A number of FSU students allege that religious group members evangelizing on campus have made them uncomfortable.
The self-proclaimed evangelists belong to a religious organization called the World Mission Society Church of God (WMSCOG).
According to the WMSCOG website, the church was founded in South Korea in 1964 by Ahn Sahng-Hong. She is worshipped by church members as the female image of God, known as “God the Mother.” The religious institution has over 2.7 million members worshipping at 8,000 locations worldwide.
Some FSU students who have been approached by the church members described the group’s recruitment strategies as “pushy” and “off-putting.”
On March 1, FSUPD released a safety bulletin that dismissed the allegations affiliating WMSCOG with sex-trafficking operations, identifying these claims as an internet hoax.
FSUPD Sgt. Martin Laughlin said officers met with two female church members who have been reported by students on campus. He told them they were “making students feel uneasy with their methods of trying to talk to people. … People really want nothing to do with it.
“This was happening all over the state. Their tactics, if you want to say it, are a little aggressive – too forward,” added Laughlin.
Senior English major Hailey Smith said she was approached by a male WMSCOG member on the afternoon of Oct. 16 as she walked to her dorm after working in the McCarthy Center. Smith was with a friend.
“His first question was, ‘Do you believe in God?’” she said.
Smith added the church member asked her if she had ever heard of “God the Mother.” Smith denied knowing anything because she wanted to get out of the conversation.
“He wouldn’t stop talking,” she said. “I just kept walking, and he just wouldn’t shut up.”
According to Smith, the man followed her and her friend until they entered the dorm. Some minutes after they entered the building, Smith said she checked to see whether he was still outside, but he had left.
Smith said she didn’t expect this kind of encounter because it was during the middle of the day, and she found it “quite odd.”
Sophomore psychology major Mattheus Sardinha, who encountered WMSCOG members on campus last year, said the incident was off-putting because they were “being pushy,” but he didn’t feel threatened or intimidated by them.
“They were just average-looking guys wearing suits,” Sardinha said.
Sardinha said he and a friend were walking past May Hall to the McCarthy Center at night when they were approached by two guys in their late 20s.
“The timing was off. It was in the middle of the night on a college campus,” said Sardinha. “It’s like they wanted to be hidden. It just felt off.”
Sardinha said following his encounter with the WMSCOG members, he became aware through social media that other people were reporting similar encounters. He used his social media to warn others to look out for any suspicious behavior and be safe.
Sardinha believes the persistent nature of WMSCOG members’ recruiting is the reason some students feel uncomfortable.
“This is not a religious campus,” Sardinha said. “My problem is them going from person to person making individuals feel uncomfortable.”
According to WMSCOG representative Rebecca Ebhardt, the rumors of their church being a cult, as well as being affiliated with sex-trafficking operations, have been around for a long time, but have “no truth.”
Ebhardt said these rumors started in Kentucky and snowballed very quickly.
“There is zero control of our members in what they do or how they live their lives,” said Ebhardt. “Everybody is a member of the Church of God because he or she believes in the core beliefs of our church. … It is biblical. This is why we are very passionate to show it to other people.”
Ebhardt said the church has been in contact with the authorities, who have investigated and concluded that these accusations are false.
Ebhardt denies the claim that WMSCOG members are “aggressive,” and believes the evangelists are passionate about their beliefs.
Pastor Victor Lozada claims fellow WMSCOG members are being persecuted because of their beliefs.
“They don’t realize what a rumor can do,” said Lozada. “Certain social media users have suggested for people to use pepper spray on our members, assault our members, and even shoot our members. Our members have even received death threats and harassing phone calls at all hours of the night.”
Ebhardt also shared her concern for church members’ safety because she identified most of these members as youths. “They’re all working hard during the day and going to school themselves. They’re passionate about their beliefs, so they’re going around talking to people about it. It’s fearful for them,” Ebhardt said.
Although most FSU students only encountered the religious group on campus grounds, students including Sardinha have had encounters with the religious group off campus.
Ebhardt said with the aim of sharing their beliefs, church members “talk to people wherever, to be honest. We talk to people whenever we have a chance, so it’s not just schools or campuses.”
Lozada said the false accusations of recruiting college students as a means of trafficking are interfering with the work of law enforcement investigations of actual sex-trafficking operations in the country.
“After speaking with human trafficking experts and law enforcement agents, we have been told that this false awareness is not helping the cause, but instead hurting the cause,” Lozada said.
He alleged police “found it unfortunate that an organization looking to expand its membership and conducting community outreach is being wrongfully accused of such a detestable and heinous crime.”
Despite reports given by law enforcement denouncing the sex-trafficking allegations against WMSCOG as illegitimate, Lozada said the negative publicity overshadows the work WMSCOG has done.
Laughlin said ultimately, the members were advised to follow “the appropriate steps” if they were to continue their preaching.
“There are standards that they have to follow, and there are conditions, also,” Laughlin added. “If they’re trying to recruit people for a religious organization, we’d like them to check in with us because we’d like to know who’s actually on campus and what agency they’re from.”
According to Laughlin, visitors – such as potential freshmen and transfers, as well as community members – are allowed on campus.
“Anyone’s welcome on campus,” Laughlin said. “Library’s open to the public. The only thing they have to do realistically is come get a parking pass.”
However, solicitors – like the WMSCOG members – are generally not allowed on campus.
Laughlin said the University “generally prohibits people from soliciting, unless they get permission.”
He added FSUPD is not the main body in charge of approving solicitation requests. According to the University’s official solicitation policy, groups that wish to solicit on campus must first obtain approval from SILD.
Giving the University prior notice of a visitation – and possible solicitation – by a religious organization also allows for FSUPD to more easily make and maintain contact by reaching out to “whoever’s in charge.
“It makes things a lot easier for us,” Laughlin said. “We’re getting all these calls from people talking about ‘God the Mother,’ and we don’t know who to contact.”
He added students should contact FSUPD immediately if they are ever made to feel uncomfortable by unfamiliar people on campus. “That way, we can ensure their safety, everyone else’s safety, and we can try to fix the problem right there and then, instead of backtracking and not having a lot of information.
“Every time we got called, it was after the fact. Last year, there were some students who took pictures of the two females [church members] and came right here. We made contact, and at least we could identify who we were talking to,” Laughlin said.