Worshipers at the World Mission Society Church of God say the church is defending itself from a social media hoax that’s proving to be a challenge to its outreach practice.
That’s left members in Fresno concerned for their safety and weighing how to respond.
The unproven claim is that the church is involved in human trafficking — and the rumor has spread on social media since the start of the year. It first surfaced in Fresno in the spring and hasn’t stopped.
The claim, posted to Facebook and Twitter, has been shared thousands of times, warning the public against church members who preach about “God the Mother.” A Facebook post from Aug. 1, which includes a picture of two local church members walking through Fashion Fair mall, was posted with a message that triggered responses from users online.
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The message reads: “It is apparently a sex trafficking ploy. I can’t say I know that this is certain but I would rather look ignorant calling out these two women than to have anyone’s daughter, wife or mother be lured into this. Please be safe!”
Screenshots of the viral Facebook post with nearly 3,000 shares reached the Fresno church members after it was posted. A Twitter post a couple days prior reached nearly 15,000 retweets before it was deleted. Several other posts remain online.
Peter Uchil, a church missionary, said the rumors are not new. He’s aware that incidents in different parts of the U.S. dating back as early as January have allowed the false accusations to grow among those not familiar with the church, which is said to have more than 2.8 million members worldwide.
The church has challenged the reports, but Uchil sees little that can be done to completely quash the claims.
“We are thinking that we’ll approach the police once again,” Uchil said. “It’s just sad for us. I do feel like we are powerless against these things. I really feel it’s nothing but another case of bullying.”
The Bee asked the authors of the viral Twitter and Facebook post from the Fashion Fair incident why they shared the message. The two girls said they wanted to warn others about possible dangers of human traffickers, but admitted they couldn’t prove the claims themselves.
Nastassja Pizanis, a church member and Fresno State student, is one of two women featured in the photo on the Facebook post that went viral. She is afraid those who see the online posts could respond negatively, and turn the situation into something more than just her picture shared online.
“It is a concern seeing what happened (at Fashion Fair), that it could escalate,” Pizanis said. “I know it’s not true so I know the police, also, they know.”
The Fresno Police Department is aware of the local group, Sgt. Curtis Chastain said, adding there’s no evidence of human trafficking activity or any other criminal activity involving them.
Chastain, who supervises the Vice-Criminal Intelligence Unit, said Fresno police were made aware of complaints from the “God the Mother” missionaries earlier in the year and said the intelligence unit has not found any criminal behavior associated with them.
“At this point we are not actively investigating,” Chastain said. He noted the church is small in Fresno and not many people know about it, likely contributing to the fears online. Research using government- and non-government sources didn’t show any criminal activity associated with the individuals or the church elsewhere, according to Chastain.
“We could not find any reports of criminal behavior associated with those individuals,” he said.
Uchil and his fellow church members say they will continue to preach in public spaces. It may be embarrassing to be confronted about the claims, Uchil said, but “our church teaches that we need to serve the community no matter what.”
Members of the church in other parts of the country report getting death threats over the rumor. Uchil said some members have been pepper sprayed during their outreach. Church members typically reach out to people in malls or college campuses and offer to exchange their cellphone numbers to organize a Bible study, according to Uchil.
The church members make sure they carry brochures and pamphlets along with their Bible to show police their established faith. Several campus newspapers have reported students fearing the church members when they visit campus due to the human trafficking claim. At least one student newspaper retracted a story that directly linked the church to human trafficking.
College campuses, including Fresno State and Fresno City College, host the church’s Elohist Club. About 40 students attend Bible seminars at the campuses in Fresno, Pizanis said.
In April, police officers interviewed three people on the Fresno City College free speech area who were soliciting students with the message about “God the Mother.” FCC spokeswoman Kathy Bonilla said several students have reported being approached by members of the church, but no malicious activity has ever been reported.
“We know that this group has been on campus talking to people,” Bonilla said. But “they are not doing anything wrong.”
The church has steadily grown its local membership, and attracts just under 100 people to its new home at a remodeled church building on U Street in downtown Fresno.
The World Mission Society Church of God, which has been around for about 50 years, has more than 7,000 churches worldwide. The church’s “spiritual mother” or “God the Mother” is considered to be a woman in South Korea by the name of Jang Gil-ja, who is visited by enthusiastic members of the church. Portraits featuring Gil-ja surrounded by church members hang on the walls of the church in Fresno.
In Fresno, the church has cleaned up streets and plans on asking the City Council for permission to do it again this month.
The church has faced allegations elsewhere from former followers. At least seven people who broke away from the church told People magazine in 2015 that the church was a “profit-making cult” that micromanaged the lives of its members. The allegations were a part of a civil suit filed against a New Jersey branch of the church.