1982-1986 Seoul, Korea
During our time in South Korea my parents attended, spoke and taught at many different churches. Within the first week or so of arriving we were invited to a rural church situated next to a stream. Since the service had already begun, our family slipped in quietly and sat in a pew at the back next to the door. We listened while the congregation sang, recognizing several of the hymns, and then the pastor rang a little bell on the podium. Apparently, that was the signal for the beginning of the prayer time. Unexpectedly, everyone in the congregation began to shout in a universal discord “Yea-su, Yea-su, Yea-su!” My siblings and I, afraid of what terror would cause an entire congregation to burst out shouting, bolted through the doors and outside! Our parents quickly followed and tried to calm us down. It took awhile for them to assure us that this was “normal; that it was just a different way of praying” and that nothing bad was happening. When the praying stopped, we finally went back into the church, comforted to see that the congregation had returned to normal. While this was the pattern in all the South Korean churches we visited, it was a definite “we are not in Kansas anymore” (or Oklahoma in our case) moments. Over the next several months, I became accustomed to the “new normal,” but I’ve always had sensitive ears and would often put my hands over my ears in anticipation of prayer time.
Out of all of the churches we attended, I remember the Shiheung First Church the most. The church had its origin some twenty years earlier when the founder, Pastor Noh, had carried a cross to the top of a tall hill in an act of self-sacrifice and faithful resolve. In the years since the church founding, the area was slowly swallowed up as apartment buildings, shops and tiny houses had filled in the space around the church until there was almost no room to drive— and certainly no room to park. When we first arrived in Korea, the church kindly sent a van to pick us up and take us back home after lunch, as we had no car of our own. This was a great kindness since the drive was an hour and a half one way, and none of us could yet read the Korean street signs. Leaving our house, the van would cross the Han River to the south, traverse bustling Guro-ku and wind our way into Shiheung 2-Dong from the West. My first goal after arriving at church was always to get inside and sit down, but there were two things that made this goal difficult. First, I was a blonde haired, white skinned young boy, which seemingly meant that all of the elderly women were obliged to pinch my cheek with a slight tug and say “eeppuuddaa,” which would roughly translate to “beautiful” in English. It was an experience that I began to dread more and more as the years passed. “Mom, can we just not go to church?” “Mom, is there a way that you can ask them to stop?” “Mom, is there a way that you can protect me?” I can remember getting so tired of the repeated cheek pinching that I thought resulting to violence against little old women was fast becoming my only option. But Mom just kept telling me that they were just being nice, and we did not want to be inconsiderate to our elders. The second problem with going to church was that my parents were tall (comparatively), white skinned, and spoke Korean; and that meant that everyone was interested in talking to them. You could never go from point A to point B without being stopped every few steps and since I was young, my parents wouldn’t let me walk away on my own (unlike my brother and sister). In my mission to make it inside, I was consistently stopped and trapped while my parents had conversations… which meant more time as a sitting duck for cheek pinching and arm stroking. But at some point, after tugging and urging, we actually did make it inside.
The inside of the church had an austere appearance, with plain concrete floors and walls, and a vaulted white plaster celling that came to a point at the top. Two sets of long wooden pews filled the sanctuary, separated by a single aisle down the middle. The front of the church was reminiscent of a classic 1970’s church back home: a raised stage made out of darkly stained wood, wood walls and a pulpit in the middle—a huge pulpit. The lack of insulation and carpet in the space meant that sound traveled well, as did the cold through the walls during winter. There were several kerosene heaters spaced out along the central aisle that became popular stopping points to warm hands and backsides. As my parents walked down the aisle, they again were stopped every few feet to greet and shake hands. I would dart from heater to heater, moving slowly down the aisle. By the time we reached the front of the church, the entirety of my body had been well toasted, almost to the point of discomfort. We would make our way to our designated spot and sit. It was a relief to finally sit down, as if I were an on a playground, reaching base during a game of tag and yelling to his friends “You can’t pinch my cheeks now, I’m on base, I’m safe!” But the joy of safely sitting quickly turned to the realization that we were also now stuck. There was no Sunday School for kids, no crafts or coloring sheets, no flannel board Bible lessons or songs. From then on, my only option was to sit, be still, be quiet, and listen to a sermon in Korean that was way above my intellectual capacity to understand, if only I could understand any of it. One could say it was an impossible job. Fortunately, my Mom was a resourceful woman. I can remember her handing me a pen and paper to draw on or her making drawings for me(she was especially gifted at drawing horses and trains). She let me bury my head in her coat and sing softly to myself, or would scratch my back, and let me lay down with my head in her lap curled up in a fetal position beside her on the pew. But despite her resourcefulness, sometimes her efforts to keep me calm and quiet failed. When I did get restless and noisy, other parishioners would take pity and with a simple tap on the shoulder of the person in front of them, pass treats for me down to the front row. Row after row, side to side – all done in silent collusion to get the noisy child in the front something to settle down. Sometimes it was quite a bounty; here were bags of crackers, small candies, and sometimes I even Yakult drinks in tiny bottles with their own little red straws.
As I got older, Mom and Dad would let me leave the pew to go use “the bathroom,” which may or may not have been my desitnation, but usually at least to walk around. In the winter I would meander down the aisle stopping to warm myself by each heater. There were other kids in the service who would also get bored or need to go to the wha-jong-shil, so there were usually three or four young kids meandering up and down the aisle. No one minded. Making it to the back, I would quietly play with the other Korean kids out of sight. Some had snuck small balls or sticks into the service and we would huddle around in a tight circle to muffle our sound and play together. Or sometimes one of the Korean kids would come down to the front pew where we sat and stand in front of us, staring, but again, that was okay. Other times, an 8 or nine-year-old girl named Young Joo, would play with me and carry me around obba-ba style (piggy back). After the service, while my parents were distracted by the many people talking to them, Young Joo would be my care-taker, watching me after church or playing games with me.
One Sunday morning Mom had been asked to sing a song before the sermon. This was not an unusual request, given that Mom had a beautiful voice. But when she got up to leave, I did what most three-year-old boys would do and decided that her leaving was not acceptable. In spite of my siblings’ urgent requests for me to sit and wait for patiently her return, I walked to the front of the church, up the stairs, and stood next to Mom while she sang (besides, they were siblings – I didn’t really have to listen to them anyway, right?). There were around 300 people in the pews, and I stood quietly and still next to her side while she finished her song. Apparently, most people thought my actions were adorable. Afterwards, when Mom asked why I had come to stand with her I said, “Because you were warmer.”
Being an independent and adventurous child with limited supervision meant that I would sometimes wander off on my own. At the Sarang Church to the north of Seoul, I can remember “going exploring” on my own after one of the services. The “Love” church, as we called it, occupied the top floor of a multi-use building. Downstairs was a billiards lounge where the type of men that don’t go to church on Sundays would hang out. The room was darkly lit, and filled with cigarette smoke and middle to older aged Korean men. I remember wandering from table to table, watching the men as they talked and played; their leather-like tanned skin reflecting in the lights, their art form of taking a drag on their cigarette and slowly releasing a large cloud of white smoke, and their crooked and yellow stained teeth as they smiled. I wondered even at that time what they thought of my presence, a five-year-old white boy showing up alone and wandering among them. Some of them would ask me in Korean “Where are your parents,” but I played dumb. I kept watching the game and they seemed not to mind, nor were they too concerned about the boy in their presence. I was slightly afraid, but not of the men, rather of my parents realizing I was gone. I had just circled the tables and was coming back out onto the staircase when I was caught! Boy did Mom and Dad give me a scolding that day!
Sitting in church pews while someone is speaking a foreign language from the pulpit does not lead itself to any lasting memories in a child’s mind. But things like camping trips, hikes and traveling the countryside do. Since my parent’s ministry included accompanying varying church groups on their outdoor activities, the majority of my childhood memories about church from Korea were not from inside the church building, but being with church people as they enjoyed the outside.
August 1983, The Han River, Korea
Among the most memorable of the church trips was always summer camp. For several summers our family joined the Shiheung youth group on their annual camping trip to the northern Han River. The Han River I was familiar with was the large brown river that cut through the middle of Seoul, and was definitely not the sort of place that sounded appealing for a camping trip. But what I didn’t know is that the Han River’s source was towards the middle of South Korea, high up in the mountains where the river ran swift and clean. The trip from Seoul to the mountains normally took several hours, that is, if the bus worked. The buses seemed to be always breaking down. One time on our trip down to Pusan the bus had a flat tire. Dad watched as the driver, a very pleasant man, tried harder and harder to put the lug nuts on the wrong way. Dad quietly suggested he turn them the other way and the job was done in no time. The knowledge of how to do things was related to class, and a driver would not be expected to know what a mechanic would, for instance.
When we finally arrived at the campground, we discovered some of it was on private land. The farmer, it seemed, allowed us to camp there in return for the “night soil” that our group would contribute to his plants. Since it was still mid-morning, we all set to work setting up tents. There was a main tent that would house the young people and numerous adults and several smaller tents for the cooks and workers. The rest of us had private tents. The women assigned to cook did not waste any time but began hauling their heavy pots and cookware from a truck and making their fires in order to have the rice ready for lunch. It was quite a process since there were several hundred people in our group.
Shortly after arriving, I told Mom that I needed to use the restroom. We wandered around looking for a place to go when Mom finally asked a pastor. Bowing his head, he pointed out to a field with a small shed covered with a tarp. Arriving at the shed and pulling back the tarp, we inadvertently held our breath. We saw a pit that had been dug into the ground; a rectangle several feet wide and several feet deep. It was full. Not only that, it was moving. Larvae were so thick that the entire mass undulated. Two flat boards spanned across the pit supported by dirt on either side. “Oh momma, if I fall in there, I be terrible” I commented to Mom in the understatement of that year. I would have to carefully walk out onto the board while maintaining my balance, squat while maintaining balance, perform my duty while maintaining balance and make it back to land safely. Most kids in the States at the time were watching “Nickelodeon slime kids” for fun. Instead, I was entertained by the real possibility of falling into a vat of human excrement just to use the restroom. My Mom held onto my hand as I walked far enough over the ledge of the pit to actually be above it. Then she helped me stay stable and made sure that I was safe throughout the experience, only as a parent would. And she helped me back to dry land safely, with great relief. It was only later that Dad learned the latrine was impossible for the others in our party, too. Our friends would simply head out away from the group and discretely use the bushes. But Mom had asked for the location of the restroom, and it would have been an embarrassment to tell her to use the bushes instead.
Each morning at the camp I would wake up to the strong smell of camp fire smoke and groups of people sitting around warming themselves next to the fires. The cold mountain air would trap the smoke from the night and morning fires in a layer close to the ground, and when the early morning light shone through, you could see vivid yellow and orange rays beaming through the smoke, as if the air itself was on fire. In the background was the green and blue vista of the mountains and river, with swirrling fog lifting off of the slow moving current close to shore. As the sun came up, it would gradually warm the air above and disperse the smoke, and warm the people huddled around for their breakfasts and morning Bible studies. The optimum scenario was to sit facing the fire while having your back facing the rising sun – thus warming two sides of your body at once. Since this was a VBS camp, there would be prayer and group exercises along the river in the morning, followed by classes. Our good friend Mr. Chi would translate for Mom and Dad as they and others spoke to the group and then there would be singing. In the heat of the midday sun, all of the kids would relax by swimming in the river and playing soccer or volleyball. Dad was asked to be lifeguard because most of the kids from Seoul did not know how to swim. Some of the currents farther out were rapid and it was dangerous against the rock cliffs. At one point I looked up and saw that one of the associate pastors had hauled my brother and sister up one of the cliffs! They were looking down on us and I could see the terror in my sister’s face.
Later that week, Mom took a long walk along the farmer’s fields. At one spot she came upon a young woman who was nursing her baby. The women smiled at Mom and told her “God gives Korean women milk for their babies.” Apparently the woman thought that Western mothers give their children formula out of necessity and not by choice. My mother simply replied “God gives us milk for our babies as well.” The woman looked at my Mom in amazement and had a difficult understanding why someone would pay for something that you already had for free.
One of the biggest challenges we faced going on church trips was food. I freely admit that I was a picky eater as a child- a meat and potatoes type of kid, or worse case, a ketchup and butter rice type kid (don’t judge). So going off to camp where there was a large group to feed and no kitchen to prepare “our” food presented a problem for me. While Mom had brought along an emergency supply of peanut butter, jelly and bread, we three kids quickly went through her supply. Our friends, wanting to be considerate and assuming that Western children have an unusual affinity for all things sweet, brought us pastries for breakfast one morning and steamed potatoes rolled in sugar for another. At first, the sweets were a welcome treat, but after a few days of eating nothing but sugar potatoes, it began to loose its appeal. I believe it was on day four of the camp that we finally got hungry enough to eat the Korean fare. My brother, sister and I approached the make shift kitchen hungrily. There were noodles, I recall, and some sort of black sauce that I poured on top of everything. That single meal was the most wondrous, best tasting meal that I can ever remember from South Korea. Several months after the camping trip, we were served a meal with the delicious black sauce again and I was giddy in anticipation. But this time, it did not taste anywhere as good as it had at camp, and I was left with the dilemma of what to do with the massive portion of not so appealing food sitting on my plate. I had learned a valuable lesson: you can only be choosy about food when you are not really hungry.
Food has to come from somewhere, but nowhere was that idea more relevant than watching “the chicken lady” as she became to be known. At the camp they had a mesh wire pen with chickens in it. I would sit and watch them slowly walk around, bobbing their heads and chase other chickens out of their little plot of territory in the pen. One time while I was watching, a lady walked up and carefully picked up one of the chickens out of the pen. She sat down on a short stool, tucked agitated chicken under one of her arms gently stroked her hand down its neck and back. Gradually, the chicken calmed down and relaxed into the lady’s arms. It was at this point that the lady quietly and nonchalantly took out a knife, and drew it across the neck of the chicken. The chicken would try to flap its wings for a moment, but the lady would continue to cradle the chicken, slowly caressing its neck and back. As the blood flowed, the chicken was calmed down again and then gradually slumped over dead into the ladies’ hands. It was the most frighteningly evil thing that I had witnessed in my four years of life. I was fine with the concept of a chicken dying screaming and flapping around, but the way that this lady lulled it into a sense of security while its blood flowed from its arteries was a whole new level of creepy. So that night, after falling asleep, I dreamt that I had just finished watching the chicken lady kill a chicken. Slowly, carefully, maniacally, she looked up at me. “Do you want to come sit down?” She asked sweetly as she patted her thigh. “No” was the immediate response. I started to back away slowly, but the chicken lady stood up. I backed away at a quicker pace, facing her so I could respond at a moment’s notice, but she started walking towards me as well, faster and faster, knife by her side. Finally, I turned around and started running. Running as fast as I could. The chicken lady followed. She was not running with effort, but rather floating above the ground, with a quiet, still, homely look on her face. No matter how hard I tried to run away, she followed, faster and faster until finally, I felt something touch my shoulder. There are certain senses that one feels during a dream, as if in a dream, where the feeling is detached from reality. Then there are the other feelings. The ones that feel palpably real. And this was a palpably real touch on the shoulder. I woke up, breathing heavily and covered in sweat. I never told my parents about the nightmare, but for the next few days I walked around carefully, avoiding the chicken area, looking over my shoulder. It wouldn’t be until my adult years that I could rationally appreciate the kindness and compassion that the chicken lady killed her chickens with. Those chickens met a much better fate than any other chicken I have ever seen killed (including the ones I have killed myself). But she was still super creepy.
Fall 1983 Bukhansan National Park
On another trip, our good friend, Mr. Chi, had suggested that we accompany him and his family on a hike. My parents had been assured that it was a good family hike, because at the age of three, they did not seem the least bit worried that I could tackle it. A “hike” to us meant something other than a “mountain climb,” but Mr. Chi was a skilled mountain climber and to him this was probably just a hike. The mountains were a contrast to the busy streets and everyone seemed to enjoy a good hike. We arrived at the entrance to the park and started hiking up through a wooded area. When we came to a stream, Mr. Chi stopped and commended the clean pureness of the mountain water flowing downriver as he dipped his hands in the water and drank from them. Climbing steadily up, we neared a clearing in the trees and were instructed to “stay close to the edge.” “Edge? Edge of what?” I can remember thinking to myself. Rounding the corner, we found ourselves on a path cut out of the mountain side. There was a mountain wall on the right, and a several hundred feet drop off below – and only one high rail to hold onto. Halfway down this narrow cliff pass, there was another group heading in the opposite direction, off the mountain. Our group, being the larger one, decided it would be polite to let the other group pass. The problem was, there was not enough space for two people to pass each other safely on the narrow ledge. So we were instructed to sit down, with our backs resting on the mountain face and our feet pointing out towards the cliff face. Now, you should know that I am afraid of heights, and right about now I was crawling out of my own skin to try to get away from this more than unreasonable scenario. But at the same moment, I looked out off the cliff and saw the green forest vista in the valley below. The scenery looked like something from a postcard. As I held tightly to Mom and watched the other party carefully step over our legs on their way downhill, I assured myself that things couldn’t get much worse. I was wrong though.
Around the bend was a section where you had to cross over two large boulders with a small gap between them. Arriving at this impasse, I looked down and loudly assured myself and the others around me that there was no way I was going to make it safely across… we should head back. A solution was quickly devised as Mr. Chi simply picked me up and carried me across under one arm as he braced himself against the rock face with the other. Quite possibly the only thing worse than trying to jump across the boulders myself would be having to be picked up and dangled above the gap, but apparently I didn’t have much say in the matter. Fortunately, around the bend, the cliff section gave way once again to a trail with earth on both sides of the trail. Nearing the top of the mountain and the source of the pristine mountain stream, we found two Korean men bathing themselves in the pool that came out of the mountain. Apparently the pure mountain water was not quite as pure as we thought it was. It was only during writing this that Mom told me that my singular memory of the hike above, was likely a combination of three different hikes we took. It seems that my memory had combined the interesting and frightening events from several trips into a single memory – but it does make a better story.
As part of this project, Mom regularly asks me how my experiences shaped my worldview. All parents have a heartfelt desire to see their kids do well, to be well adjusted, and to be successful. But raising a kid on the mission field is contrary to many Western beliefs about what would be considered good parenting. There were times that I lacked “good” supervision, but it helped me become more independent and self-sufficient. There were times where I was put in “danger,” but it helped me push my own boundaries of what I was capable of and in trusting others when circumstances were beyond my control. Uncertainty became a normal state, as did being quick to prayer and resourcefulness in problem solving.
Possibly the only downside to my differing experiences going to church in South Korea as opposed to the United States, was that while I was the son of missionary parents, I knew fewer Bible stories than my friends upon returning home. I had missed years of Sunday School, flannel board cutouts and kids church songs. But in its place, God was not a distant and abstract being presented in stories from millennia ago. Even from that young age, God was close and tangible. I had seen God’s hand at work in our daily lives, and held His hand when our struggles were insurmountable. These trips to church and with our friends became a mainstay of our family conversations for years to come. We never knew where we were headed or what it would be like, but we knew that we would be cared for, both by our friends, and probably from the angels guarding our way. Not knowing what lies ahead is a familiar frame of mind for a three-year-old and even today it is probably closer to the truth than we can imagine. A Korean proverb wisely suggests we be not over-confident: (아는 길도 물어가라). – Even if you know the way, ask one more time.
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