Tuesday, October 30, 2007

E. K. (former Triton UBF)

(Was posted at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jsku/ubf.html)

I had every reason to believe that I was extremely lucky to be a part of the best church in the world. It takes most people years of soul-searching and discovering until they find the right church. But me? They had me from the beginning. How could they not? I had been indoctrinated since birth. Sure, kids at school mocked and accused me of being in a cult. It didn't faze me. Our Bible teachers told us we would face persecution. The book of Revelations told horror stories on the extremity of persecution we would face. I felt lucky that at this point, persecution was limited to name-calling. But I was prepared to be ostracized from the community and with these kinds of expectations, life didn't seem so bad when once in a while some punk would yell, "Hey! Going to your cult to burn another goat?" from across the street on the way home from school.

I am a Missionary Kid. As a missionary kid, it is almost as if I am expected to praise Jesus the moment I come popping out of my mother's womb. Arms in the air flailing, "Hallelujah! Jesus loves you!"

University Bible Fellowship, a.k.a. UBF, preys on American students at college campuses throughout the world through a manipulative process called love-bombing. New recruits, a.k.a. sheep, are showered with companionship, unremitting attention, and pretty much any activity that involves food. The shepherds have another agenda behind all this love. The goal of investing all this time and energy upfront is to win the heart of the sheep. This process usually takes anywhere from a few months to several years, depending on how plump the sheep wants to get until he himself takes on the responsibilities of being a shepherd.

As a missionary kid, I see shepherds and shepherdesses take sheep out for free dinners all the time. This is the source of much bitterness many missionary kids will harbor secretly. "No one appreciates me. I rehearse with the orchestra for hours on end, I baby-sit my siblings while my parents are feeding their sheep, and I am expected to bring my own sheep?" This is a valid frustration I shared with the other missionary kids, especially since we were constantly being watched by everyone to set a good example for the sheep. Not only do we have to make ourselves good little missionaries but we could never let our guard down even at home since it was not uncommon for a shepherd, shepherdess, or even an entire missionary family to be living with us in our basement.

When love was not being used to manipulate, it was guilt. Even as a child attending Children's Bible Fellowship, a.k.a. CBF, I was made aware by our CBF leaders of the empty folding chairs around me that should be filled with my friends from school who I should be fishing, a.k.a. recruiting. So every Saturday morning at 8 AM I would call my classmate Audrey to invite her to CBF. After repeated refusals to join me in learning about the Bible, I asked to speak with her mother. I was only in fourth grade, but I was confident in speaking to an adult on these matters since I had seen my mother do the same. Her mother answered. "Hi Audrey's mom. I am worried that your daughter doesn't want to come to CBF because she should really study the Bible or else she is going to go to hell." She assured me her daughter would not be sent to hell and asked me to stop calling. Stop calling, I thought? It's not like I was a telemarketer. I was only trying to help. I was really disappointed she didn't want to come since it is encouraged to bring white North American sheep - the typical blonde hair blue-eyed types. It was engrained in our heads that it is easier to catch minorities but we are in America so we should feed American sheep. There seemed to be this unspoken notion that the more attractive your sheep were, the more credibility you got for recruiting the toughest members of your target market. Years later while fishing in high school, I decided to be adventurous and go after the homecoming queen's little sister. Wow. I am being really bold. Even if I fail at getting her phone number to study Bible, I will have a good story to share in a testimony, I thought. I followed her down the street and into an alley after I got off at her bus stop. As I anticipated rejection, I almost turned around when suddenly I mustered up enough nervous energy to get out, "Excuse me, um, I was wondering if you would like to study the Bible... or not?" I never did lose the "or not" tagline from my evangelical sales pitch.

Every week at CBF, each member is expected to prepare a one to two page testimony, a.k.a. sogam (Korean translation of testimony), on what we learned from the previous week's message. In this sogam, we are also expected to share what sins we need to repent of. I would later learn that this is one way UBF has a stronghold on its members - by pressuring them to publicly announce their inner most clandestine sins. Wanting recognition for my personal achievements as a musician was a common sin I would write about. I played the oboe for 7 years after which I taught myself piano. (The pianist at my chapter, Triton UBF, got married and moved to a different chapter of the Greater Chicago land area.) Although it was well masked as a sacrifice I took, playing the piano was an extremely selfish endeavor and secret indulgence of mine. It was extremely empowering for me to be able to play the piano well without having taken any lessons. And I enjoyed the extra leg-room. In fact, I would hide out in my own corner of the Bible House - one of many houses converted into churches - kick my shoes off and relax. I was beginning to get a taste of freedom from the masses. During Sunday Worship Service, I would look over at the drones of shepherds and their sheep cramped onto folding chairs in the living-room-renovated-into-worship-room and think, "They have no idea how nice I have it in my little musical cave." It's a good thing my feet don't smell, I thought.

Viewing UBF from a behind-the-scenes perspective wasn't limited to my participation in the UBF orchestra. As a missionary kid, I was also witness to the process by which one is set up for an arranged marriage. According to UBF, these marriages happen through God's will. Dating is strictly prohibited as everyone is expected to focus all their time and energy to serving God, all the while leaving the issue of whom they will marry up to God. Those who do not put their faith in God to choose the perfect marriage partner are said to have a marriage problem. Of course everyone has a marriage problem because being in UBF has made them so sexually repressed, one stops being anxious of who he will be set up with and agrees to accept anyone resembling a creature of the opposite sex. I am guessing there are hundreds of shepherds who have failed at dating in the outside world and were drawn to UBF due to the ease of obtaining a wife, especially those with Asian fetishes. UBF claims that these matches are matches made in heaven. That God handpicked each husband and wife for his glory. What most people don't know is that these arranged marriages were actually based on looks. I was shocked the day I overheard my mom on a long distance phone call to her counterparts in Korea, "Yeah. He really ugly. Ha. He has a huge pot belly, bald head, very unkempt, nails dirty..." Basically she told them to send someone not too attractive who deserved to be stuck in a hellish marriage with this sloppy American. I don't know that all marriages were set up this way but it seemed as though the first criteria UBF looks to match is race and then looks. I could be completely wrong on this matter because I left UBF when I was 17 years old, probably missing an engagement to my future husband by a sliver of a couple years. I later learned that my second-generation counterparts at the UBF headquarters in Chicago were married on paper since 12 years old as a way to promise a marriage partner if they didn't run away. Samuel Lee liked to marry the missionary kids at a young age before they were tempted by their lustful desires and lost their innocence. Sex was the bait and he knew it.

For fun, my siblings and I would write the names of all the members of our chapter on little pieces of paper and pull them out of a hat to see who we could possibly be paired up with. We would laugh hysterically at each other's matches as we pulled the names out. Some people got stuck with the most ugly or annoying person. Although it was only a game, we swore never to tell anyone that we trivialized the concept of marriage by faith. My family was also a safe haven for making fun of the real couples that were recently married. My favorite couple to poke fun of was Gideon and Ruth S. (formerly known as Frank S. and Lorrie H.). Gideon, a petite ex-military shepherd, was the least liked shepherd known for his annoying methods of motivating younger shepherds. Ruth, a homely pear-shaped community college drop-out needlessly worried about tempting men with the blouse that was missing a button. She would cling onto the collar of her blouse every time we bent our heads to pray. I made the joke that when the pastor announced that Gideon would marry Ruth to the men's Daily Bread meeting, all the shepherds sighed a huge sigh of relief it wasn't them getting stuck with Ruth. At the women's Daily Bread meeting, I joked that all the women were overly joyed when they heard the good news of this match made in heaven. "Phew! Thank you God!" They would exclaim, "I can now put my faith in you to find any suitable marriage partner!" My mother could not help but laugh while giving me a look of warning to never repeat this outside of our home.

UBF made constant demands for purity. Paying too much attention to one's hygiene and outward appearance was a sin one could be easily rebuked for. "Why are you carrying a hairbrush in your book bag? Are you trying to cook men by doing your hair all fancy? Repent of yourself!" your shepherd would say. I received one of these rebukes before I started one-to-one Bible Study. So it was Sarah Dallal (formerly known as Maribel Magno, and then Maria) a girl two years my elder who grew up with me in CBF who took it upon herself to rebuke me as my spiritual elder. One night when I was 14 years old, I painted my little sister's fingernails. When Maribel saw this, she immediately questioned my sister as to who introduced her to nail polish. My sister brightly retorted, "My sister. She painted my toenails too! Aren't they pretty?" I immediately knew from the look Maribel gave me that a rebuke was on its way. I felt like crawling into a hole and never coming out. How could I be so stupid as to paint her fingernails? I should have stopped at her toes! The next day, twenty minutes before Sunday Worship Service began, Maribel approached me and asked to speak with me in the Upper Room - the garage converted into prayer room that never passed the town fire code inspection. She pulled me into a small 4 foot by 5-foot one-to-one Bible study room, opened her Bible to the book of John and had me read a passage. Her voice was void of the friendly tone I was used to hearing her speak to me in. "Why would you work on the devil's side to introduce your sister to these worldly influences? You are supposed to be a good example for her. How can you call yourself a servant of God?" And the rebuke went on for what seemed like an eternity. I came out of the Upper Room in tears after I had repented and asked for God's forgiveness. She had me believe that painting my sister's nails would eventually turn her into a man-hungry material girl.

New sheep are given more leeway to dress as they please since they are still in the process of being seduced to fully commit. If a sheep is dressed inappropriately, drastic measures might be taken to keep the sexual distraction to a minimum. During Sunday Worship Service for instance, if a young female walked in with a low-cut blouse on, shepherdesses across the room cued each other to find her a shawl or jacket. After a series of nudges, whispers, and nods, a jacket would be handed to her letting her know that it is cold in the room. There was once a sheep that had a very voluptuous body a la Jennifer Lopez. One day, she was wearing a skirt so tight, all the shepherdesses took turns being on butt patrol by following her every move to ensure the shepherds would not be tempted to gaze.

Samuel Lee was the mastermind behind the enormous organization of UBF. I had been brainwashed to believe that one of the happiest moments of my childhood was when Samuel Lee gave me personal attention at an airport. While talking to my dad, he mimicked the way I was dancing at that year's CBF Christmas Worship Service. Every Christmas and Easter, ethnic dances are prepared as a way to pray for world evangelization. I was so elated and embarrassed that he would even acknowledge my existence let alone make fun of me. By placing Samuel Lee on such a high pedestal, people stopped worshipping God, dropped all moral standards and common sense, and blindly followed his directions. The leader of my chapter Shepherd Teddy Hembekides made attempts to mimic Samuel Lee's enigmatic character by taking on a quirky personality yet remaining aloof and mysterious to his own congregation. It was once discovered that he wrote his Sunday manuscripts in a font called bookman old style. After finding this out, I remember I shared this insider insight with my brother and we started writing our own testimonies in bookman old style.

My relationship with my family was purely functional. I often wondered if the reason my parents had so many kids was because they were lazy. Why recruit when you could create? My parents were so busy being missionaries that our diet stooped into quite the deplorable state. I don't ever recall a time when everyone sat at our table and ate a family meal. My mom would often come home at eleven or twelve at night with a bag of ten Big Macs or crunchy tacos. We would call her while she was on an extravagant meal with one of her sheep and request a certain brand of fast food. To this day, when I get hungry, I cannot help but crave a McDonald's hamburger or a Whopper. And when she wasn't around, we took ourselves to the Wonder Hostess Thrift store that was across the street from the Bible House to feast on discounted Twinkies and cherry pies. Of course we thought it was pretty cool for us to be eating fast food and junk food all the time. Heck, I've heard of some of my classmates whose moms only allowed them one snack a day - and probably a healthy one at that! What nonsense!

Many people who work as secretaries or gym teachers during the day and are considered to be nobodies in this world, come into UBF and get a psychological satisfaction off disciplining those who are spiritually younger than them. This authoritative structure is one reason why people might stay in UBF although they do not fully agree with its practices. Once a shepherd brings in several sheep who in turn bring in more sheep, this shepherd is highly praised to be a model shepherd. On the walls of the Bible House are big charts with all the shepherds' names posted for everyone to see. For every sheep they bring to Bible Study that week, the shepherds or shepherdesses receive a star next to their name. Hence there is incredible pressure to bring in more and bigger numbers each week, similar to a pyramid sales organization. Except that failure to do so in UBF results in those lost sheep burning in hell.

My father once revealed to me that the reason he decided to pioneer a new chapter of UBF in the suburbs of Chicago was to avoid this authoritative structure Samuel Lee had created. The turning point came when Samuel Lee tried to get my father to walk barefoot from Skokie to Chicago as discipline for showing up late to a meeting. My father's typical docile demeanor prevented him from reacting in too radical a fashion. So in October of 1986, with Samuel Lee's consent and full blessing, my family left the Chicago headquarters to be the first missionaries to pioneer a junior college, Triton. My siblings and I could not help but joke that our parents were the lazy missionaries whose claim to fame in UBF history was to evangelize a tiny vocational school whose enrollment and intellect was but a fraction of a percent of Northwestern's entering class of freshmen. "Let's not forget these folks! They need Jesus too!"

In UBF, having strong family values is frowned upon. UBF enforces this rule and keeps everyone busy to ensure all thoughts and actions were directed to the purpose of the organization. One is supposed to love God and nothing else. It wasn't until later in life that I realized what a psychologically warped adolescence I've had. No one ever spoke of the concept of romantic love. The reason why a husband and wife should 'love' each other is so they can serve God. Missionaries and shepherds with kids have no other choice but to neglect their children while at Sunday Worship Service, Friday Testimony Meeting, Saturday Group Bible Study, each morning's Daily Bread, numerous one-to-one Bible Studies, and overseas journey trips. My earliest recollection of the city of Chicago is of crossing the busy 6-lane street called Peterson with my brothers when we were 7, 5, and 4 years old. Not having been taught to look both ways before crossing, cars would often slam on their brakes, honk, and come to an abrupt halt as they allowed three little Korean kids to run along. I can just imagine that they wondered why we pointed and laughed at whoever came closest to getting hit.

We were oblivious to the way the world worked, including the most basic common knowledge on how to obey traffic laws. How could we not? Our parents left it up to UBF and the public school system to teach us everything there is to know about life. For example, since UBF evangelized college campuses, shepherds and missionaries would often buy a bumper sticker from the University they were praying for. I never knew that the real purpose of these bumper stickers was to indicate where the driver went to school. I'm sure people wondered why someone who went to Princeton, John Hopkins and the University of Chicago would be driving a dilapidated 1986 Toyota Corolla and circling the parking lots of a junior college.

How I left a fanatical Korean evangelical religious organization that I was born into still continues to amaze me. Although UBF raised me, the American public school system taught me how to think. So although I am Korean by blood, I consider myself American. Koreans learn that to question any authority figure is a sign of disrespect to an elder. This is why Koreans will be so quick to blindly follow someone's words even if this obedience manifests itself in completely irrational behavior. Luckily, UBF overlooked the choice of school system missionary kids attend. It is at school that I learned how to discern right from wrong. The academic approach in the western system begs its students to look for the gray areas of life and to back theories up with evidence. Learning to think like this during the day compared to what my shepherds were telling me to do by evening when I went to the Bible House created a huge clash in my mind on what to follow. So by my junior year of high school, I had started to question the veracity of my Bible teachers' words. Of course these doubts were met with much prayer on my part - this was the never-ending cycle that kept doubtful members from leaving. As soon as you doubt the word of God, one must repent of this foolish behavior and just have faith! The day I decided to no longer blindly follow what my shepherds were telling me to do was the day I knew I would leave UBF.

It was a Friday afternoon at my high school in a working class suburb of Chicago. Our entire chemistry class finished making tie-dyed t-shirts. Not having a lot of options in terms of my wardrobe since my parents didn't buy new clothes, I was happy to add a t-shirt to my collection of obscure clothing. So I naturally wore this shirt all day at school and walked into Friday testimony sharing meeting at Gideon S.'s apartment with it still on. Growing up in UBF, I was oblivious to the implications of tie-dyed shirts to a hippie/drugs/sex culture of the 60's. I remember the shocked reactions of Gideon and Ruth S. when I pranced into their home with what they believed to be an article of clothing inspired by Satan. It was doubly surprising for them to see a sweet, obedient missionary kid like me wear such a "worldly" shirt than to witness a brand new sheep commit such a faux pas. Although there were less than six people at this Friday meeting (we had broken up into fellowships), I was quickly scurried into their tiny bathroom where I would sit for the next fifteen minutes while Ruth frantically searched for a proper blouse to dress me in. What is wrong with them, I thought for the first time in my life. It was a school project! How evil can it be if a teacher - an authority figure in my life, not only taught us but also encouraged us to be proud of creating such a magnificent t-shirt? I don't get it. What is wrong with making a t-shirt? I couldn't recall a single passage in the Bible where disciples were rebuked for making their own clothing. Why was I being treated like a prisoner of war?

My revolutionary thought process was interrupted by a rude knock on the door. It was Ruth. She begrudgingly handed me a pastel orange blouse to change into. I quickly put the blouse on so we could begin the meeting that I delayed which I felt guilty about. I came out of the bathroom only to be met with another look of horror on Ruth's face! She literally pushed me back into the bathroom where I would sit again until she found a proper undershirt for me to wear since according to her, the blouse she gave me was too sheer. I sat on the closed toilet and thought to myself - this is ridiculous! What am I doing here? What am I doing on this planet - in this bathroom - in UBF!? This shirt is anything but see-through! (Anyone who knows Ruth S. would back me up that she would be the last shepherdess to own a slightly 'worldly' shirt.) I could hear Gideon and Ruth quarrel in their bedroom over the unusual predicament. Ruth flings open the door to tell me she cannot find a clean undershirt of hers for me to borrow. Meanwhile I am thinking - yeah right. She is too selfish to let me borrow an intimate piece of underwear from her. So another ten minutes go by and Gideon appears at the door of the bathroom, this time holding an undershirt of his. "Wear this," he says. "Ruth can't find any of hers." I take it and return to the closed toilet seat. The shirt is wrinkled, tattered, and is soaked in yellow stains on the armpits from what looks like heavy usage by Gideon when he was in the army. My mind is racing with doubts as to whether it is wrong for me to refuse to wear this as my undergarment. I am already wearing a bra. This blouse has ruffles on the front that cover even the outline of my bra on the front. I cringe at the thought of sitting through the entire meeting in a shirt of Gideon's that is unclear to me whether it has been recently washed or picked up from the hamper. I have to wear it. Although I have thoughts of rebellion running through my head, I do not know how to act on them yet. I reluctantly put the shirt on, the blouse over it, and sit uncomfortably throughout the testimony-sharing meeting as I read my three pages of sins I need to repent of this week.

This was the last ridiculous order I took from any of my shepherds. I slowly fazed myself out of UBF by ditching a new meeting each week. Seeing as I stopped attending even music rehearsals and started showing up to Sunday Service in jeans, I was asked to step down from my position as pianist. And not having the opportunity to play music at services, I no longer had any reason to show up at all. I left for college the following year, only to be disappointed by what appeared to be masses of students desperately hoping to be socially accepted into fraternities and sororities at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. My freedom has been taken away from me for 17 years of my life and these kids were paying to have theirs taken away? I was baffled.

On a rare occasion when we went to the beach, my parents found a baby crab. They immediately grabbed this crab, took it out of its natural surroundings of Lake Michigan and brought it home. They placed it in an old fish tank and proceeded to feed it. I found it strange that we had a newfound pet in the house since up till now we only had goldfish. A few months after the crab grew a bit from my parents feeding it, they killed and ate it. My siblings and I were shocked and appalled as I'm sure the crab was. But the crab had no say. As far as the crab knew, my parents were doing it a favor by placing it in a new "safe" fish tank away from the dangers of a natural body of water. Similarly, my parents unwittingly brought this baby crab into an even more dangerous environment - a bubble of an existence in a man-made aquarium. This is perhaps the greatest metaphor of my life as a missionary kid. Except this crab escaped before anyone could kill it. [cue violins] Entering the sea of the real world after having been sheltered since birth has been difficult and exciting. There is so much I do not know in this world. I am essentially a blank slate. Everything is new to me. However, my upbringing urges me to examine people's motives. As a skeptic, it is not difficult for me to discern when someone is placed in an unjust situation. The worst scenario possible has already occurred in the bulk of my life through the cult called UBF.

Too many members of UBF have come and gone in silence, which is why I chose to share my brief account. Although I cannot speak on anyone else's behalf but my own, I cannot deny that every absurd and ridiculous account on here fits in with all that is characteristically UBF. You might be asking, how could so many people be so blind? It has happened in history before when a leader is idolized and people stop thinking independently.