By Julia Marnin
A growing sense of uneasiness spread across campus as rumors of human trafficking filled students’ heads. Speculation was centered on multiple incidents where students encountered groups of people who invited them to a dubious off-campus event.
“They asked me and my roommate if we’d be interested in joining their bible study that meets off campus, but they didn’t tell us where,” said Kayla Mahns, a junior psychology major.
The way these people described their bible study was very vague, which made the invitation seem suspicious, according to Mahns.
Campus Police began to investigate the group that was approaching students on campus, and came to the conclusion that it was a religious organization called the World Mission Society Church of God.
“Our officers have investigated these reports and spoken directly with people associated with this group,” said Tim Grant, the College’s interim chief of police, in a campus-wide email. “At this time, we have found no cause for concern but will continue to monitor the situation.”
The World Mission Society is religious organization that originated in South Korea. Since then, it has established multiple churches across the U.S. A spokesman and missionary for the group, Victor Lozada, said that the organization has had multiple locations based in New Jersey for around 20 years. This religious organization is distinguished from others due to its unique belief in both a male and female God.
Members of the World Mission Society claim they have been falsely accused of luring female students into human trafficking at multiple college campuses, including Vanderbilt University and the University of Mississippi.
“The person now thinks that they were at risk of being kidnapped and trafficked,” Lozada said.
From his research, Lozada believes the rumors started from a Facebook post in California.
Viral posts on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter alleged that people who preach about “God, the mother” are actually a part of an elaborate human trafficking scheme. Students of the College eventually caught wind of these social media posts.
“My roommate ran into my room worried because she saw a screenshot posted in the ‘TCNJ Class of 2018’ (Facebook) page warning about the group,” Mahns said.
Lozada and members of the religious organization are very disappointed with the prevalence of such rumors revolving around their group. Immediately upon hearing these rumors, Lozada said “the first thing we did was go to the police department.”
The organization wanted to know what could be done to end these accusations because of the fear they had spread. Lozada said he was advised that the best thing he could do was issue statements on social media saying that the rumors were not true.
Lozada said he even approached some of the people who posted the accusations, and asked them to take them down. The individuals responded by saying that they wanted to raise awareness, even if the rumors were not true.
“These accusations fell upon us because we simply approach people and invite them to our bible study,” Lozada said. “No one fact-checked. Nobody did their research.”
It has become dangerous for followers of the church to preach their beliefs — Lozada said that some of the people who believe the allegations are calling for violence on members of the World Mission Society.
“Our members are getting harassing texts, phone calls, voicemails and death threats,” Lozada said. “Some members almost got ran over by vehicles and our churches are in the risk of being vandalized.”
Lozada said it is likely there are college students who are members of the church at some of the campuses where the rumors have spread.
“Our students preach when they’re in school. Our military members preach in the military. Members in the workforce preach in different fields,” he said.
Some of the students at the College had positive encounters with the religious organization.
Kara Barone, a sophomore nursing major, said one of the women she talked to gave her a phone number and a link to the World Mission Society’s website.
“They were actually nice,” Barone said. “I didn’t think they were a part of human trafficking (organization) until everyone started talking about it in my sorority’s group chat.”
The church has been actively reaching out to publications that have reported on this issue to subdue the damage of the human trafficking allegations.
“Yes, human trafficking is happening, but the rumors are sending people in the wrong direction,” Lozada said. “It’s hurting us as religious individuals because our basic beliefs are being attacked.”