During the summer break after her junior year of high school, Elise* travelled to South Korea from Chicago with her mother for what was meant to be a six-week holiday.
Instead, the 17-year-old ended up 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. While there, Elise was forced to attend five-hour sermons, denied medication and told she would never see her father and sister again.
Elise’s mother organised the trip in 2013 after discovering her daughter smoked marijuana. The holiday was supposed to allow Elise – who was born in the US to Korean parents – a chance to spend time with her Korean family and have a break from her American friends.
But, after two weeks with family, Elise’s mother took her to stay at Grace Road Church in Gwacheon, just south of Seoul.
The church, which denies it is a cult, has branches in both South Korea and Fiji, where hundreds of church members moved in 2014 after its leader, Pastor Shin Ok-ju, said there would be a famine in Korea and Fiji was the promised land where they would survive.
Shin was arrested last month along with three other church leaders, accused of stranding followers in Fiji and subjecting them to violent rituals.
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.