Harold Reflects on Recent Visit to Korea

 Finding deep joy in our differences, we commit to equipping the saints for a courageous and steadfast witness of love and hope; learning, growing,
worshiping and working together.
(From The New Way Forward; The Missional Purpose of the Synod of the Northeast) 


I’ll never forget the Thanksgiving when I decided it was time to bring Donna home to meet my parents. It was a big step in our relationship that was filled with anxiety.  It’s complex because when we invite someone into our home we invite them into the deeper, more vulnerable parts of our lives. It can be a bit scary. But with the introduction of a welcomed guest is the occasion for storytelling and greater understanding. Luckily with Donna it went well—we ended up marrying each other.   

To break bread with those we don’t know well, to enter each other’s homes is something Jesus modeled for us time and again. The opportunity to use continuing educations funds allowed me to visit Korea. Here I entered into homes of our Synod-wide Korean community. I was blessed to have the Rev. Moongil Cho, Executive Presbyter for the Eastern Korean Presbytery (EKP), as my traveling partner and translator. EKP started within the bounds of our Synod in order to address the needs of our Korean speaking members in 1997. My interest in making this trip was simply to go, listen, and learn from the cultural roots of our Korean members. As is often the case with journeys such as these, the results were far more profound.

I hadn’t realized what I was really headed for was a visit into the homes of our Korean sisters and brothers.  As we wandered the streets of Seoul each scene was filled with stories. As we walked through Moongil’s childhood neighborhood, he shared stories of his life; some were so very similar to my own boyhood remembrances and some very different. The story sharing drew us closer and the joy deepened.  

We explored the sites of the earliest mission endeavors by Presbyterian mission workers including the famous Horace Underwood.  I was in awe of how that original work continues to grow, now encompassing a very large and prestigious university, theological school and medical center. It was clear that the legacy of Horace Underwood was built upon a deep love and respect for the people he came to serve. The fruits of that legacy continue to flourish.

But perhaps those physical constructions of university, seminary and hospital are just the surface of the legacy. What was even more profound and instructive to me was  the Christian witness that continues to grow with vibrancy from those initial missionary endeavors.  We woke before dawn to attend morning prayers where thousands of believers gather daily around the Word rocking gently in their seats to the internal rhythm of their prayers. When I preached at The Leading Church of Kangbuk I soaked up the genuine gracious welcome, passionate responses, beautiful blend of music, fervent expressions of prayer and loving embrace of an outsider like myself into their spiritual home.

I was invited to preach at Presbyterian University and Theological Seminary and was surrounded by a sea of bright engaging smiles and an eagerness to engage in intracultural theological reflection. You will now likely notice the addition of many more “likes” on our Synod Facebook page from young Korean friends I met during this visit.

There were so many more pieces to our spiritual adventure. We made a trip to the Demilitarized zone between North and South Korea and engaged in deep discussions on how that war is literally not over. Barbed wire and security check points remind us of the deep wound, the tragic separation of families and the resultant low grade anxiety that is a fixture in the social and political fabric of a divided country. 

I have been fortunate to have traveled through many parts of the world, having seen countless beautiful places. South Korea has plenty of these as well.  But if I were to identify the greatest beauty discovered on my trip it would, without a doubt, be the beauty of the people I encountered. Smiles are abundant, gratitude is in great supply, graciousness and hospitality were showered upon me at every stop along our journey. Whether we were at prayer, at table (enjoying so many new flavors), on the immaculate subways, or along a busy street – there was always a profound sense of welcome.

So what did I learn? Perhaps the greatest learning occurred while at dinner hosted by Rev. Jai Wook Kwak, the Senior Pastor of the Dongmak Presbyterian Church along with our EKP companions. Rev. Kwak was interested to discuss the current situation in the relationships between his own church the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PCK) and our own PC (USA). More importantly, he wanted to talk about the relationship of our Korean PC(USA) congregations as they find themselves caught between two worlds. Recent decisions we have made through our General Assemblies seem so contrary to the current practices of their own church bodies.

I began to experience another dimension of the immigrant experience. It became quite clear that my fellow PC (USA) friends at the table found themselves straddling two different worlds. From the PC(USA) side they are often left to feel out of step with changing times. Their difficulty in opening ordination and marriage to our LGBT members is often viewed from the outside as intractable resistance.  On the Korean side there is a subtle suspicion; How can our members with Korean roots remain in a denomination which has made these decisions?  I began to more deeply appreciate the tension our Korean members experience as they attempt to live between these two worlds.

 The conversation then moved from the two worlds of an immigrant church to the culture of current day South Korea. Our host acknowledged that his own denomination would quite likely be challenged to address the same issues that our own PC(USA) has confronted and that perhaps there are ways we can become helpful partners.

 In conclusion, the theme for preaching throughout our trip was based upon Mark 9:38-41; 

38 John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’39But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

The text and my experiences throughout our trip continued to impress upon me the gospel mandate to find our common theological ground and to move forward from there. The bottom line is that we all confess Jesus as Lord and we are all working on living into that reality. Perhaps it’s time to simply enter each other’s homes, listening and learning, and from the respect that is bound to transpire, try again to build on from this foundation toward becoming another expression of becoming the Beloved Community.