Providence is a secretive Korean church that has recruited Australian members in shopping centres and on university campuses.
For the first time, former members of the church in Canberra speak openly with The Feed on being initiated into a group they say recruits young woman as spiritual brides for its leader – a man who is currently serving time in a South Korean prison for rape.
The group says it has nothing to hide and that it is just like any other religious group. They say their leader is not a messiah and that the church is not a cult.
But some allege that once inside, members are given a much different picture.
"At times I felt suicidal, at times I felt completely just like road kill I guess, just run over, used by someone else for their own purposes and then just cast aside," says Liz.
In 2011, Liz was shopping in the Canberra Centre when a Korean woman asked if she would fill out a survey.
"I didn’t think I was joining anything," says Liz. "They said they were doing a Christian art show and so they emailed me some pictures and it looked wonderful, it looked awesome, so I said I’d meet up with them and chat with them about maybe participating.”
Liz joined Providence church in April 2011 and moved into a house with other members of the group in December 2011.
Sarah was also approached by the group and asked to come along to a music night.
“I just got such a good feeling from her," says Sarah. "She seemed so friendly and really nice and I didn’t think anything bad could really happen from it.”
"One of the girls suggested that maybe I could do bible studies with them and I remember her saying that it didn’t necessarily have to be really religious."
Providence is a religious group founded in South Korea in 1982 by Jeong Myeong-seok. The group has several other names, including JMS and Christian Gospel Mission.
Providence was set up in Australia in 1997. The group refused to say where it operates from in Australia.
Following accusations of sexual assault, Jeong Myeong-seok fled Korea in 1999. In 2001 he was charged with rape and in 2003 he was arrested in Hong Kong.
In April 2009, the Supreme Court of South Korea sentenced Jeong to 10 years in prison on charges of rape and molestation.
"They told us that he was in prison because... he was being persecuted and falsely accused,” says Liz. "They said we are in the position of brides towards God and we are also in the position of brides towards Jeong, the leader, because he represents God."
According to Liz - members of the group prayed to images of Jeong alongside Jesus. They were also given necklaces as a symbol of dedicating their life to Jeong and remaining unmarried.
"We were explained that the three pearls and just the way that they are placed is meant to signify a vagina," says Liz. "Jeong is woman obsessed. And he is sex obsessed. Yeah. And I guess he … wanted his women to be wearing symbolism that fit him."
Members of the group were also encouraged to write letters to Jeong. Sarah says the letters were often quite personal.
"I would often write to him about how difficult things were for me at home, all the tension and conflict that was happening in my family," says Sarah.
"My head leader was telling me to write to him like he was my husband or like he was my lover and he would write back in the same way," says Liz. "Some of the letters were quite intimate. So, he would say things like ‘women are much more beautiful when they are naked’ and he said my white skin arouses him."
Liz was also asked to visit Jeong in his Korean prison.
"We got a 15 minute visit with him," says Liz. "He knew me by name when I stepped into the room, so he had obviously seen my photos and he told me through letters that he would stroke our photos on the wall of his cell."
Peter Daley moved to South Korea in 2003 to teach English and started the website JMS Cult after attending a Providence event.
"We have this bizarre situation where a serial rapist is brought young attractive women… to him in Jail," says Mr Daley.
Mr Daley has spent the last 10 years tracking Providence. The purpose of JMS Cult is to warn people about joining this group.
"If you look at all their events and all their propaganda and material through the lens of a serial rapist, it all makes sense," says Mr Daley. "When I first heard about them in Australia, it was quite a shock because I encountered them on this mountain in the middle of South Korea, it was just so far removed from my experience of growing up in Australia… they seemed like galaxies apart."
"I read a news report that said several years ago it was estimated there were 140,000 members in Korea, but it is hard to get a grip on the numbers because it is a very secretive group."
Providence church in Canberra ran a modelling group on the Australian National University campus to recruit members.
Liz says this is because the leader wants to "target young beautiful women".
"He wants to have as many beautiful women believing that they are in love with him and believing they would give every part of themselves to him," says Liz. "I don’t really know what he thinks will happen when he comes out of prison but I know he will have a very big following of beautiful women."
Sarah and Liz both say members of the group were encouraged to find and recruit new members through evangelism.
"I was at times encouraged to go out and evangelise with other members of the group but I didn’t really feel comfortable doing this," says Sarah.
"In a cult, the end justifies the means," says Liz. "We believe that everything we were doing was right. We believe that we were trying to save people’s lives and people’s spirits and that some things that you are doing are justified because it is God’s will. I did believe that I was doing the right thing when I was trying to evangelise girls."
The Feed approached Providence for an interview on the 10 March 2014.
After repeated attempts to interview Providence in Seoul, the group refused to be interviewed on camera.
Head of external affairs, Andrew Choi, provided written responses to some of our questions, but declined to comment on specific allegations about the group’s operation in Australia:
On the number of churches and members in Australia: “We do not choose to answer this question.”
On the use of front groups to recruit members: “We do not agree to comply with this ‘fishing’ for information”.
On flying members to visit the leader in prison: “Members fund their own travel”.
On members being asked to cut of ties with family: “Denied”.
Ros Hodgkins is president of Cult Information and Family Support, which was founded after her own daughter became involved in a cult.
"We are dealing with a group that is unethical, that is saying that it is OK to lie to your parents, it is OK to lie to those outside the truth, because our truth is higher," says Ms Hodgkins. "I think the biggest misconception that people would have about cults is that it’s just some crazy people that get into them."
Ros says her group has spoken to hundreds of people who have left cults in Australia and says there could be 3000 cults operating in Australia today.
In 2013, Ms Hodgkins was contacted by Liz and Sarah’s parents after they became concerned about their daughter’s involvement in the church.
But leaving groups like Providence can be difficult. Liz says the group discourages people from leaving by warning them of what will happen to them outside the church.
"I was told that Satan uses parents to get people out of the group, so you know, don’t communicate with them as much as you can help it," says Liz. "There wasn’t any option to leave because, you know, the way that you are brainwashed to believe reality is that everything will be horrific after you leave."
Liz had previously suffered from an eating disorder, but had recovered before joining the group. As she become more involved in the group, her health started to decline.
But it wasn't until Liz was hospitalised due to her illness that she was able to get help leaving the group.
"When I came out of my time in hospital, I was kind of forced to stay with my mother for a couple of weeks and she managed to fly in an exit counsellor from the US to come and speak to me," says Liz. "It was incredibly painful to sort of realise that what I had been sacrificing everything for the past sort of two years was a lie."
"The only way I could describe it was rape. Even though it wasn’t physical, it was mental and it was emotional and it was spiritual rape. I felt violated."
Sarah also managed to leave the group after receiving some help and information from Ms Hodgkins. She says leaving Providence was a good decision for her and has helped make her life better.
"I couldn’t really deny that there were bad things happening in this group and it kind of got to a point where I realised, and I still remember hearing this voice in my head, is that I don’t want to be in Providence anymore," says Sarah. "I’ve just had so much more freedom since I left the group. I have just been so much happier and so much more relaxed."
The Feed contacted Providence more than three weeks before airing this program. Numerous requests to interview a spokesperson in Australia and South Korea were refused.
An extract of The Feed’s correspondence with Providence can be found here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/217192865/Extracts-of-Correspondence-With-Providence-Representative-in-South-Korea.
The Feed would like to thank Liz and Sarah for having the courage to share their stories.