1982-1986 Seoul, South Korea
If anyone had asked the four-year-old me why we moved to South Korea, I would have simply responded, “My parents are missionaries – and missionaries live overseas.” I gave little thought to why we moved there, and even what my parents did there. Apart from the fact that they learned the language and worked with pastors, even into my youth I never inquired as to our purpose there; at least until recently. My parents, however, thought about it a lot. In the 1980’s, the South Korean church was already mature, with red crosses glowing atop steeples throughout all of the major cities; and Seoul was full of churches, including the largest church in the world on Yoido Island. Christian schools, seminaries and ministries were also in full swing. Mom and Dad were not needed as church planters, that was for sure. Rather, the Korean denomination that contacted us wanted partners in faith and mission; people who could link their Korean congregations with the C&MA and further their missionary vision. A type of ambassador of missions, if you will.
Mom, Dad and their colleagues went to Korea at the request of Korean church leaders, so from the very beginning they had churches that welcomed them and were vested in their ministry. But they would also need to be able to work alongside others. Many mission fields were bustling with missionaries, along with aid workers, humanitarians, entrepreneurs and expats. Each group had their own assumptions and perspectives and each their own goals and “turf.” Mom, Dad and their colleagues would need to diplomatically yet convincingly thread their own way. Additionally, the task of mission itself was changing. Countries and people groups that were open to evangelism after WWII were now post-colonial if not anti-colonial. Like missionaries everywhere, Mom and Dad would have to walk a fine line between accomplishing their supporters’ expectations and cooperating with the goals of the national church.
From the very first week, Mom and Dad were welcomed by their church hosts. Their most immediate gift was an interpreter, a well-educated and intelligent man who, along with his family, became our dearest friends. At first, knowing little of the language, we were more of a symbol; a tangible encouragement. Our family would sit in the front pews of the congregations listening to the music and singing as we all worshiped together. Afterwards, we would eat together on long low tables, pray together in the prayer meetings and go on trips together. Our hosts very patiently included us in their activities and welcomed us into their lives. As the weeks progressed, faces became familiar and we began to make friends. Dad would pray or preach a sermon in English, our interpreter translating, or my Mom would sing a solo.
Since we did not speak Korean, my brother, sister and I learned the order of the services from the phrases in Korean that regulated the transitions. For instance, the service would begin with a prayer and a hymn. Sometimes we would recognize the tune and try to sing along in English (Mom brought along an English-Korean hymnal and Bible for us to use), but mainly I just listened, standing on the pew beside them. It was not unusual to sing all the verses in a hymn several times over, as if singing the hymnal version of “this is the song that never ends.” But there was a reason for the repetition: some of the elderly had only learned to read Japanese when they were young (during the Japanese occupation after WWI), and were dependent on repetition to sing the songs in Korean. When the singing ended there would be announcements. The offering would be taken by the elders and the names of those who had contributed read aloud, along with their special messages of praise or thanksgiving. Then we would begin to pray. Each person in the congregation would begin to pray aloud, all at the same time, some of them quite fervently as if pleading God for their important cause. This scared us at first–we were used to everyone quietly and stilly praying together rather than everyone praying aloud, but we got used to it. The pastor would ring a bell, the prayers would wind down and then the pastor would pray. During the sermon I would draw on the bulletin or rest my head on mom’s lap while my brother and sister read their Bibles. Then the pastor would pray, ending the sermon with, “We pray all these things in Jesus’ name, Amen,” in Korean, of course, and we knew then that the service was over. While Mom and Dad greeted the people, we too, had our friends among the congregation. Several of the youth, and a number of the elders would always shake our hands. One elderly woman greeted us each time we went to her church, grasping our hands and thanking us over and over for coming. She told Mom and Dad she would have loved to have been a missionary. Outside we would play in the yard until lunch, not realizing that we were privileged to be at the main table while the other children ate with their mothers in another room.
As my parents advanced in their language lessons they were able to understand more and do more so our adventures increased. There were so many churches and events that they blur together in my mind even now. We attended church anniversaries and special events, Vacation Bible School camps and youth meetings. Whenever we were not in school we accompanied Mom and Dad on their rounds. We rode in vans and in taxis, on trains and buses. Sometimes we walked or took the subway, too. Everywhere we went the people seemed pleased to greet us and especially to feed us!
One of the first trips we took in Korea was with a man named Man Ho. Dad had met this man on the street walking home from language school classes downtown. He introduced himself in English, and they talked for a short time. He said he would like to get to know us better, so only a few days later he called to invite us to go on a “picnic”. Since Dad was eager to find out more about him, especially whether or not he was a Christian, Mom and Dad agreed. In those days, when we heard the word “picnic” we still thought of it in American terms—a food basket on a blanket in a park. Mom and Dad figured it would only take a few hours and Man Ho had offered to provide the lunch, so it sounded like a simple, fun activity. Saturday came and he arrived in a taxi to pick us up. We knew it was going to be different from our expectations when, thirty minutes later, we arrived at the East Seoul train station. People were already crowding around in long lines, waiting for the train. Once it arrived, Dad grabbed me in his arms as we all pressed into the carriage. There were no seats left so we grabbed hold of the bars overhead as the train jerked and started. Dad asked Man Ho where we were going, but the name he gave was not familiar. After a few minutes a young woman kindly picked me up and set me on her lap. She and her friends shared their snacks with us–dried squid balls in cellophane packages, chocolate covered pretzels, shrimp chips and a lot of sweets. Finally, an hour and a half later, the train disgorged us all at a platform near a steep mountain. Dozens of people, it seemed, were all waiting in line to climb the cement stairs that led up to the top. Although it was well past noon, Man Ho kept promising we would have lunch once we got to the top of the mountain. Mom and Dad were increasingly skeptical, although they tried not to show it.
To make a long story short, we followed Man Ho (and all the others) over the hill and down again to the other side until the sun was low and we were exhausted. At a restaurant overlooking the mountain we finally took a rest. Instead of buying us lunch as we had imagined, Man Ho bought us ice cream (of which any food would have been appreciated), but because he kept buying beer along the way, by this time he was tipsy and Dad was increasingly worried. As darkness fell, we wondered how we would ever get home since our guide and interpreter, now drunk and stumbling, was no help to us at all. Once again, as if by chance, we joined the throng at the train station. Mom says I was crying because I was hungry and tired—we all felt lost and abandoned—so Mom and Dad shot up prayers. Suddenly Man Ho lunged for the bushes and Dad followed, so we were left alone with Mom. Then, something happened. Out of the blue my brother began to sing “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness…..” To our surprise, the young woman next to us turned and smiled at him and began singing the song, too, in Korean. Then another voice joined and another, and still another until the entire group of fifty or more was singing along with him! One of the women asked Mom if we were Christians and when she said “Yes!” the floodgates opened! Suddenly everyone was opening their backpacks and sharing their food and fruit drinks with us, laughing and shaking hands. One girl picked me up on her back and began to dance to the music, while others spoke excitedly with Mom. They were Christians, too, having been on a youth group outing from Seoul. While this was happening, Man Ho returned with Dad supporting him. Surprised, Man Ho turned to Dad and said, “I thought you didn’t have any friends…” “These are not friends,” Dad replied, “this is family!” Although Man Ho was drunk, our new friends saw us safely off the train, and then into a taxi in Seoul. We kids were fast asleep by the time we got home but it was a wonderful ending to a scary day. It was also a lesson in faith. Just when we thought we were all alone, God had us in the palm of His hand. He knew what we needed and had supplied it! It could have been a disaster, but turned out to be one of our special memories from Korea.
We each have our favorite memory. Dad’s favorite memory is his first sermon in Korean. It was on May 1st, a Sunday. Dad had completed six levels of language school at Yonsei, and had labored all week to prepare the message. The senior pastor had worked on it between the morning and evening service and by that time, Dad said it looked like more like a patchwork quilt. “We don’t say things that way,” the pastor said. Finally, all was hushed as Dad took off his shoes and stood on the platform. He approached the pulpit prayed, and then tentatively began to speak. Once, when he got lost in the manuscript, the pastor leapt up to help. As he struggled through the Bible passages, the widows in the front row read aloud with him, rocking back and forth in their eagerness to prompt him along. When he finally finished they applauded. It was very much a community effort—whether or not they understood anything–and he felt well-supported by friends!
As our bond of fellowship increased, our lives became entwined. One-time Dad was sick and had to miss his college-aged Bible class, so his students turned up at our door carrying apples and oranges. Their hour and a half ride on city buses to our home really touched his heart. Another time we travelled to a church where Dad held a baptism on the roof. We climbed on a stack of concrete block stairs through the ceiling to find a plastic pool half filled with water. We were all packed on the roof and were awed as several young men took their first steps of faith. All these ministry skills would be valuable for ministries in Manila and Redding in the years ahead, but they were most important as lessons of faith—precious memories of our times in Korea.
One of our goals in Korea was to foster an interest in the life-changing effect of world-wide missions. Each sermon Dad gave, therefore, included a Bible passage on mission as well as a challenge to respond to Christ’s call. One evening he was invited to preach at the Shingwan church by the Women’s Evangelistic Association and Mom and Dad went together. In his sermon, he used the North American Alliance Women’s groups as an example of what Korean women could do for their missionaries—they could pray, encourage them through gifts and cards for the Missionary Kids (MKs) and support them with outfit money. He concluded his sermon with a prayer that Korea would become an important mission-sending agency for God. After Dad finished, the Association president stepped to the microphone and said, “Oh, I’m so embarrassed! Look at all we could be doing!” She ended the meeting with a fervent prayer that they, too, could be workers for the Lord in a missionary program. Throughout the service Mom had been praying in the congregation and listening to the beautiful voice of a young woman behind her. After the benediction, she rose and bowed to her in greeting, then commended her on her talent. “With such a beautiful voice,” she said, “you should be in the choir!” She smiled as the pastor invited Mom to come to his study for coffee with Dad. A few minutes later, an excited church assistant pastor joined us in the study. The young lady Mom had just spoken to in the congregation had told him an amazing story. She was a Christian and had been feeling God’s call to be a missionary for some time, but had no idea how to go about it. That night, she said, she had been walking down the street when she heard a voice that said, “Turn here!” She had entered the church for the first time and her interest for missions had been confirmed as Dad spoke. Sensing that this was the group she was to join, she had indicated her desire to become a member of the church and had joined the choir as well! We left praising God for the seeds that were planted and praying for a spirit of unity among the churches.
Not long after Mom had completed language school she had several women share their interest in an English language Bible Study class. She met with two different groups of women each week; one was held for a year near the new Olympic stadium, and the other in a community not far from our home. Both studies were with well-educated, professional women; doctor’s wives, a former governor’s wife, pastor’s wives and business men’s wives. Some were already Christians and well on their way to spiritual maturity while others were just beginning their study of Scripture. One of her students was an older woman, a pharmacist and an avid reader. A graduate of one of South Korea’s top universities, she studied enthusiastically and asked piercing questions. She was an agnostic and had come to the meetings to improve her English, but Mom could feel God’s love for her increase with every lesson and prayed constantly that the Spirit of God would convict her. Mom still remembers her first meeting. They introduced themselves and Mom suggested they study the book of Mark. She encouraged the ladies to read as much of the book at one sitting as they could to get an overview. Mrs. Kim took her seriously. As she entered the room for the second meeting and was taking off her coat, she stated with conviction, “This Jesus is no different from my maid’s shaman (or medium). “The shaman teaches, Jesus taught. He heals and does miracles, Jesus healed and did miracles. I read the entire book of Mark and didn’t get anything out of it.” The gauntlet had been thrown in mother’s face—not a challenge from Mrs. Kim who was just honestly expressing her disappointment—but from the enemy of our souls. “What did you expect to find as you read Mark?” Mom asked. “Oh, I don’t know,” she replied, “I just expected to see some kind of power.” Sitting down and facing her, Mom began to explain that the Bible attributes power to two different sources; one source of wisdom and power was of God, the Creator, through Jesus, His only Son, who took on our flesh to save us, and the other source was a created spirit with power derived from God, named Satan. While Satan can give shamen power, Mom said, it always comes at a spiritual cost. When God grants power, it is a loving gift, out of mercy and grace. Mrs. Kim accepted his brief explanation and they began their study in earnest. I was just three years old, but I heard Mom and Dad praying for her, so when Mom asked me to pray for them at the beginning of their meeting I did the same—I prayed for Mrs. Kim right in front of her. She nodded thoughtfully and the study began.
The spiritual battle for Mrs. Kim waged on and on. Mom would pray for her as she rode the buses and subway trains to the meetings and felt the strength of opposition as she taught. As her colleagues prayed with Mom, she would see Mrs. Kim show excitement and understanding one time, then take a step backward in doubt in another. The disobedience of Christians, in particular, disturbed her. “If Jesus says that Christians should love one another, why don’t they do it?” she would ask. “They don’t love Buddhists or anyone else. They use their collections to build huge buildings, not to feed the poor or help the sick. How can they disobey what their God says?” Sadly, Mom would confess that too often that was true. “Truly,” she would point out, “we are hampered by our sin and selfishness but encouraged by God’s grace and forgiveness.” Mrs. Kim would nod her head in understanding even as Mom was grieving for the truth of her words. How many other unbelievers would doubt Christ’s love because of my disobedience, she wondered, because of our selfish emphasis on buildings and prestige? One morning, after almost a year of study, the class began to read about the Last Supper and the Lord’s crucifixion in Mark Chapter 14. Our family was due to go home soon for furlough and Mom felt the urgency of the hour. As she read the text, Mom turned back to Exodus 12 and the story of the Passover. She explained how the two stories relate: that even as God used the blood of the Passover lamb to set the Israelites free from their slavery in Egypt, so those who accepted the Lamb of God’s blood shed for them would also be saved (John 3:16), Mrs. Kim began to shout, “I understand it! Oh, I understand it!” And with piercing eyes, she said to Mom, “Why didn’t you tell me this earlier? People sacrifice blood to the spirits all the time to find release and they have to do it over and over again. With Jesus, it is just one time! I know now why Jesus is so important–I just never saw the connection.” Several months later, in the US, Mom received a letter from Mrs. Kim, saying she was standing strong in her faith. “I am so glad I do not need to be buried like Chinese Emperors with clay soldiers,” she said, “I am saved by the blood of the Lamb.”
Mom and Dad’s four years was drawing to a close just as it seemed they were getting started. God’s faithfulness was evident: He had gone before, opening up opportunities suited to Mom and Dad’s abilities and spiritual gifts; He had been with them, building up their faith through challenges and trials, and He had blessed their work, along with so many others, in Missions Mobilization– outside of the United States, South Korea is now the top missionary-sending country for Protestant missions. But their time had come to an end. Their visas, along with their colleagues’, had been denied by the government, which deemed the Korean church mature enough to work on its own. The young people whose lives they touched in Korea they would see again as missionaries in the Philippines, with new opportunities for friendship and discipleship. And God’s work would continue in Korea. In 1984, when Korea celebrated 100 years of Protestant Christianity, Korean Christians gratefully acknowledged the missionaries who, at great personal cost, raised up disciples for the Lord. After years of suffering and struggle, they would do the same for others.
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