Members of the World Mission Society Church of God can be seen around town going door to door and even on campus spreading the word of their religion.
But worshippers say that their efforts have been complicated by online claims that the church is involved in human trafficking. This claim picked up steam online last year and is still being posted about nationwide on social media.
One major claim, made in Fresno and posted on Facebook in August 2018, has been shared thousands of times as a warning to the public against church members who preach about “God the Mother.”
The post, which included a picture of two church members walking through Fashion Fair mall, said: “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!”
The post has since been deleted, but a screenshot posted by The Fresno Bee can be found. The post received close to 3,000 shares on Facebook and close to 15,000 retweets on Twitter.
A recent post on the Facebook group Fresno State Book Trade and Advice showed a screenshot from Snapchat also warning the public of the church members. The post from Oct. 3 showed church members approaching people inside the Henry Madden Library at Fresno State.
“If you’re at Fresno State library, please be aware of your surroundings. My friend was approached by these women who are part of a group named ‘God the Mother,’” said the screenshot from a Snapchat user. “In the past, this group has [been] correlated with sex trafficking. Always feel free to ask campus police to escort you to your car at night or walk in numbers. Be safe friends!”
The post has since been deleted from the Facebook group.
The Fresno Police Department was made aware of the group through social media and complaints received from the State Center Community College District.
Sgt. Sean Biggs, who supervises the Vice-Criminal Intelligence Unit, said there is no evidence of human trafficking activity or any other criminal activity involved with the church.
Biggs said Fresno police were made aware of the complaints of the “God the Mother” missionaries early last year but had not found any criminal behavior associated with them.
“We received complaints from the State Center Community College District in April last year that this group was on Fresno City College[‘s] (FCC) campus talking to students,” Biggs said. “But everything we found showed no truth that they were related to human trafficking.”
FCC spokeswoman Kathy Bonilla said that the group was on campus but did not think they were doing anything wrong.
Peter Uchil, a “God the Mother” church missionary and pastor, said the rumors started around two years ago in Tennessee and have spread all across the country by those not familiar with the church, which is said to have reached around 3 million members worldwide.
Uchil said that articles have been written about the group suggesting that they were part of a human trafficking ring but did not source any police or anyone who could substantiate the claims.
“Why it was posted? Even we’re perplexed,” Uchil said. “Who posted it? We don’t know, and even if we did, what can you do?”
Uchil said that eventually the rumors had spread to Fresno, citing the post regarding Fashion Fair mall last year.
“Through this, you can see how a rumor can spread across the country,” Uchil said.
The Kennesaw State University Police Department in Georgia released a press release last year stating that they invesigated the church and found no connection to human trafficking.
“The results of the investigation show that there is no evidence that the World Mission Society Church of God is involved in human trafficking or any other criminal activity,” the press release stated. “We are aware that this misunderstanding has caused some of the student members to be threatened and persecuted due to the false accusations.”
Nastassja Pizanis, a “God the Mother” church member and club president of the Fresno State Elohist, is one of two women featured in the photo on the Facebook post that went viral.
Pizanis said she was not surprised by the photo because she knew what was happening to the other churches nationwide. Pizanis said the claims are just a rumor and not the truth, and it is their mission to get the truth out and show people they are not associated with human trafficking.
“It’s sad to see people make these rumors, and [know] people would believe such rumors without investigating,” Pizanis said. “It’s more sad that people believe anything on social media but because of that, we need to let people know more about our organization so they have the correct perspective.”
Uchil said he had heard that in other parts of the country members of the church who went door-to-door had been pepper sprayed, threatened or shown weapons during their outreach due to these rumors. Uchil said that this still does not scare the church from continuing its outreach efforts throughout the country.
Breaking the Chains is a non-profit organization that helps women escape systems of sexual exploitation through advocacy, direct services, housing and education. Debra Rush, CEO of Breaking the Chains, said she was unfamiliar with the religious group and had not heard anything about them being part of human trafficking.
Fresno State hosts the church’s Elohist Club with around six to seven members who attend Bible seminars on campus and hopes to get a club started at FCC soon, Uchil said.
The World Mission Society Church of God has been around for about 50 years and 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.
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.