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Elis was 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. She was also told she would never see her father and sister again.
Elise’s mother organized the trip in 2013 because she discovered that Elise smoked marijuana. Elise (who was born in the US to Korean parents) was supposed to spend time with her Korean family and have a break from her American friends. Instead, Elise’s mother took her to stay at Grace Road Church in Gwacheon, just south of Seoul.
The Grace Road Church denies it is a cult and it has branches in both South Korea and Fiji. Pastor Shin Ok-ju, leader of the church, was arrested last month along with three other church leaders, accused of stranding followers in Fiji and subjecting them to violent rituals. Shin’s followers traveled to Fiji in 2014 because she predicted there would be a famine across the Korean peninsula. But once they arrived, their passports were confiscated and a group personally selected by Shin known as “guardians” prevented the worshipers from leaving. While they were in Fiji they performed ritual beating on each other, which Shin said was done to avoid punishment from God.
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 was denied her anti-anxiety medication 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. 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.”
Once back in America Elise was diagnosed with PTSD, a mental disorder that can develop after a person is exposed to a traumatic event, such as sexual assault, warfare, traffic collisions, or other threats on a person's life. Eventually, Elise was hospitalized 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.”