My Korean Volunteerism at an End

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September 20th 2012
Published: September 21st 2012
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I’m about a month into my last semester in Korea. I can’t believe these last (almost 7!) months have gone so quickly. My second year has unquestionably been more difficult than my first. From most of my best friends moving out of my city, to feeling alienated once the other native English teacher left my school, to finding out an organization I’d spent a lot of time working with was associated with a fringe Korean church (or most say ‘cult’, but that’s the point of this post)—I’ve made it through a lot of changes. It’s only going to be uphill from here, as now I have to consider what to do after my contract finishes in February.

Now, about the “cult”, it’s quite a long story, but I’ll try to keep it simple. A note: It's pretty long, and sorry there aren't pictures. If you don’t care, I’ll soon put a post up about my life, so just come back in a couple hours/days.

I originally became associated with Mannam Volunteer Association last October or so, when there was a Facebook event about volunteering at the Andong Mask Festival. I love volunteering, and it was a free ride to the festival, so my friend and I joined. The day was fun. We helped put fake tattoos on kids who came by. I met a lot of nice young Koreans who spoke English! After living in Korea for about 6 months, I’d had trouble finding young Koreans to be friends with.

Anyways, Mannam was at that time setting up the international branch in my city, Daegu. Another event I attended in Daegu a few times was making Christmas cards, which were then sold to raise money to be donated to orphanages in the city. One time, we worked with the local Girl Scouts, which, as a former Girl Scout, was also right up my alley. Everything was going splendidly with Mannam, and in February I was asked to be a "foreign (non-Korean) coordinator", who would give input into events and help organize them.

It was an opportunity that’s hard to come by in Korea. “Mannam” in Korean means “meeting”, and I was meeting friendly Koreans and volunteering. We began meeting as foreign organizers, with only one or two Korean Mannam members. After a couple of months, though, I and a couple of other organizers began to question some things that happened. For one thing, at every event, about a quarter of the time devoted to the event actually went to everyone posing for pictures, and Mannam had a special gesture for “Victory”. In Korea, often you take pictures with the American peace sign (the meaning in Korea is actually for victory), but Mannam’s sign was like making an ‘L’ with your fingers but tilting it to the side.

Probably the beginning of my real doubts was that Mannam organized a “Natural Disaster Walk” in Daegu. The non-Korean organizers gave some input, but then weren’t actually involved in the preparations. The main suggestion we had was to raise money, collect donations, or something like that, but in the end, the attendees just walked around a park while being filmed most of the day. Every 3-5 minutes each group was asked to stop for pictures. A lot of people who’d attended left in the middle of the day, they were so frustrated by the obsession with pictures and the lack of any constructive work. Honestly, I was embarrassed that I was a “foreign organizer” for this organization because it had gone so poorly.

Before the Natural Disaster Walk, sometime in the spring, Daegu Mannam Korean volunteers began teaching free Korean language classes. They also organized some “food tours”, where we’d go out to dinner together to sample some Korean foods. At the same time, sports teams were formed. The two main sports teams were soccer and basketball “for foreigners”.

I started playing soccer (after maybe 4 years of not playing), and despite being one of the worst players, enjoyed the exercise, competition, and meeting new people. Something that concerned me was that Korean Mannam members who didn’t play soccer, especially women, would come with a professional camera and take pictures every time. Sometimes there was even a person with a huge video camera filming the entire scrimmage. I just didn’t understand why they were filming us playing. And they always insisted on posing for group pictures with the Mannam banner and doing the “Victory” sign after scrimmages. Something else I noticed as we continued was that occasionally (non-Mannam) Koreans would want to join us as we played. Of course, the foreigners welcomed them, but somehow after speaking with the Korean Mannam members (some of whom did play with us), they would leave, which was pretty odd.

Anyways, as the months passed, I and some other foreign organizers would talk about these strange things we’d experienced with Mannam. We heard (and I once saw) that Korean Mannam members (in the style of religious recruiters) would approach non-Korean-looking foreigners to invite them to events and try to get their phone numbers. Sometimes people were approached on subways, and other times it seemed the Mannam members were stationed at busy areas downtown. The way they did it was worrying because it seemed so religious, and yet from the beginning, Mannam had professed to be completely secular. Another aspect that always seemed religious was Mannam’s motto, “When light meets light, there is victory.” Even on their website, it said something in their mission statement about welcoming everyone and not prioritizing any religion. And, I couldn’t figure out why they seemed to try hard to get people (specifically foreigners) to join. It wasn’t as if they were converting them or getting money from them (everything was free or any money just covered direct expenses). Overall, there were just some puzzle pieces that we couldn’t put together.

This was coupled with some of the foreign organizers’ feelings that we hadn’t actually had a hand in doing real volunteering. Sure, the Korean members were volunteering to teach Korean, but all we’d really accomplished was 2 trips to a home for people with disabilities. It was just a bit like having a title but no responsibilities—the token foreigner. As time went on, we were notified later and later of events and had little if any role in actual planning.

Something else that occasionally came up was how Mannam was paying for all the free t-shirts, flyers/brochures about Mannam and its many events, free transportation to and food at events, and later an office building specifically for the international branch of Daegu Mannam. We were always told Mannam was member funded, and that they had some very generous donors. At the same time, they said we were under no obligation to donate money.

In early July I found out that Mannam’s chairman was a pastor in the religion “Shinch(e)onji”. I hadn’t heard of it before, but the scandal was that many Korean sources call Shincheonji a cult. At that time, I researched it, and couldn’t figure out why it was called a cult. In addition, the fact that a pastor was near the top of the order didn’t necessarily bother me—it wasn’t as if he was the founder of the religion. I just figured he'd given a lot of money because for some reason he really liked the organization. It did make me feel a bit more distrustful of Mannam in that they said so much about secularism, and yet had a pastor in an important position. However, at that time, some of the previously-mentioned irregularities were happening, so I wasn't exactly seeing rainbows and butterflies about Mannam.

Soon, there was another Mannam event I was unable to go to, a Sports Fun Day to raise money for a charity. I was happy to get out of it, because it seemed fishy. To begin with, at first, the charity it was benefitting was not made clear—it was called “The Center for Children with Severe Burns and Rare Diseases,” which sounds made-up, and I could find no real organization called that in English or Korean. I made them aware of this, and they eventually said they’d donate to a specific heart hospital in Seoul. I as of yet have seen absolutely no proof that the money was in fact donated. The second strange thing was that the event was co-hosted by the World Peace Initiative. After a good deal of searching on the internet, I realized it was an organization created by Mannam, and yet on neither of their websites was this made clear. The website also seemed to mislead people that it had existed for years (actually it (or at least the website) had been created only in 2012). There are unrelated organizations with the same name.

In any case, Korean Mannam members were starting to invite foreigners to a World Peace Festival/Olympiad in Seoul, which would take place September 16. In mid-August, a fellow posted a bit of an exposé about Mannam on a Daegu Facebook page, which virtually all English-speaking foreigners in Daegu are members of. From there, for me at least, all of the puzzle pieces came together. I’m not going to write everything here, but if interested, you can search for “Scroozle’s Sanctuary”, written by a blogger who’s done a wonderful job of researching the whole Mannam situation.

It turns out that the Mannam Chairman was not only a pastor in Shincheonji, but actually the founder and head of the church. Koreans seem to call it a cult because Shincheonji members would join other churches’ bible studies and activities, become friends with members, and slowly convince them to join Shincheonji instead. (In other words, they stole members from other churches.) In addition, this guy, Lee Man Hee, from how I understand it, essentially says that he is Jesus, which is a bit of an outlier opinion. I don’t know much about Shincheonji because most of the info is in Korean. And as far as I’m aware, they have not been accused of things most Americans would associate with cults—murdering, people leaving their families to live on communes, etc. Apparently members are convinced to donate a lot of money to this church.

Where does Mannam fit in? From the beginning, Lee Man Hee’s role in Mannam was portrayed as minimal. However, the chairwoman of Mannam’s name is Kim Nam Hee. It’s pretty coincidental that the name “ManNam” happens to be the same as the two head honcho’s first names, Man and Nam (Lee and Kim are family names). What really creeped me out is that Lee Man Hee and Kim Nam Hee’s name meanings are very similar to Mannam’s motto, “When light meets light, there is victory.” Most Korean names are actually Chinese characters, which each have meanings (for example, “Hee” means light). Combining the Korean letters for Lee and Kim makes the word “igim”, which means victory. Altogether you can write the motto in Korean using the chairpeople’s names. These and other evidence convinced me that Mannam was not an independent organization, but one very connected with Shincheonji.

Overall, Mannam has not really owned up to how connected they are to Shincheonji—probably they were created by Shincheonji, and they are most likely majorly funded by Shincheonji. The question many non-Koreans had was, “Why would Shincheonji do all this recruiting of foreigners without ever proselytizing to them?” It seems, and this is the real thing that bothered me, that they use us to legitimize their organization without our knowledge or consent. The Mannam “Victory” hand sign is the same sign Lee Man Hee has used in Shincheonji. It explains the obsession with picture taking and the obsession with the hand sign. The many pictures of foreign-looking people making that hand sign could easily be used by Shincheonji to portray us all as belonging to the church.

The kicker is that the Peace Festival in Seoul ended up being in the same place and on the same day as Shincheonji’s Olympiad. I’m sure it looked really good to have so many foreigners filling up the stadium, and the organizers could easily make it look like they all came to hear Mr. Lee. It does seem a lot of work just to gain a bit more legitimacy. Another theory is that the organization is doing “good works” in the community, and any time there is bad press, Shincheonji can point to their Korean language classes, volunteering, etc. to help neutralize the situation.

That brings us to how I dealt with it. From reading this, you may be wondering how I didn’t see all the strange occurrences as clear warning signs to get out, but many could be explained or considered as not a big deal. For the longest time I couldn’t really understand how the organization could be bad, when everyone I’d met was so kind, hadn’t tried to convert me to any religion, and hadn’t asked for money. I saw the positives, or at least the positive spirit, the organization had. I felt it was good for the foreign community to have more language classes available, and the possibility of volunteer opportunities.

However, once I’d read the plethora of information, including websites from the source, it was clear to me that I no longer wanted to be involved. Not only did I feel more used for my appearance than I had before, I realized the purpose, which was to make it seem like I believed this fellow was Jesus. It disturbs me that they have so many pictures of me doing that stupid hand sign.

I also didn’t want to be associated with an organization with such a bad reputation. More than that, in thinking about all my experiences with Mannam and discussing it with other foreign Mannam members, I gained new perspective, that the friendliness of all the Korean Mannam members was an act. We realized that each of us had initially had one or two members who’d met us for dinner and really pulled us into the organization. Until the end, I considered them my best friends in the organization.

Whether or not the Korean Mannam members realize what they are a part of is a toss of the coin. When I first met them, almost all denied being religious, but honestly I think many are actually with Shincheonji. They are certainly quite committed to Mannam. Now, I don’t know the statistics for the average Korean in their 20’s, but most of the Mannam Koreans I got to know well didn’t have a job and were also “on a break” from college; none that I knew of had a romantic partner; and only one went out drinking (despite that we often met for dinner downtown on Saturday nights).

I sent the main Korean a message detailing everything and essentially said I would have no more to do with them. I also messaged my foreign friends from the soccer team to explain my reasoning. I couldn’t see the point of cutting ties with only part of the organization, so unfortunately soccer also had to go. It was difficult because it had become a part of my life, and I’d met some cool people. More than that, no one else quit, that I know of. This eliminated the possibility of forming a different soccer group, and made me feel like a paranoid person. Even now, people message me to come back, but I can’t understand how they can continue to be involved.

Overall, the experience has made me feel cynical. Although something like this could happen in the US (in fact there is an identical Shincheonji spinoff in California called the Serving Group, same hand sign and all), the fact that I’m in a country where I don’t understand the language/culture causes a lot of difficulties. For a long time I explained away their excessive picture-taking as their being Korean—Koreans are known for their love of picture-taking, and also of often wanting to take pictures with lighter-skinned foreigners, even if they are strangers. Not understanding what the Korean Mannam members said between each other made it possible for them to talk about anything. In addition, it was hard to find information about Mannam/Shincheonji because of the language barrier.

I had a lot of hope for this organization when I first started, and at the end was disappointed. More than that, I lost a social group. I have other friends, but it was nice to meet people outside my normal circle of friends. And it’s sad to see the bad in people.

Sigh. I need to regain some momentum in my life . . .


21st September 2012

A good step back to feeling like a valued, positive member of your Korean neighborhood would be to volunteer as part of the YMCA's English program for disadvantaged Korean children. It's only two months (October to December), and only once a week for an hour or so. You can help the child of an immigrant mother learn English in a setting that is more comfortable and welcoming for them than the typical Korean classroom. Just look for the post in the Daegu YMCA Facebook group.
24th September 2012

Thanks Mike!
I'm thinking about it. I feel much better about working with the YMCA.
21st September 2012

Your not alone
I know a few people, including myself from all over Korea that are severing ties with Mannam. The way things are being handled is unfortuate.
24th September 2012

Sad Times
I'm glad you and others are realizing it. Hang in there!
23rd September 2012

Thank you!
Thanks for your article. It's well written and drives home your points of Mannam being a cult. As a counselor, I've worked with many Westerners that have been exploited by cults in Korea. Trust is difficult to build after having had been burnt. I hope that you will find some great friends that will love you for being you. Warmest regards, Y
24th September 2012

Thank you!
It's great to get such encouraging comments.

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