Students concerned over on-campus religious solicitors, sex trafficking rumors

University Police continue to monitor incidents on North Campus

religious-recruiters

Madeline Norton, a senior biomedical science major, was walking back from the UB football game on Sept. 15 when she and her friend were approached by two strangers.

It was dark out and the strangers, who referred to themselves as “Sister Missionaries,” began asking Norton and her friend questions in the University Bookstore parking lot.

Immediately, the questions made Norton feel uncomfortable.

“There weren’t many cars in the parking lot and we were walking by ourselves,” Norton said. “I thought, ‘OK, this is a weird time to be soliciting us.’”

Students like Norton are concerned as religious groups spearhead their recruitment efforts this semester. Groups such as World Mission Society Church of God, an off-campus organization, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have approached students day and night outside the Student Union and throughout North Campus.

Student organizations, such as the African Student Association and the Black Student Union, posted on social media last week claiming solicitation efforts at UB are “ploy[s] to lure young women into sex trafficking.” The offical UB Instagram account liked BSU’s photo last Wednesday regarding students’ encounters, but unliked it by Wednesday night. BSU members did not respond to requests for comment. 

University Police issued a statement on Friday and said it is aware of the social media rumors of a “church group...inviting people to attend bible study classes.” UPD said it became aware of a similar issue involving the same group in April, and the New York State Police “determined that this church was not involved in any sex trafficking activity.” 

UPD Deputy Chief Police Joshua Sticht said the church involved is the World Mission Society Church of God, a group unaffiliated with UB that operates at 3750 Millersport Hwy in Getzville.

“After the complaints earlier this week, UB investigators verified that it was still the same group. This activity, while concerning to some people, is innocuous and legal,” UPD said in a statement. “While religious solicitation by outside groups is legal in the public spaces of the university, it is prohibited in residential spaces or other areas closed to the general public.”

Religious organizations and groups are known to table in the SU lobby, but groups are allowed to approach students throughout campus because UB is state property.

Religious groups have to be registered with Student Life in order to table in the Student Union, according to Student Union director Maria Wallace. Other than that, groups unaffiliated with UB are legally allowed to approach students on campus 24/7, as long they don’t solicit on-campus residence halls or apartments.

 When solicitors approached Madeline Norton on North Campus last week, she said she was unwilling to give personal information because of rumors she saw on social media about missionaries being sex-trafficking fronts. 

“I read previously on a Facebook post that these [sex traffickers] would pose as church girls, and would try to get you to come back to their cars,” she said.

 Norton described the pair as two women in their 20s, wearing long, “old-fashioned” dresses and carrying bibles. They invited the students to a service the next day at an off-campus location, and handed them a business card with a phone number.

Norton said she did not report this to the police, though she did tweet about the incident the next day.

“FYI, this sex-trafficking thing is no joke. Bri [and] I got approached on UB campus late last night by a couple of girls posing as ‘sister missionaries’ inviting us to a service at an undisclosed location. Be aware of your surroundings,” Norton tweeted, along with a photo of the business card she received from the group.

The Spectrum reached out to the number listed on the card Norton tweeted. An individual, who identified herself as a sister missionary, answered our call and confirmed she was recruiting at UB on Sept. 15. 

The individual, who refused to provide her name, claimed to be part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an established religious organization that sponsors UB Campus Ministry Association’s Latter-day Saint Student Association. 

The individual on the phone said she was “sorry” for how the tweet describes her group. 

“We really want to just invite people into the arms of Jesus Christ. We do that through love and inviting people with the cards we distribute,” the individual said. “In the future, we’ll have to be more careful with what sort of students we talk to but we’re really just a representation of Jesus Christ and his great work.”

The phone number on the group’s card, the individual said, is registered to the religious organization, and not affiliated with the LDSSA.

Norton’s encounter, however, was not unique. 

Kelsey Kaufman, a freshman civil engineering student, said she was approached by two women near the Student Union during UB’s opening weekend in August. 

She described the recruiters, again, as women wearing long dresses who tried to talk to her about their religion. Kaufman said she tried to express disinterest, but they refused to give up.

“I said ‘sorry, no thanks,’ but they kept walking a few more feet next to me,” Kaufman said. “It made me feel uncomfortable, and pressured to talk to them even though I didn’t want to.”

 Reports to UPD regarding incidents such as these have picked up within the past few weeks compared to the last three years. Sticht said there are only three records in 2016 and 2017 regarding religious solicitation at SU, Alumni Arena and South Lake Village.

Since Norton’s tweet on Sept. 16, UPD received two separate student reports regarding religious solicitation, Sticht said. 

 One incident, reported on Sept. 17, involved religious solicitors outside SU although UPD did not arrive in time to speak with the group. On Sept. 19, another student reported two women soliciting outside SU. UPD arrived at the incident to interview the recruiters and obtained the group’s business card. They confirmed the two women were from the World Society Mission Church of God.

 UPD asks to report suspicious behavior of any kind as soon as possible by calling (716) 645-2222.

Isabella Nurt is a staff writer and can be reached at features@ubspectrum.com.