(See also http://exubf.blogspot.com/2007/04/andrew-s-2003-former-waterloo-ubf.html.)
Note: The following testimony was written in preparation for a chapel at the school where I teach, ****** Academy. An edited version will be presented on May 4, 2005.
A Cry to be Valued: Lessons Learned from UBF
By Andrew S.
Dedicated to the Young People of Today
What does it mean for a person to be valued? It seems that everyone, whether young or old, has this innate, deeply felt desire. We all want to be seen as important by someone else. We long to feel that our contributions to this life are meaningful, significant, and useful, and for these contributions to be validated by others. Oh, we may have a superficial understanding that we are talented and somewhat hardworking. But until someone says to us, “Good job!” or “I appreciate you,” we don’t know whether anything we do is having an impact. In Timothy Smith’s book The Seven Cries of Today’s Teens, the desire to be valued is summed up as “the need to be considered as having a high degree of worth and importance.” It’s not enough for us to think that we might have some worth and importance. It’s not enough for us to feel that we did fairly well on a math test. No, we need the teacher to mark the test and show us the exact score! It is a need, especially among young people, for others to consider us and show us that we are important.
I can verify this because I am not so far removed from my teenage years. I have just completed the period of life that many of you will soon enter. I have not forgotten what it means to be young, to feel the base insecurity that asks, “does anything I do matter to anyone?” In fact, many days I still ask myself this question. Throughout my life, I have been blessed to experience the love of caring parents and supportive friends. But there have been many times when, sitting by myself in front of a computer in a tiny room, cut off from my loved ones by many miles, I was forced to ask, is anyone out there thinking about me? Does anyone even care that I exist? I especially experienced this during my first year of university. You may think that university is all about fun, friends, parties, meeting new people, learning new things. Of course, there is that side to it, and I had my share of it, but you must know that there are also times when university life is one of crushing loneliness and despair. At university I had moments of brilliant elation, and also times of great aimlessness, leading up to one pivotal event that happened 5 years ago this summer. I would like to tell you this story, which takes place during the years 2000 through 2002, during the height of my career at the University of Waterloo. I want to tell you about the time I was in a cult.
I believe I can tell this story in a very accurate way because, for the last eleven years, I have kept a journal. I have found that journaling is one of the most important activities in my life, because the human memory is inaccurate and extremely short. Sometimes the most amazing, breathtaking thing takes place, and we vow that we’ll never be the same again. But a week later we find ourselves living out the same old habits and complaining about our lives. However, I need only pick up my journals and read an entry from two years ago to bring a tear to my eye and pull my life back into perspective. I can read about my anxiety over a math test, my excitement over a new girlfriend, and my wonder at God’s intervention into my life. And I can relearn what it was like to be a part of the University Bible Fellowship organization – the cult I want to tell you about. Together with the dozens of testimonies I wrote during this period, my journals take me right back to the emotions of the moment, so that I do not need to guess or rely on my memory. Everything I am going to say is the truth, as I perceived it.
I was raised in a churchgoing home; during my younger years my parents and I attended a United church in Peterborough, Ontario. For us, church was mostly just a Sunday hobby, but one time my grandmother gave me a copy of the whole Bible in comic book format – a Picture Bible. I read it over and over again, to the point where I preferred staying to listen to the minister’s sermons rather than attend the boring Sunday school lessons. In the early 1990s my parents divorced, which was a crushing blow to my perfect world. This, however, did initiate my mother’s move to a Baptist church, where I became more knowledgeable about my beliefs. By the time I graduated from high school I thought I knew all the important doctrines; my faith was based on very strong intellectual convictions. At no point had I ever been in a youth group. I didn’t understand the church “culture” and didn’t really want to spend much time there, as long as I knew the facts. So when I started university, I didn’t make much of an effort to seek out a church in Waterloo; I just prayed and read the Bible on my own time. Besides, I had to move every four months because of the co-op program, and so I felt could not really commit to anything. Finally, in the summer of 2000, I was living in a house with 6 other guys, and life seemed great. However, by this time a good deal of laziness, selfishness, bad study habits and other problems had begun to work their way into my life. My conscience had begun to work upon me, saying, “you need to repair your spiritual life.”
This led to that strange encounter on the Waterloo campus one sunny July day. I had just finished writing a midterm. I skipped out of the math building, intent on getting a big sub from Subway and playing some video games with my housemates. As I passed through a little garden area with some trees and a bench, I was approached by a short Korean man wearing glasses. I can’t remember the exact details of our conversation, but he said that his name was Joshua and he asked if I wanted to study the Bible. At first, I only wanted to get away from him. But when I decided to hear him out, we got into a discussion, during which my conscience started acting up. I made a snap decision, I resolved to do something wild, to please my mother, to try something different. I’m not sure exactly why, but I said I would meet him. And I kept my promise.
We started studying through the book of Genesis, chapter by chapter, using a little questionnaire that Joshua brought. I think I enjoyed the first few weekly sessions. My interest in the creation-evolution debate had given me a good understanding of the book of Genesis, and so I relished the chance to discuss it with someone. My conscience was certainly appeased; I felt like I was doing something right. After a few weeks, Joshua invited me to come to the Sunday worship service at his church. Another decision to make – and this time I think I agreed because the service wasn’t too early in the morning!
On Sunday morning I made my way to the address he had given me – a unit in a townhouse apartment style building. I was late, and I can’t stand being late! I hate walking into the middle of an unfamiliar situation. The door I came to had a sign taped to it, with a logo that said, “UBF”. In trepidation, I knocked on the door, but there was no response. Listening, I heard the sound of singing from within. So I pushed open the door and slowly crept downstairs into a tiny basement, immediately finding myself in the midst of a good old-fashioned hymn sing. Someone noticed me and came over to me; foolishly, I said, “I’m looking for Joshua.” It was not the most illuminating comment I could have made, but thankfully they figured out what I was doing there and showed me to a seat. Eventually, Joshua came up to preach the Sunday message, but they introduced him using a different name than Joshua. I couldn’t quite make out what it was; it wasn’t until later that I figured out that Joshua’s real name was “Missionary Work Hard Yoon.” That caught me off guard – in fact, from that point on, a lot of things surprised me.
As time went on, and I attended more Bible studies and started going to the Sunday service more regularly, I noticed that everyone at the church seemed to have a title. At University Bible Fellowship, you had to address people by their title – Missionary X or Shepherd Y, without fail. Missionary Work Hard Yoon was my “shepherd”, since he was my Bible teacher; I was called his “sheep”. The worship service proceeded very formally, with a podium for the speaker and a UBF logo taped to it, even though the room was small and there were few people attending. These worship service attendants, about 25 in all, were mostly couples from Korea, with a few Canadian students as well. We sang the same hymn, “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” every Sunday. We prayed for someone named Dr. Samuel Lee, and asked God to send a specific number of people to the worship service. On the more engaging side, everyone was so polite and friendly and welcomed me with a great smile and an endearing laugh. Each Sunday all the missionaries’ wives cooked a big lunch for everyone, and they always urged me to stay. The food was great; the people were nice and genuine and seemed to enjoy the fellowship and learning that happened during the worship service. I was struck by the warmth of this group, compared to the unfriendliness and alienation I usually found in campus life. It looked like my model of a beautiful Christian community. They actually noticed me, they wanted to know about my life. They helped each other. I was amazed.
I realized that there was a lot of activity going on in that month. Apparently, they were getting ready to host a conference. There was a big registration-tracking chart on the wall. Work Hard asked me if I wanted to attend, but I declined, since the registration fee was something like $200. One of the guys, Shepherd Andy, was making a movie for the conference based on a Bible passage. He wanted me to be in the movie, to which I reluctantly agreed; I still have a copy of it. Eventually, I also agreed to help them out with their worship band – which was actually a drummer, eight singers, and me, the guitarist. I went to a Conference evening session with my guitar, and ended up sitting and listening to people from Montreal, Waterloo, Toronto, and Toledo, Ohio, read “life testimonies” about what God had done in their lives. I was amazed; I had never seen this kind of thing before. I witnessed students my age, standing up in front of their peers and talking about their life of faith! It was unbelievable. I started to think I had stumbled upon something worthwhile, good, and true. It was different, but it seemed right!
In the fall, I went home to Peterborough on a co-op work term and didn’t think too much about UBF. I gave Work Hard my contact information, though, and immediately upon my return to Waterloo in January of 2001, he got in touch with me and invited me to resume the Bible study. To be honest, I wasn’t really too enthusiastic about it. I still didn’t really feel like getting too involved in a church. But Work Hard was persuasive, so I gave in, and we continued our Genesis studies. I kept going to the UBF worship services and getting delicious, free Korean food (kimchee is not really my thing, but I loved the bibim bap). I continued to respond well to the Bible studies – I think just being exposed to God’s Word was like a breath of fresh air in my life, regardless of who I was studying with. My admiration for this little Christian group was renewed.
After a few months of this, Work Hard must have finally decided that I was ready. Ready for what, you ask? Well, in UBF, one of the most important things a Bible student must do is write testimonies. After making it through the first 22 chapters of Genesis, Work Hard gently suggested that I write a personal response about what I’d learned. Fair enough, I said: all teachers know that students learn things better when they organize their thoughts and write them down. A written summary of my learning seemed like a good idea. Besides, as I wrote in January of 2002, I didn’t want to disappoint my Bible teacher. In March of 2001 I wrote my first UBF testimony, entitled “The Practical Faith of Abraham.” Work Hard gave me some tips on how to structure the thing, and I basically ended up just writing out all the answers to his Bible study questionnaires in my own words, with a little introduction, a few vague personal applications, and a prayer at the end. I was quite proud of it; so proud, in fact, that I didn’t mind when Work Hard asked me to read my testimony at a special Friday night UBF gathering. Well, I must say, even though my testimony was rather poor by UBF standards, all the Korean missionaries were so happy to hear me read it. They praised my insights and smiled at me. Shepherd Andy encouraged me and Work Hard patted me on the back. And I felt ... valued. People were telling me that I had made a contribution. This wasn’t so bad: all I had to do was study the Bible, write a little essay about what I learned, and read it out loud, and I would be noticed and appreciated. And I would get more free food.
I think this is a good time to talk about testimony writing in UBF. I mentioned that my first testimony was not really a very good one. This is because in UBF, the more unique or personal your testimony, the worse it is. In UBF, testimony writing is something that has to be learned by listening to others and following the guidelines of your shepherd. As my studies went on and Work Hard asked me to write more and more testimonies, I learned how to do it better. I learned that a UBF Bible testimony is, in essence, a complete point-by-point retelling of the Bible passage you have just studied, along with all the interpretations that your Bible teacher has mentioned to you. You can’t miss anything, or the testimony is not complete. Then you have to shoehorn in every personal application you can find, no matter how far fetched. For example, if you’ve just learned about how Abraham obeyed God by preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac, you have to think about how you should obey God and sacrifice something. If it was Jesus turning water into wine, you have to pray for your dreary watery life to be turned into sweet wine for God. Since I was the clueless sheep and Work Hard was the wise shepherd, I thought it natural to simply swallow every interpretation that he had, every emotion he thought Abraham might be experiencing, and repeat it in my testimony. According to the missionaries, this made the testimony very “graceful.” Like a good and obedient student, I made my Bible testimonies as “graceful” as I could, and kept getting that warm praise that I longed for.
And I did it every week, disciplining myself to write the testimony on Thursday before the group sharing meeting on Friday. Every week for about a year, I wrote a four page Bible testimony, even throughout the busiest part of my university studies. I never missed a week. In the end, my testimonies became a test of my abilities to regurgitate everything my shepherd had said about the passage. They became a test of endurance to see how late I could stay up on Thursday night to get through the thing, and how well I could force in a bunch of inane, trite, personal applications (I thought that this was what spiritual people did for training). For example, when a man whom Jesus had just healed became afraid of the Pharisees in John chapter 5, I had to talk about a time I was afraid of someone who acted like a Pharisee, and repent of this. The testimonies also included a weekly confession of sins before the group. If the passage concerned obedience, I always confessed my sins of lust, laziness and disobedience and resolved (in hazy, general terms) to be more obedient and repent. Week after week I confessed the same sins. After a while I learned that I had to send my testimony to my shepherd for checking out before I shared it. If it was lacking in some respect, my shepherd would “suggest” some changes, and I would have to make the alterations so my testimony would be more “graceful”. At one point I stopped sending my weekly testimony to be checked. My shepherd carefully reminded me that I shouldn’t be doing that. From that point on I never failed to email my testimony to Work Hard, so he could check it over and make sure it was right. The testimonies became more and more conformist; I slowly became an expert at interjecting the little things that sounded great and meant little – the special UBF jargon that would cause all the other missionaries to nod and smile. “I resolve to cultivate a shepherd heart for my friends!” I would confidently say, “so that I can better serve UBF and do God’s work in Waterloo.” Eventually, Work Hard promoted me to the position of “presider” over the weekly testimony-sharing meeting. It became my show to run. And as long as I kept getting the recognition from the other students and missionaries, I didn’t mind the work.
One big turning point in my involvement with UBF came in June of 2001. As a promising young member of the ministry, Work Hard thought it would be good for me to go with him and Shepherd Andy on a “mission journey” to Chicago to visit the UBF world headquarters. I was still reluctant: in one of my later testimonies I read that I had begun to resent Work Hard’s constant concern over every detail of my spiritual life. But I finally reasoned that my shepherd’s opinions were probably God’s opinions, and that I should get over my selfishness and accept his invitation. How could I disappoint him after all he’d done for me? Then he told me that I needed to write a lengthy “life testimony” to prepare for this special trip. Obediently, I wrote this extra testimony and submitted it to my shepherd for approval. Once we arrived in Chicago, I embarked on a whirlwind of a weekend, meeting countless Korean and American shepherds and missionaries, even partaking in a Bible study with the co-founder of UBF, a woman named Mother Sarah Barry. Chicago’s UBF chapter was huge; their conference registration poster took up most of the wall. As it happened, we made it in time for Chicago’s version of the Friday evening testimony sharing meeting, and –wouldn’t you know it – I was tapped to deliver the life testimony I’d written. I went first. I got to sit up on the stage with the VIPs. In front of scores of UBF missionaries I barely knew, I boldly delivered the story of my life of faith, such as it was, and was met with enthusiastic applause. After the meeting I was greeted by many American shepherds who shook my hand and said how encouraged they had been by my “graceful” testimony. I was beaming from ear to ear. Once again, I was amazed by the friendliness of this group and the way they noticed me. Throughout the weekend, people made us meals and told us of their hope for Canada to be a great nation through us. During the weekend, we got tours of the various campuses around Chicago (Northwestern, Loyola, UIC); while on the campuses, the other shepherds asked people, point-blank, if they wanted to study the Bible in our organization. I didn’t do the asking, but I was certainly impressed by the courage of these bold young shepherds. In the evenings I had good talks with Andy, and our friendship became closer; he encouraged me to ask for time off from my summer job so that I could attend the upcoming UBF Bible conference in Illinois. That Sunday, the big moment came: we got to meet and shake the hand of the mythical Missionary Dr. Samuel Lee, the founder of UBF and the man whom everyone always mentioned in their prayers. I thought it was such an honour to meet UBF’s top missionary. Samuel Lee called us up to the stage during the worship service, and made us feel good by having the Chicago UBF orchestra lead the congregation in the singing of O Canada.
In Chicago, any resistance I might have been feeling towards UBF, any feelings of unease over its strangeness, melted away. In UBF I was serving God and my testimonies were inspiring others. I was an important young member of a growing Canadian ministry, who was learning to have a “shepherd heart” like Jesus for my friends. All the missionaries and shepherds I had met seemed to have such a vision and a zeal for serving God. I wanted to be part of this. I wanted to be important. So, soon after getting home from Chicago I gladly wrote yet another four page testimony, carefully mentioning every single thing that had happened there and praising all the missionaries, as Work Hard indicated I should do. I gladly resolved to ask for time off work so I could attend the big summer conference. I revealed this “decision of faith” at the testimony sharing; the missionaries were suitably impressed.
The 2001 Summer Bible Conference took place at Illinois State University. UBF missionaries and students from all over the world congregated in a gigantic lecture hall to hear messages, life testimonies, special music and dramatic programs. At the time, I was simply blown away. I had never seen so many Christians gathered in one place before. I want to share what I wrote in my post-conference testimony:
I thank God for every second I was there, for it was indeed a small taste of heaven – worshipping the Lord in the company of so many believers without any of the daily customs of this fallen world: no harsh words or cursing, no mockery or crude jokes, no traffic or road rage. It was a great blessing and a privilege and I regret my earlier lack of faith. (July 2001)
At the conference I experienced full-time indoctrination. I was being systematically programmed to believe in the UBF agenda. There was no free time – every waking moment was spent listening to Bible lectures, writing testimonies, doing group studies. All were done according to the strict UBF Bible questionnaires. All the testimonies shared and prayers offered at the conference were identical – “my life was a mess until Shepherd X from UBF found me and God gave me a new mission to serve UBF.” It sounded right; it seemed spiritual. Everyone was talking about Jesus, so it had to be right! But I didn’t notice the subtle twisting of Scripture that the leaders were using. After the conference I wrote in my testimony: “To be born again, I have to repent of my sins… and strive to live as God commands.” Somehow I learned at the conference that being born again means working hard to obey all of God’s rules. This is a complete misunderstanding. What else? I was so fired up about being a part of this great ministry that I missed the fact that I was being manipulated, controlled, and changed by other people. When Dr. Samuel Lee got up at the conference and delivered a lengthy, rambling, impromptu speech (two thousand UBF delegates hanging on his every word), I admired his stamina and convictions. Andy told me that Lee had said at a previous conference, “Go write testimonies or I will kill you,” and I laughed it off. I thought he was being colourful.
After the conference I was riding a wave of enthusiasm for UBF. I went home and told my mom all about the great spiritual feast I’d just had, about how God wanted me and my ministry to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, as it says in 1 Peter 2:9 (this phrase was used repeatedly at the conference). Also at that time, I had a new girlfriend, and she wanted me to come visit her for a weekend. But I had commitments to UBF activities, and so I told her I could not make it. By this time she had had enough of my devotion to my church, and threatened to never speak to me again if I did not see her. Even though I eventually said I would visit her, to save the relationship, she dumped me, saying she didn’t want me to come just because of an ultimatum. I wasn’t too upset though, because when I told Work Hard about what had happened, he clapped me on the back and told me that I had passed a spiritual test. At the next testimony meeting, I triumphantly told my missionary coworkers how I refused to take a holiday after being so blessed at the conference, how I had stood firm, about how my relationship with a woman had become a casualty of my faith in God. The missionaries gave me so much encouragement that night!
From that moment on, my spiritual life was completely in the hands of my shepherd. He could teach me anything he wanted and I would have to accept it as God’s word. Now, this time in my life wasn’t all bad: I was reading the Bible a lot, and reading the Bible is never wrong. I did manage to maintain some of my independent spirit, and Work Hard and I had some good discussions. I was excited to learn about the Scriptures and eager to be taught; I took the lessons and ran with them, and wrote such wonderful testimonies. But what was really going on? Sadly, I was trying hard to do the right things, work hard and please my shepherd, which was the same thing as pleasing God and winning His approval. Around this time Work Hard gave me a prayer topic, something I should strive for: I was to become a shepherd. Since I had been growing so successfully, Work Hard wanted me to become Shepherd Andrew S. In one of my testimonies, I prayed to “be a good shepherd” for UBF and “replace” another shepherd who was going away. In each subsequent testimony I prayed to “serve one sheep”, which is UBF jargon for recruiting a student into the organization and teaching them the Bible. I remember kneeling beside my bed and praying over and over, “God, make me a good shepherd like Jesus, so I can feed one sheep.” No one outside of UBF would have even understood what on earth I was praying about! But, I threw myself into this role of shepherd-in-training, because I thought it was God’s will for my life. Why did I think this? My own shepherd told me that it was.
I have mentioned the UBF’s special code language, or jargon. I became quite good at filling my testimonies with this kind of language. For example, in UBF, the words “husband” and “wife” are not used. These are called your “coworker.” A family is called a “house church” in UBF. To be “graceful”, according to UBF, means to do something well, in imitation of UBF leaders. As I mentioned, a “shepherd” is someone who looks after “sheep”, or new recruits. To “fish” means to go out on campus and try to recruit people into the group. I was “fished” by Missionary Work Hard after my midterm in 2000. So it was not uncommon for my testimonies to contain words to this effect: “I pray to be a good shepherd like Jesus for one personally fished sheep, so I may serve with much grace and many tears, like my shepherd Missionary Work Hard.” By October 2001 I was attending weekly early morning prayer meetings. I started posting my testimonies on my website; my friends, upon reading them, were fairly amazed and didn’t know how to react. Later that month I began teaching the Bible to my own sheep, unwittingly perpetuating the UBF pyramid. Then, finally, on October 26, 2001, the big event took place.
I was “promoted” to the rank of shepherd. At the Friday meeting, the missionaries held a special ceremony to mark the event. Interestingly, the ceremony coincided with my birthday, so all the missionaries had cards and gifts for me. We had a cake and a party; they gave me my own Bible, which I still use. I was the centre of attention for hours. Thereafter, everyone called me “Shepherd Andrew,” even though I was never comfortable with having a title. But that night, I felt so blessed by God. I felt that God was smiling on me through the smiles of my missionary friends, because I had obeyed his command to be a shepherd. My journal entry records the emotions for posterity:
Praise God, I am so blessed! … I was anointed as a shepherd to teach the Bible to fellow students. Many people prayed for me … that I keep following Jesus as my light, to keep me away from the darkness of sin, and be a good and fruitful shepherd for God’s glory. Then we had a birthday celebration and they gave me some gifts (wow)! (Oct 2001)
So now I was a shepherd. The Bible says that Jesus is our shepherd; it doesn’t say anything about me being a shepherd. “I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus in John 10; but I took UBF’s misinterpretation of Scripture and tried to be the best shepherd I could be. I was given numerical goals: I prayed to personally invite 25 people to the upcoming Christmas worship service, to personally fish 1 sheep, to have 12 disciples at Friday meetings, to have 60 people at our Sunday service. I had a weekly Bible study with Work Hard, came to Wednesday morning meetings, wrote my testimony, led the Thursday group study, coordinated Friday meetings, and stayed at the UBF Bible centre for most of Sunday. I was given the task of co-writing the Christmas musical drama along with Andy, composing all the songs, and conducting the choir. It seemed I now had to do more and more to please my coworkers. At the same time, outside of UBF, I performed concerts with my band, Phlak, hung out at home with my housemates, started a relationship with a new girlfriend, and … oh, yes, tried to make it through 4th year math courses at Waterloo! As you might expect, I was slowly going crazy. My marks plummeted because I simply didn’t study or do any homework. But let me tell you, I put on a brave face every week in my testimonies. When I started to panic over the cracks appearing in my life, I spouted the following: “I must have practical resurrection faith, faith that believes in the power of God to bring 180 attendants to our Christmas celebration and to rescue me out of distress over exams.” And later, when we were studying the story of the three Wise Men:
…sometimes after a long day of classes all I want to do is just relax and watch TV. Throughout the last two weeks I have listened to my housemates playing their computer games while I studied or wrote testimonies, and in my heart have been envious of all their fun. Some of my friends wonder why I seem to torture myself by writing a testimony every week, or by getting up before six o’clock for an early morning meeting. And, they ask, do I really have to go to the meeting every single Friday night? At times I have listened to them and pondered the meaning of all this, myself. But now the answer is clear. I am constantly wavering in my faith and commitment, but one thing is certain: I want to seek the truth. The Magi kept travelling westward, at night, sleeping all day, trusting the star and journeying with one goal in mind: to get to the end and find the true object of their worship…I need to keep my own closed minded perceptions at bay, study the Bible faithfully, and go wherever God leads me, like the Wise Men. (Dec. 2001)
I think one of my biggest problems is the love of my own life. I love my friends, my family . . . Doing things I love to do takes up a lot of my time and money. Even as I write this, my housemates are in the nearby room playing a fun board game … I want to join them but I had to force myself to retire to my room and write this testimony. [The Bible passage I’m studying] is a head-on challenge to the way I live my life, because it tells me that I have to hate my life and love God. (Jan. 2002)
Then, in that same testimony, I went on to extol the virtues of Dr. Samuel Lee (whose funeral I attended in Chicago in January, 2002) and Missionary Work Hard for how they had given up their whole lives to serve undeserving students like me. Therefore I should hate my life and give it up for UBF ministry.
Ladies and gentlemen, there is a term for all of this. This is called “spiritual abuse.” I was involved in a church that was abusing me. I was giving everything I had to UBF because I thought I was serving God and earning his approval, and that of his wonderful missionaries. I was ignoring my school work, my personal relationships with family and friends, and my own hobbies just so I could give more and more time to UBF. And what did I get in return? A sense of guilt that I was not yet doing enough, and just enough human encouragement to keep me going. All of this came to a head at the end of 2001.
The big Christmas Worship Celebration, for which I served as co-writer, composer, conductor, co-director, MC, and actor, was a great success. My family and my new girlfriend, Chantelle, attended. My mom was so proud to see me involved in Christian activities, but I knew she had reservations about the group. Like a good mother, she told me of her concerns and then supported and encouraged me all the way. I was both flushed with success and completely and utterly exhausted after the Christmas service. I went away to relax with Chantelle after it was over, feeling I had finally done enough to earn God’s favour. I was not prepared for what happened next.
Just before leaving for the Christmas break, Missionary Work Hard summoned me for a chat. There in his office, he broke me down completely with a string of rebukes. Work Hard told me that I had failed in my commitment to the ministry. In the week leading up to the Christmas service, I had seemed proud, rather than humble and helpful. I had snubbed my coworkers by not doing enough to help them prepare for the service. I had selfishly spent time with my own friends instead of worshipping Jesus, studying the Bible, and giving my whole heart to the event. Because he was my shepherd, I listened to him as I would listen to God, and accepted everything he said. The testimony I wrote after the fact records my self-condemnation:
I was indeed blessed to be used by God as composer, conductor, actor, drama co-director, and co-presider for this wonderful event, bringing all my talents to bear as I knew God wanted me to do. However, as the date approached, I unfortunately did not respond in a proper fashion, running into problems with my old nemesis, selfishness. Despite all the Bible study leading up to December 16th, my mind was still firmly focused on myself, my exam schedule, and the concerns of my personal friends. Therefore, I failed to give myself fully to helping Andy and the hardworking missionaries with all the work that had to be done. Even most of the other students did more work than me. Afterwards, Missionary Work Hard Yoon, acting as God’s wise messenger, confronted me with these lapses, pointing out how I had selfishly spent time with my friend Chantelle instead of worshiping Jesus and working hard at this crucial moment. I knew his rebuke was from God; I reacted with bitter tears of frustration upon realizing how I had repaid the self-sacrificing love, prayers, and food preparation of my missionary co-workers with complete laziness and pride.
Work Hard also rebuked me for not helping him move in December. So, yes, in front of my shepherd, I cried tears of guilt because I thought God was scolding me for my horrible effort. I sobbed in front of him as he read the charges against me. In this particular testimony, the one that sickens me the most to read now, I vowed to repent of my failure and better serve my coworkers. I promised to stop being a bad shepherd. Looking back on the situation, of course I was a “bad shepherd”! I had five final exams to write, a new girlfriend, and a musical drama to produce. Yet he convinced me that I had screwed up. In one of the worst instances of spiritual abuse I experienced, Work Hard tore me down and then rebuilt me by giving me a bit of hope, saying that Jesus always forgives those who sincerely repent. Of course, what he meant by “repent” was “do more to serve UBF.”
After the Christmas fiasco, I was completely hooked into UBF. I took as my 2002 yearly key verse John 10:11, “I am the good shepherd,” intending to imitate Jesus and become an even better shepherd. I wrote better, longer testimonies, containing more specific confession of sins. I organized a praise band and talked about starting up an orchestra. I made plans to do my dream job in UBF, which was to do Bible studies with high school students. I talked about wanting to stay in UBF after graduation. I even went with Shepherd Andy to “fish” on the Waterloo campus – that is, accost people and ask them if they wanted to study the Bible (i.e., recruit them into UBF). I was terrible at this, and never really believed in what I was doing, but I did it anyway, to become a more spiritual man. At the same time, my spiritual life was actually crumbling – I behaved immorally and selfishly, all the while constantly crying out in my testimonies for God to make me fruitful and useful.
Around this time, I had a strong desire to be baptized. Christians are instructed in the Bible to do this as an expression of their faith. I hadn’t done it yet, so I went to Work Hard to ask about it. Now, I had never heard of a baptism being performed in UBF, nor had we ever celebrated communion. I was always told that these rituals were not important compared to the task of campus evangelism. Anyway, a UBF leaders’ meeting was coming up, and Work Hard said I might be baptized there in front of all the leaders by the regional director, Dr. Paul Hong. This sounded fine to me, but before the meeting, I met with Work Hard in his new house to discuss things. We talked about my wish to be baptized and my desire to lead a high school student ministry. At this point he came out and asked me about the nature of my relationship with Chantelle (I had started to bring her to UBF meetings). When I admitted that our relationship was a romantic one, he gave me a “direction” – he said that if I wanted to be baptized or serve high school ministry, I would have to give up this relationship. It was not appropriate for UBF leaders to have girlfriends. Indeed, as I learned later, in UBF, your shepherd chooses a suitable wife for you. They arrange marriages between young students; they do not allow dating even among UBF members. So I think Work Hard was embarrassed to have me be baptized by his boss, when he knew I had a girlfriend. He was very clear: if I wanted to do the things my heart was longing for, I had to sever my relationship. Again, I took his words as God’s will for my life. I had some doubts, and so did my parents, but I accepted his direction.
When I told Chantelle that my shepherd had said we could no longer see each other, she obviously did not take it very well. Our relationship ended soon after that. Privately, I mourned this latest loss, but at the testimony meeting, I turned it around and proclaimed yet another glorious casualty of my strong faith in God. But, as it turned out, I did not get baptized – we decided to let it pass “until I was ready.”
In the spring, we had a UBF student retreat. At this event, Work Hard decided to appoint me as a student messenger. He told me I was to deliver a sermon on a passage from 1 Corinthians 15. I quickly learned something else about my church: in UBF, if you are a student messenger, you have to undergo “message training”. Actually, my message training was quite mild compared to some I have read about (Shepherd Andy was often severely trained). Basically, I had to study the passage with Work Hard, write a testimony, get his approval, change the testimony into a sermon, and send it to him for editing. Work Hard would suggest changes, which I would incorporate. We would do this back and forth thing until my final draft contained all the proper UBF interpretations. Then I had to learn to deliver the message properly. I had to be trained to speak in a slow, halting way – to sound like a Korean missionary. This was so that the message would turn out to be more “graceful”. I remember going home to practice in front of my mother. She thought my new mannerisms and inflections were strange, but encouraged me to do what I thought was best. Finally, the week before the retreat, I had to attend an early morning prayer meeting every day at 7:00 A.M. I have no idea how I survived that week, staying up all night doing assignments and getting up at 6. Finally, the big weekend arrived, and I delivered my message with much grace; I got a lot of compliments – people wrote testimonies based on my message. This encouragement kept me going for a while longer, but by this time, cracks had begun to form in my former rock-solid faith in UBF.
In April, some further things happened to cause me to question. For a mission trip to Toledo, Andy and I were slated to perform a song in two-part harmony. We practiced a lot, and I thought it sounded pretty good. Then, in the van on the way to Toledo, Work Hard decided to nix Andy’s vocal harmony part. I wasn’t sure who made him the music director, and I politely, if firmly, spoke up in defence of Andy. Later, Andy told me that I had made a serious error by questioning Work Hard’s judgement, especially in front of the other students. I remember that my reaction was – “what, are we supposed to be robots?” Actually, I wasn’t far wrong.
So, my life in UBF was approaching a climax. Outwardly, I was more involved than ever, finally becoming the high school ministry leader as Work Hard had promised, and devoting myself totally to the music ministry. But inwardly the last few incidents had caused me to seriously doubt the kind of organization to which I was giving my life. One of the final straws came in June. I was planning to stay in Waterloo after graduation so I could keep serving UBF. I planned to move in with Shepherd Andy, right next door to the UBF centre, so I could do even more UBF activities. Then we had a meeting during which Work Hard raised the “fishing” (recruiting) goal for the summer from 500 to two thousand people. He gave me a goal to talk to 150 people on campus over the summer to try and recruit them to UBF. Then he selected me as messenger once again, this time for the Sunday worship service while he and Andy went off to Korea for a big meeting. Things seemed to be getting way out of control.
Then one day in June, with Andy and Work Hard gone, something popped into my mind. I started thinking about all the students who had left UBF. The leaders had always told me that they were rebellious, or they had run away, or other problems prevented them from remaining in the ministry. I remembered that Andy had once talked of a group of people, known as the “R-Group”, who had split off from UBF and now opposed and persecuted it. I said to myself, “I’m going to look up this R-Group.” I’m sure now that it was God, really God, who put this idea in my mind. I didn’t need a human shepherd to tell me what to do. I went to the computer lab and looked up UBF on the Internet, something I had curiously never done before.
For the next several hours, I sat in shock as I read countless testimonies about the true UBF: stories of spiritual abuse, physical abuse, financial impropriety, abuse of power, even rape, forced abortions and forced divorces. I was devastated, not wanting to believe the stories, yet something told me they were true. I read how huge sums of offering money that members like I had offered, believing it would be used for a good purpose, were piled up on some secret bank accounts in Chicago and Benoit (MS), and that there was no proper report and accounts of all the offering money. I read about the real side of UBF chief Dr. Samuel Lee, how everyone worshipped him as an idol, even though he was a monster of a man, a greedy, power hungry, abusive and controlling dictator. About how he demanded that all UBF chapter leaders model themselves after his pattern, about how he administered inhumane “training” methods, such as forcing people to walk barefoot for miles, undress in front of him, and sit in freezing water. This all went back to the Sixties. A group of people had been expelled in 1976 for opposing Lee, and it happened again in 2001 (I hadn’t heard anything about it!) It took me a while to accept, but I realized that the true heritage of UBF is one of spiritual abuse and deception. The Holy Spirit revealed the truth of the matter to me, at just the right time, before I could move in with this cult.
But I was absolutely crushed. I went back and read the official UBF newsletter, and saw for the first time, with fresh eyes, how everyone seemed to praise Samuel Lee and barely mention God. Everything I’d had doubts about – the rebukes, the baptism fiasco, the arranged marriages, the shepherd-sheep relationships, the spiritual authority, the insane drive for numerical goals – came back to me and I knew that my entire life, for the last two years, had been spent serving a false ministry. My entire basis for self-worth, the system I’d depended on to make me feel valued, was a sham. What a horrible blow that was. I talked to my family about it; they were so supportive -- they never stopped praying. I prayed to God about it; on my knees, I sought the true God, not some UBF version of God. I prayed and I asked him what he wanted me to do. In the end my conscience told me that there was only one option: I had to get out of this thing. But, Sunday was approaching and I still had a sermon to deliver!
The rest of that weekend was rather surreal, as the missionaries took me out for lunch and praised my graceful message. And even though I was planning to leave UBF, I still had to make myself spout things like, “I can fish 150 people by faith!” At last, I was able to get away. I drove home to Peterborough and immediately emailed Work Hard in Korea, telling him that I was resigning from UBF and detailing the exact reasons why. It seemed strange to be leaving a church this way, but I had read that UBF members will try to twist your thinking and convince you to stay. I resolved to simply cut the ties and quit, no matter how impersonal it had to be. It was hard, because Work Hard and Andy were my friends; how could I do this to them? But, after it was over, I felt a great relief in my soul. Afterwards, Andy wrote to me and tried to allay my fears and defend the ministry. Work Hard invited me to meet with him in Waterloo; I did this when I was getting my furniture out of the UBF apartment. We talked and talked and he did all he could to defend UBF, but I was convinced that the revelation I had had was truly from God, so I did not back down. I did not let him bring me to tears, as he had done before. I stood up for myself and based my objections on Scripture, which says in Matthew 23 to not take titles for yourself, and call yourself “Rabbi” and “teacher” and “father” as UBF leaders do.
After that I went home and spoke with my hometown pastor in my old church, and he immediately baptized me, without any unscriptural conditions. I delivered my baptism testimony in front of my whole family, a true testimony devoid of any UBF language. And I moved on, rather shakily but with a new spiritual milestone and a sense wonder at the God who had rescued me.
So here I am, rescued from an abusive cult-like organization by what I believe to be divine intervention. And now, having told my tale, I want to get to my main point. This is the most important part of my story. When I left UBF, I could have been bitter. I could have rejected Christianity completely because of the way I had been treated. But I did not do this. You see, there is a difference between the artificial, fallible religious systems that human beings set up, and the true gospel of Jesus Christ. When I started to read the Bible for myself, without my shepherd’s guidance, I could clearly see that UBF was not following Scripture. In UBF, your worth is determined by how well you can obey your shepherd. They teach you that obeying your Bible teacher is the same as obeying God. If you want God to be pleased with you, they say, then you must submit and give your life to UBF ministry. If you manage to obey everything they ask of you, then you will feel a temporary sense of value, until they rebuke you for your failures and ask you to try harder. In UBF your value is always hanging by a thread. My friends, this is not the gospel. From the moment I escaped UBF up to the present, I have been learning about the real Jesus Christ. In the gospel we learn about the incomparable grace of God: the God that so loved the world that he sent his Son to die for it. There are no secret conditions, no performance evaluations needed to come to God. There is no need for a human shepherd to interpret God’s word for you. As for your worth or value – God has already acted to secure this for all time. The Bible says, “We have now been justified by his blood.” (Romans 5:9) “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) “He has now reconciled you in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.” (Colossians 1:22) “So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.” (Galatians 4:7) “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) (No wonder Galatians is not studied in UBF!) And on and on it goes! The true gospel is this: I was lost, hopeless, trying to win my way into God’s approval by doing more work and hoping to behave properly, yet failing miserably at every turn. There was nothing I could do to make myself valuable to anyone, yet this was the thing I longed for most. But, seeing my helplessness, God intervened. He sent Jesus Christ to be perfect in my place, and take the punishment that should have been mine. And now I am valuable because God has decreed it so. How do I know? He tells me in his Word. Look at those verses! God has adopted me as a son, he has set me free, has rescued me from condemnation, and made me blameless. I didn’t do anything. And it was all free of charge. I do not have to, indeed, I cannot, do anything to make me valuable to God. He has done it all himself. And what is required of me? Only to believe, turn away from my old way of doing things, and accept this gift. And the deal is done. I am valuable because the Creator of the universe says so.
So, that’s the true gospel. In UBF they talked about it a lot, but until I left, I never understood the real meaning of grace. Now I am learning who Jesus Christ really is. That is why you simply cannot judge the claims of an entire faith based on the actions of a few people who profess to represent it. If you are currently rejecting Christ because someone who called himself a Christian has offended you, then you need to get over your stereotype and examine Jesus Christ for yourself. You can’t reject Islam just because a few Muslims turned out to be terrorists. Similarly, should I now be prejudiced against Koreans, just because most of the UBF members were Korean? Of course not! I have enjoyed many friendships with Koreans since leaving UBF. In fact, I have forgiven Work Hard and all the missionaries for everything that happened. I realize that most, perhaps all of them, were genuine people, trying to live a Christian life, and who just got mixed up in an abusive system. I do not blame them, and I am not angry with God over that time in my life. As I said, I have been able to see that their actions did not represent the true nature of Christ. What I am saying here is that you must use your own God-given intelligence to make up your own mind about things. Sometimes you must be willing to admit that you are wrong, and change your mind, if new evidence arises. I freely admit that I was wrong about UBF. I swore up and down before my family and friends that UBF was the greatest organization I had ever seen. When I learned the truth, I had to admit that I was completely wrong and had to start relearning everything I thought I knew about Christian life. Human organizations will fail and grow corrupt, but I have never seen anything that can challenge the grace of God. But I wonder how many people will refuse to turn to Jesus, no matter how much evidence is presented to them, simply because they are too stubborn, busy or prejudiced to even consider it. The Bible says that all people “are without excuse” (Romans 1:20), because God has given everyone a brain and all the evidence they need.
In conclusion, I cannot stress enough that young people must be careful. It is a big world out there with many ideas. God has created you with intelligence and a conscience that can tell the difference between right and wrong, so don’t abandon these when you leave high school! I am not a stupid or naive person, but I was deceived for a time because of my deep longing to be valued by others. You must not look to the things of this world to make you feel valuable: they will always let you down. Watch out for things that sound good, but are rotten at the core; all cults are like this. They disguise their abusive nature with an appealing exterior. UBF seemed good because we studied the Bible a lot. I was also initially drawn to UBF because of the friendliness of the missionaries, who constantly praised me and gave me free food. I certainly made good friends in UBF; we did fun events like soccer and ping-pong tournaments (of course, everyone knows that Koreans are good at those games!) People noticed me. This, in cult terminology, is known as the “love bombing” stage, a time where cult leaders build up the recruit’s loyalty to the group by being as nice as possible. But when this stage ends, the guilt-tripping can begin; leaders can remind the recruit of how they got all that attention, love and food, and how they should now give all their time and money to the group out of gratitude. Other cult tactics include isolation from one’s family and friends, endless activities to keep members too busy to think properly, sleep deprivation, forced obedience, subtle twisting of the Bible, and reverence towards a leader figure. My personal story shows that UBF uses all these strategies. In order to avoid getting abused in this way, I want you to be on your guard. You may find yourself disagreeing with people in your life about spiritual matters, but you must never deliberately cut ties with the people who truly care for you – in my case, my family and friends. Without the continued support of my parents and close friends, I would be nowhere today. Search the Internet for articles about any group you encounter. Listen to others’ advice, pray to God by yourself, read the Bible for yourself. God will reveal the truth to you if you sincerely seek him. Because I was paying attention at the right time, I was saved from further abuse.
Every young person has such potential. It breaks my heart to see today’s youth being deceived by all the fads, false teachings, and media messages that this messed up world has to offer. Have you exercised your free will lately? Have you been able to see through the deception? God is waiting to give you everything you need to survive this brief life we live. I urge you to learn from my experiences. God will not love you more if you work harder for him. Nor does he need a special human interpreter to make his will known to you; I learned this the hard way. If you want to know how much you are loved, appreciated and valued by God right now, pick up a Bible and simply read it for yourself.
“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1)