Roots, Reflections, and the Future

by Sarah Kim
August 25, 2015

The author at Song-do Economic Free Zone near Seoul
The author at Song-do Economic Free Zone near Seoul

Looking at the world map often evokes an emotional response in me—that is when I locate the tiny littoral region of the Korean peninsula situated in-between the massive land of China and the island nation of Japan in the far east corner of the map. This region serves as the origin of my roots (at least in this lifetime!) and all of the complexities—geopolitical, historical, social, and personal—that come with it. Spending a portion (4.18~5.30.2015) of my sabbatical in South Korea had been planned for some time, for I needed the opportunity to connect with its language, culture, and the people in order to finish the book I had set out to write about Eastern understanding of nature, life, and human destiny.

I began my journey by spending a few days in the neighboring Tokyo, Japan, exploring the city and witnessing the presence of Christianity in a country where less than 1% of the population profess Christian beliefs. A colleague in Korea introduced me to two Anglican priests—Rev. Hiroto Kayama of the St. Timothy Church and Rev. Minsoo Rhee, a Korean native, who runs a café ministry (Café Ecclesia) on the side of a church building in the heart of Tokyo. Rev. Kayama spoke fluent Korean that made our communication easy (he studied Minjung Theology[1. Minjung Theology is the Korean indigenous version of the liberation theology that emerged in the mid 20th century.] in Korea for his doctorate degree) and he shared a bit about the various social ministries St. Timothy is engaged in—including the Budo-No-Je or the “House of Grapes” ministry that provides accommodation for the children and their families suffering from serious diseases. I had the most difficult time finding the church on foot (it is very easy to get lost in Tokyo) to attend the Sunday worship service, but I was very glad to have met the Japanese congregant members, many of whom were delightful and dedicated middle aged women who served delicious udon noodle for fellowship following the worship service.

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L: Rev. Hiroto Kayama leads Sunday worship at St. Timothy Anglican (Episcopal) Church.
C: Rev. Kayama at St. Timothy Church entrance (Tokyo, Japan)
R: Fellowship luncheon menu—udon & sponge cake—at St. Timothy’s Church.

I had equally meaningful time at Café Ecclesia for a Friday evening’s Taizé style meditation service. Rev. Rhee led the music and the prayers while other lay members participated by playing instruments. (I was able to sing along as Rev. Rhee phonetically translated the Japanese hymns in Korean for me!) The meditation service ended with a ritual of eating a raw slice of sweet squash, followed by a time of fellowship with tea and mochi. I spoke all the Japanese I knew to communicate with the participants who were, though small in number, a dedicated group, traveling good distances to come to the gathering.

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L: Friday evening meditation gathering at Café Ecclesia
C: Rev. Rhee in his clergy robe runs Café Ecclesia ministry with his assistant, Ms. Okuyama. (Tokyo, Japan)
R: Tea & mochi fellowship time

Although St. Timothy Church and Café Ecclesia are two distinctive ministries with two very different leaders, I sensed that the two communities shared commonalities—namely in their members’ calm poise and genial ambience, which may have something to do with the disposition of the Japanese people in general. As progressive thinkers, Rev. Kayama and Rev. Rhee both expressed concerns for the proliferating right-wing mentality in the country, overtly spawned by the Abe administration’s policies and covertly reinforced by the public’s anxiety stemming from significant disaster experiences such as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that had resulted in the meltdown of nuclear reactors and the subsequent contamination of precious land. In times like this, people’s hearts are easily hardened, and being a religious minority—and a progressive one at that—comes with social challenges. The members of both communities seem to have quietly accepted this reality, but resolvedly carry on their call to be a faith community, without impatience but with an awareness, for what they are able and willing to do to serve others in need. Café Ecclesia, for instance, has now launched a campaign to purchase Nepalese coffee from the region hit by the earthquake on 4.25.2015 to help the survivors in Nepal.

Unlike Japan, South Korea boasts of 29% Christian population (including Protestants and Catholics), but the progressive Christian population only occupies a very small portion of that number. By the term ‘progressive,’ I am referring to those Christian communities who are systematically engaged in the social justice work including advocating for women’s rights, rights of the LGBT community, migrant worker’s rights, interfaith dialogue, and other social and environmental (often controversial) issues that are either ignored or condemned by the fundamental and evangelical Christian faith groups. In a word, finding a local church with a progressive mind is not easy in Korea, even within the cosmopolitan city of Seoul. Through the help of my Korean colleagues, I discovered one church located in the west part of Seoul, in the district where the human rights activist organizations are clustered.

I was amused to learn that Sumdol Presbyterian Church is actually located in my aunt’s (my mother’s youngest sister living in Seoul) neighborhood. I visited the church’s pastor, Rev. Borah Lim, and attended the church’s Sunday worship to learn more about their ministry in and outside the church. Being a female pastor in the conservative Korean context is tough enough I think, but Rev. Lim is also actively engaged in the social justice work that requires added time and extra effort beyond her church duties. I was impressed with her energy and her creative ways to connect with others. For Buddha’s birthday celebration (the mood is much like Christmas in May with colorful paper lamps hanging throughout the city streets), she personally visited the Jogyesa[2. Jogyesa temple is a historically prominent Buddhist temple of Korea situated right next to the King’s palace of olden days, located in the heart of Seoul.] Buddhist Temple with the gift of a congratulatory banner. I cannot imagine any other Korean pastor I know who would be open and courageous enough to do that!

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L: The 3-­‐story Sumdol Presbyterian Church Bldg. (Seoul, Korea)
C: Sumdol’s pastor, Rev. Lim gives a map tour of the human rights organizations district.
R: At Sumdol church, lay leaders take turns at the Sunday worship pulpit every other week to preach or to share a testimony.

With Rev. Lim’s invitation, I also had the opportunity to participate in the IDAHOT[3. IDAHOT stands for “International Day Against Homophobia & Transphobia.”] rally that took place at the historical Seoul Train Station Square. I was glad to have participated in this LGBT rally, as this was a rare event that does not take place often, mostly because the conservative Christian groups would do everything they can to stop such events from taking place in the middle of downtown Seoul. Not surprisingly, the rally grounds were cordoned off, with the police troop guarding the entire perimeter to prevent any violence against the rallying participants. The conservative Christian groups were there too, of course, disturbing as annoyingly as they can with piercing noise of loudly sung hymns through gigantic speakers and shouting derogatory remarks at the crowd.

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L: LGBT rally at the historical Seoul Train Station Square. (May 16, 2015. Seoul, Korea)
C: Police officers standing in front of the cordon surrounding the rally grounds.
R: Prayers of reconciliation and peace recited on the stage by the ecumenical church leaders.
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A booth poster with the photos of worldwide celebrities reads: “LGBTs are leading the word!!”

The rally began in the afternoon and continued until late at night. Great entertainment with singing and dancing, heartfelt testimonials given by individuals, prayers recited by Rev. Lim along with an Episcopal priest, and candle lighting ritual from the crowd packed the evening schedule.

The rally was attended by young men and women in their 20s and 30s for the most part, which gave me a glimpse of hope for the country’s future. It will still take some time before the notions of diversity, inclusivity, and the social and theological imperatives that advocate peace and justice eventually sink in as the cultural norm in the minds of the people (not unlike in any other place in the world), but the promise is certainly there—that the times are changing, and that people will too change with the passing of generations.

It always seems to be the process of changing that throws people off, but then what good is ‘order’ without first being exposed to ‘chaos?’ We need not be so afraid of chaos; despite its discomfort and challenges, as it stimulates the energy for change, and moves toward the coming of a changed (and changing) world in the kairos time.

I have to say that meeting good people (i.e. people with passion in what they do—in helping others, wielding creativity that heals and edifies, and seeking social justice) has been the highlight of my time in Korea. On this (longer) trip, I had the opportunity to meet distant relatives who knew me as a young child, and I was touched by their genuine affection for me even though they hadn’t seen me for decades. I deeply felt that there is a morsel of truth in the saying, “blood is thicker than water.” Others who have made all the difference in my learning journey include Rev. Jinho Kim and his lovely artist fiancée, Ms. Woonyong Ja. Rev. Kim is the executive director of the Minjung Theology Institute, a progressive theologian and a prolific writer. Ms. Ja is a documentary filmmaker and visual artist with professional interests in shedding light on the marginalized people of society. She is now making a documentary film about the 2014 Ferryboat accident that took the lives of hundreds of high school students, to be seen by her audience in the West.

War & Women’s Rights Museum entrance. (Seoul, Korea)
War & Women’s Rights Museum entrance.

On one sunny afternoon, Rev. Jinho Kim invited me to visit the War & Women’s Rights Museum[4. A blogger has a helpful presentation of the museum at: thesoulofseoul.net/2013/07/04/the-war-and-womens-human-rights-museum/]. I immediately knew that this wouldn’t be a pleasant experience, as I recalled my previous experience in exploring the Holocaust museum. As expected, the museum was full of words and images telling the stories of the young girls who were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation (1910~1945) of Korea.

This historical event continues to generate intense tension between Japan and Korea today; while the elderly survivors of sexual slavery are demanding official apology and restitution from Japan, Abe’s administration is neither openly acknowledging the crime nor showing any intention to offer restitution for war atrocities. Now that the survivors are dying of old age one by one, it is uncertain that any of these women will ever see justice in their lifetime.

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L: Living survivors of sex slavery who are now dwindling in number.
C: Condoms and the instruction manual that were distributed to the Japanese soldiers for engaging the sex slaves, aka—comfort women.
L: Bronze statue of a Korean girl who was abducted from her home and forced into sexual slavery during the war.

Walking out the museum door, I felt bitter sentiments tinged with a sense of helplessness. This was a similar complex feeling I get when I gaze at the Korean peninsula on the world map. The Korean people have had to endure numerous foreign invasions (over 900 times), throughout their 5000 years long history, and the Japanese annexation is, however deep the scar is to this date, just one of those horrid invasion stories. Their history is one of hardship and sorrow—it still is today, with the divided North and South with little hope for reunification. They are called the people of ‘Han’—referring to the rancorous grief embedded in the collective consciousness of the Korean people.

Interfaith Forum panelists representing the Protestant, Catholic and the Buddhist religious communities. (Seoul, Korea)
Interfaith Forum panelists representing the Protestant, Catholic and the Buddhist religious communities. (Seoul, Korea)

People who have been wronged numerous times can become quite reactive when exposed to any sort of grave injustice. I view that one would have to journey a certain distance to reach such state of sensitivity, or awareness. In other words, one must cultivate the intellectual and emotional faculties through learning, education, reflection, and living in community to be able to discern accurately and to respond appropriately to one’s surroundings. I got to thinking about this when I attended the

Interfaith Forum at the Hwajang Culture Academy located in Seoul. The four panelists representing the Protestant, Catholic, and Buddhist communities shared talks on current issues in the area of religion and society. They met on a monthly basis for their interfaith talks, and on the day I attended, the topic was on ‘Christianity and Poverty.’

A Buddhist monk speaks out about the financial and political issues that abound in the Buddhist temples of Korea.
A Buddhist monk speaks out about the financial and political issues that abound in the Buddhist temples of Korea.

It was interesting to hear from each panelist’s perspective: the Protestant panelist shared about the problem of so many clergy living in poverty and the financial decline of small local churches to the point of extinction; the Catholic panelist had entirely a different view, asserting that today’s (Catholic) churches have too much money which translates into institutional and individual authoritative power that may lead to corruption; and the Buddhist panelist agreed with the other two panelists by sharing that while an ordinary monk is without possession and lives in poverty, a typical abbot controls all the money given to the temple, fattening his personal bank account. With that, one of the attendees—a Buddhist monk—stood up from the audience, and heatedly voiced his anger over the injustice and corruption prevalent in many Buddhist temples and asked the panelists what can be done about that. The outspoken Buddhist monk was given empathetic attention while he spoke, but no one was really able to give him an answer to his question.

Admittedly, the six weeks in Korea went by quickly while I busily networked and attended conferences, leaving me little time to visit the libraries to do the research for my book. I managed to squeeze in two full days in the library and visited the bookstores numerous times, but it certainly wasn’t a satisfactory amount of time for literary research. But then again, I wouldn’t do anything differently if I had the chance to do it all over again, for it was walking on the people-filled streets that allowed learning on the intuitive level, and it was meeting and getting to know the people from different social locations that informed my views. Learning from the library books is necessary and important, but learning by serendipitously engaging individuals who can teach, inspire, and challenge you is priceless.

And now, I am most grateful for my eventful sabbatical experience. Thanks be to God and my loving, supportive friends and colleagues for this precious learning opportunity and the time to reflect and renew.