How I left the cult: Escaping religious sect Providence

by Rosel Labone / 16 July, 2018
university campus

University campuses are a favourite recruiting ground for Providence.

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Providence, a religious sect based on the teachings of a South Korean “messiah” and convicted sex offender has quietly infiltrated university campuses, schools and mainstream churches in New Zealand. 

Reverend Dr Carolyn Kelly works as a chaplain at Auckland University. She says the young women she’s encountered who have extracted themselves from Providence are reluctant to speak about their experiences, but shared this letter written by one of the sect’s former members:

Before Providence, I was a strong, independent and confident 15-year-old, who because of life’s circumstances, lost somebody I was very close to. My vulnerability and grief led me to put my faith in a belief system I knew little about, which regrettably, turned out to be manipulative, dangerous and psychologically damaging.

Jeong Myeong-seok [was] convicted for rape and embezzlement... This information is concealed from followers and twisted to portray him as the saint he claims to be. On reflection, his teachings are only to serve his own agenda.

For me, the first year in Providence felt great. I believed I was following the resurrected “messiah” of the second coming and I couldn’t have been happier. Yet over time, I isolated myself from friends and family and both my health and school work took a turn for the worse. As the expectations in Providence are unobtainable, I felt as if I was consistently over-exerting myself to achieve them, and in the end failing. Not only did I have low self-esteem, but I also began to hear and feel things that weren’t there, due to sleep deprivation. The fear of “sinning”, “hell” and “repentance” made me unable to express myself and, regrettably, I resorted to self-harm.

When I was 18, I began to distance myself from their teachings. I was exasperated from being told I should not have friends outside of Providence. As my best and most supportive friend from childhood was not a member, this caused an internal conflict. And, because I was no longer caught up in the cycle of over-exertion, sleep deprivation and incessant teachings that were too hard to keep up with, I realised Providence was not normal or okay.

I left Providence in October 2016 and shortly after, a psychotic episode followed. I was diagnosed with what is called brief reactive psychosis, which lasted about three months. This episode of psychosis was expressed as paranoia – the belief everybody was watching and talking about me. I had hallucinations, where I thought everything I heard on the television and the news was about me somehow putting people at risk. I was unable to distinguish what was real from what was not.

A number of times I attempted to call the police on myself, out of the indoctrinated belief that I was a horrible person and would go to hell for leaving Providence. I even had difficulties trusting my family and I was scared of my step-brothers, mostly due to the constant reinforcement in Providence that hugging my brothers, my dad – having anything to do with the opposite sex – was sinful and the work of Satan.

I’m very grateful for my family, who supported and helped me through this. My mum took time off work to help me recover, and with the help of a psychologist and psychiatrist, I was well again by the end of January 2017. Coming out of any cult is extremely difficult, although it is one of the best choices I have ever made. I now feel as if I can freely express myself and do normal day-to-day tasks without the constant fear of “hell’s judgment”. It is vital to raise awareness about the destructive implications such teachings have on people’s health and their families.

Providence members seem extremely nice and caring, and usually they are. It is their sincerity and kindness that draws people in. They often don’t realise what they are doing is manipulative and damaging. This is concerning, as when they sincerely believe they are helping people and saving lives, they are only doing damage, breaking apart families and causing psychological harm. Of course, they too are caught up in a cycle of indoctrination and psychological abuse. For them, it is hard to leave; they sincerely believe Providence teaches the truth, and a lot of pressure is put on them to recruit and teach people. Even inside Providence, everybody seems very happy and acts like they’re succeeding with little problems. In fact, most members struggle psychologically while in Providence, though it’s not easily seen.

Providence promotes the idea that there is something wrong with a person when they fail to achieve its high standards. In reality those standards are not realistic. It was not until after I left Providence that I realised I wasn’t the only one who struggled psychologically.

This was published in the June 2018 issue of North & South.

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