uring the summer break after her junior year of high school, Elise* travelled to South Korea from Chicago with her mother for what was meant to be a six-week holiday.
Instead, the 17-year-old ended up trapped in Grace Road Church, a cult whose leader was arrested in August accused of depriving followers of their liberty and participating in ritual beatings. While there, Elise was forced to attend five-hour sermons, denied medication and told she would never see her father and sister again.
Elise’s mother organised the trip in 2013 after discovering her daughter smoked marijuana. The holiday was supposed to allow Elise – who was born in the US to Korean parents – a chance to spend time with her Korean family and have a break from her American friends.
But, after two weeks with family, Elise’s mother took her to stay at Grace Road Church in Gwacheon, just south of Seoul.
The church, which denies it is a cult, has branches in both South Korea and Fiji, where hundreds of church members moved in 2014 after its leader, Pastor Shin Ok-ju, said there would be a famine in Korea and Fiji was the promised land where they would survive.
Shin was arrested last month along with three other church leaders, accused of stranding followers in Fiji and subjecting them to violent rituals.
Elise and her mother started living at the church, sleeping on mats on the floor of a room they shared with as many as 12 women, above a hall where Shin gave five-hour sermons.
“At the end of June she decided ‘let’s spend the weekend here’, then the weekend turned into let’s spend the entire week here. I thought: ‘what the heck?’ This wasn’t part of the plan,” Elise told the Guardian.
Elise realised she had effectively been kidnapped when she had been at the church for about two weeks.
She had been fighting with her mother about wanting to leave and, feeling a panic attack coming on, went to get her anti-anxiety medication. Her mother told her she had thrown it away because medicine was frowned upon by the church. Elise’s mother also took away her laptop and iPod – her means of communicating with her sister and friends back in the US.
“I’m hyperventilating at this point and I’m freaking out,” said Elise. “It dawned on me: these people are not normal.”
When Elise refused to leave the small room three members of the church half-carried, half-dragged her downstairs to the sermon. Elise says she was screaming at them not to touch her. Over her screams Elise says she could hear the pastor of the church, Shin Ok-ju, tell the congregation; “Do you hear that? She has a demon inside of her and that’s why she’s screaming. Do you want to turn out like that?”
Elise was forced to sit in the front row of the church service, directly in front of Shin.
“She’s calling me out and saying how much an evil person I am and how I need to accept her word and how I’m going to go to hell and how the medicine I take makes me crazy. I thought I’m going to throw up, I can’t escape. I’m looking at my mum and signing her [to say] I need my medicine, but she’s completely ignoring me. I don’t know what to do, I’m basically just trying not to pass out.”
Since Shin’s arrest, church members have told how they had their passports taken from them when they arrived in Fiji and were forced to work without pay. Shocking video footage has also emerged that appears to show Shin beating her followers and encouraging them to beat one another in the church in South Korea.
Grace Road Church refused to comment for this story, but in a statement previously provided to the Guardian, said these beatings, called “threshing floors” are a “perfectly biblical” way of “publicly reproving” followers who have sinned.
Elise eventually managed to leave the compound during a service and made it to a nearby convenience store where she called her sister, who told her that she and their father would come to get her. While she was on the phone, Elise’s mother walked into the shop and began looking for her.
“I’m ducking between the aisles of the convenience store,” says Elise. “I feel like I’m in a scary movie and the killer is on the other side of the corner and you’re trying to hide from them.”
The next day, Elise’s father, sister and uncle arrived and Elise left with them. “That’s the last time I’ve ever seen my mum,” said Elise.
But Elise was not free. Without a passport – her mother told her she had cut it up – Elise had to go to the embassy to get a travel document. Elise’s father believes he was followed by church members to the embassy. The day before their flight was due to leave Korea for the US, Elise’s mother cancelled the ticket.
“I would think what if I’m not actually here, what if this is a really intense dream, just like the dream I had back in Korea,” she said.
Eventually, Elise was hospitalised after she self-harmed. Her mother called her while she was in hospital and told her that people who killed themselves deserved to be in hell.
“How do you say that to your child?” said Elise. “How do you say that to anyone, but especially to your child? She completely changed, completely changed personality, she turned on me. My mum and I were pretty close before this all happened.”
The last Elise heard, her mother was still with the church and is not likely to return. Elise hopes the current investigation into Shin and Grace Road will lead to Shin being prosecuted.
“I hope that pastor – fake pastor – is served justice and people come to realise stuff like this does happen.”
Then came the nightmares. While at Grace Road, Elise would regularly dream that she was back in the US, going about her normal life. Once back in America she was diagnosed with PTSD.
* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the subject
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