For months, people have been approaching shoppers at stores across the Buffalo Niagara market, striking up conversations with them, then inviting them to Bible studies at their church to learn about a holy figure they call "God the Mother."
The encounters at places like Wegmans and Walmart have prompted viral social media posts, frightened calls to police and wild rumors.
But if you ask members of the World Mission Society Church of God, they'll tell you they're simply devoted members of an Amherst church trying to share their faith.
And these days, they say, stores are where it's easy to strike up a conversation.
The World Mission Society Church of God was founded in South Korea in the 1960s. Members believe that Jesus Christ returned to Earth in the form of Christ Ahn Sahng-hong, a Korean man, and God the Mother Jang Gil-ja, a still-living Korean woman. Though its Millersport Highway congregation has just 50 members, the religious movement claims more than 7,000 churches and 1 million members around the globe.
Here and across the country, its members often proselytize in stores and shopping malls.
That has led to some uncomfortable encounters, with shoppers feeling bothered or frightened enough to call the police and complain about members on social media. Further complicating things, the church members have been lumped in with a dramatic urban legend circulating on Facebook, falsely claiming that an organized ring of human traffickers stalks and kidnaps women from big-box stores.
Megan Leatherman went to the North Tonawanda Walmart earlier this summer to print photographs and buy groceries. While browsing picture frames, she was approached by two women talking about "God the Mother." They invited her to join them for a Bible study.
She listened politely, but when she tried to break off the conversation, she said, the women persisted. They urged her to go outside with them for a free Bible and, when she declined, they wouldn't let up, she said.
Tara Notaro, whose child goes to school with Leatherman's, was in the store at the same time and was approached by the same pair. She had read posts tied to a viral hoax on Facebook, which falsely claims a well-organized human trafficking ring stalks and kidnaps victims inside big box stores.
"After all the horror stories I have read on here about women just like these picking women up for human trafficking I immediately said 'not interested,' held my hand up and kept walking," Notaro wrote on Facebook.
She saw Leatherman talking to the women and warned her to stop, telling her the women were kidnappers. Leatherman panicked and called the police. Both women later took to Facebook to warn others of what they thought was their own true brush with the urban legend.
"We all dodged a bullet today and I am still super freaked out about this," Notaro wrote. "Wish I could have warned everyone but reality is I only would have made myself a bigger target."
Notaro and Leatherman's posts went viral, shared thousands of times after being picked up by a Buffalo blogger. Similar Facebook posts were circulated a few months earlier after shoppers crossed paths with World Mission Society Church of God members at Wegmans on Transit Road and at Walmart and Target stores in Amherst and Cheektowaga.
Commenters urged one another to carry pepper spray and use it on members if they were ever approached.
The churchgoers said they then began facing hostility, receiving death threats at the church and getting threatening phone calls in the middle of the night.
"Our members were scared, they didn't want to go out," said Esteban Alvarez, a church member. "There were people saying if they saw us they would shoot us. People were yelling at them, calling them names."
'Place for me'
Brittny Boyd, Alvarez's wife, has been a Church of God member for nine years. She said that she, like others at her church, is passionate about her religion and sharing it with others, and said it makes her sad that people would "take something so beautiful" and twist it to look like something sinister.
She had attended seven different churches by the time a friend invited her to visit a Bible study at a World Mission Society church in New Jersey. She wanted to learn about God and liked that everything she learned was taught directly from the scriptures. After studying for several months, she felt that she had found her place in the world.
"I realized that this was the place for me," she said. "The members treated me with so much love and concern."
When she moved to Buffalo for her husband's sales job, they attended Bible studies with other Church of God believers in a private home. In 2017, the church bought a small, brick-fronted building at 3750 Millersport Highway in Amherst and members began worshiping there. The religion has other locations in Syracuse, Rochester, Albany and nearby in Ontario.
Church members meet at the Amherst church nearly every evening of the week. They hold Bible studies on Wednesdays and keep the Sabbath on Saturday. Members often stay for all three Saturday services and spend the time in between eating together, studying the Bible or watching videos produced by the church. Outside is a basketball hoop and a barbecue grill.
During worship services, women wear white veils on their heads, in deference to a passage in Corinthians directing women to cover their heads when in prayer. There are no crosses or religious sculptures on display, as they're considered a form of idolatry. The church also celebrates seven feasts referred to in the book of Leviticus, including the Passover, which is central to their beliefs. Members believe Ahn Sahng-hong's revival of the Passover feast is evidence that he is the second coming of Christ.
On a recent Saturday, the parking lot was filled. Inside, members prayed aloud and sang together accompanied by a piano. Members were sharply dressed and children were spirited but well-behaved. After the service ended, the women removed and folded up their veils and members walked into the halls, greeting each other again with broad smiles and hugs.
"The way the members treat each other; it's really like with a mother's love," Boyd said. "There's nothing like it."
That's why Boyd said she approaches others and invites them to her church. She feels like she has been given a gift and wants to share it with others.
"We want to at least give people the opportunity to know the truth about God. So for those who are willing to listen, you want to let them know what's in the Bible and give them the opportunity to understand it," she said.
Members end up sharing their faith in stores, she said, because that's often where members' daily lives play out – while they're shopping or running errands. That's also where other people are. In the absence of traditional town centers and other community spaces, stores are where modern people congregate. Stores do have anti-solicitation policies, though, and some including Wegmans have asked proselytizing church members to leave once they were made aware of the situation.
Members are encouraged to show their faith through good deeds. The World Mission Society Church of God has received awards for its charity work, including the Queen's Award for the church's work in the United Kingdom, the President's Volunteer Service Award for charity across the United States and was lauded by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for the church's massive storm cleanup mobilization after Hurricane Sandy.
Still, some watchdog groups, such as the noted cult researcher Rick Alan Ross and his Cult Education Institute, have raised concerns that the Church of God has cult-like characteristics. They say that members are coerced to spend all of their time and money with the church, and urged to detach from non-believing family members. People magazine, the Today Show and Ronan Farrow have reported on such claims. Ex-members have also taken to YouTube, many saying they felt what the church was teaching them about the Bible was not true. In 2013, a former member of the church in New Jersey filed a civil lawsuit against the Church of God, saying the church is a cult designed to make money, and that it used psychological tactics to control her. The suit was dismissed.
Boyd and Alvarez dispute those claims. Victor Lozada, a church spokesman based in Albany, said the truth about the church has been distorted by people looking for salacious headlines or duped by rumors on social media. He said it's common for people to label as a cult any religion they don't understand.
"That's why we invite people to meet us and see for themselves," Lozada said.