed much over time. The New York Times ran an article in 1982 titled “The Psychology of the Cult Experience” that outlined the findings of several researchers regarding how cults manage to recruit people from all walks of life with surprising efficiency. I’ve saved you some time and presented you with the relevant parts of the article:
Dr. Singer said that the 700 cult members she had studied presented a wide range of personality types. ”You don’t have to be a certain kind of person to succumb to the cults,” she said. A typical manipulated conversion, Dr. Clark said, involves a vulnerable person – a student leaving home, or at exam time, or someone who has lost a friend or lover – who is enticed by some reward: companionship, peace of mind, a place to stay or an implied sexual offering. ”Cult recruiters frequent bus stations, airports, campuses, libraries, rallies, anywhere that unattached persons are likely to be passing through,” he said. ”Then they narrow the attention of the recruit, in controlled social situations,” Dr. Clark said. ”He or she is invited to attend a special function, or series of classes. Cult members are assigned to attend the prospect constantly. Eventually they keep the mark involved in group-ecstatic activities, or use meditation, obsessive praying, constant lecturing or preaching or lack of sleep to maintain the mind in a constantly debilitated state.” Several of the researchers believe that the studies of cult members may revise current theories about the workings of the brain. Dr. Cath and Dr. Clark, working independently, have been intrigued that the experiences described by cult members resemble personality changes regularly associated with disorders of the temporal lobe of the brain. ”The symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy,” said Dr. Clark, ”are similar to those seen or reported as resulting from cult conversions: increased irritability, loss of libido or altered sexual interest; ritualism, compulsive attention to detail, mystical states, humorlessness and sobriety, heightened paranoia.” Dr. Cath said: ”Keeping devotees constantly fatigued, deprived of sensory input and suffering protein deprivation, working extremely long hours in street solicitation or in cult-owned businesses, engaging in monotonous chanting and rhythmical singing, may induce psychophysiological changes in the brain. The rhythmical movement of the body can lead to altered states of consciousness, and changes in the pressure or vibration pattern of the brain may affect the temporal lobe.” Dr. Clark hypothesized that what he calls the ”cult-conversion syndrome” represents an overload of the brain’s ability to process information. He said: ”The unending personalized attention given to recruits during the conversion experience works to overload the prospect’s information-processing capacity. This has another important function: the induction of trancelike states. Cult proselytizers then exploit the recruit’s suggestibility.”
To put it simply, cults use a variety of psychological techniques that take advantage of the way the human brain works to manipulate people into subscribing to their doctrine. The art lies in the subtle application of these techniques. So how did the Good News Corps use these techniques to brainwash me? First, they targeted me when I was in a vulnerable state. I was approached outside of a university dining hall during the period when my final exams were taking place. I was looking for a different way to spend my winter break, and they offered a cheap trip to an exotic location for a good cause. Once I was out in Dallas, they used a controlled social environment to deprive me of sleep and nutrition, putting me in a highly suggestible state. I was subjected to an exhaustive schedule that included over six hours of “Mind Lecture material” in the form of the sermons from Ock Soo Park, supplemented by more personal sermons conducted by his translator Joe Park immediately after. Before every Mind Lecture we were subjected to a dance performance, followed by the performance of a play, followed by a performance of the “Gracias Choir” in order to induce a state of trance to heighten our level of susceptibility to the material contained in the lectures. The students we taught in Mexico were given a similar treatment, as they were also given Mind Lectures at the end of every day. Even though we spent over 8 hours at the camp every day, only two meals were served, consisting of a single burger from Burger King, followed by either a single slice of pizza from Cost-Co or a small portion of protein in the form of tacos. We spent a minimal amount of time teaching them English, devoting most of the schedule to group activities such as learning over a half-dozen choreographed dances, participating in massive group sing-alongs, or competing in group competitions, multiple times a day. http://youtu.be/a8dp4fCW42c IYF English Camp Montage shown on the final day. The purpose of these exercises was to induce psycho-physiological changes that lead to an altered state of consciousness which made everyone involved more open to the suggestions of subscribing to the doctrine they presented in the subsequent Mind Lectures. The camp ended with the showing of a montage video of footage they had gathered over the course of the camp (seen above), directly followed by everyone filling out a form with personal information that included a section that required us to list our exact intentions regarding how much further we planned to get involved with the organization. I wrote down that I wanted to go to Japan. The purpose of the English Camp wasn’t to teach English. We didn’t receive training in Dallas. We were conditioned and then used to recruit members for the Good News Corps who would hopefully go with the organization to foreign countries as part of their various programs. Once there, completely isolated from their previous lives, the Good News Corps can then manipulate them in any way they please under the guise of religious missionary work. I did not figure this out during the camp. At no point did I question anything that was happening. Hardly anyone did. It was only weeks after returning home, and being clued in the by the nytimes.com article, that I pursued this line of research and pieced together what happened. Cults are all around us. They operate on an international scale. They have massive funds and talented lawyers. They run your favorite sushi restaurant. They stalk college campuses, malls, and groceries stores, preying on vulnerable people. The Unification Church and The Good News Corps are not unique phenomena. Earlier that year I was approached by two men my age outside of a dorm who asked me if I knew about the “Heavenly Mother.” They gave me a card that identified them as the World Mission Society Church of God, another Korean religious organization. They believe their founder is the second coming of Christ. They have almost one-and-a-half million members. Korea has issued a statement that says:
“The Church has been accused of breaking up families when women followers have left home and settled in Church of God buildings to wait for the “coming of Christ.”
I didn’t realize I had a cult’s card in my wallet until after my research on the Good News Corps. My sister told me she had been approached by the same group at the grocery store by our house back in my home-town. Several of my friends showed me identical cards to the one I had in my wallet. Do you know what cults are active in your area? Do you even care? What would you do if you lost someone you love to a cult? Would you even know? The Unification Church, World Mission Society Church of God, and Good News Corps are all actively recruiting on Rutgers campuses. ——————————————————————————————————— List of Sources and Further Reading via Diigo.
To read the 31 comments readers from around the world posted on the original site for “The Good News Cult,” click here.