In 2014, when I was serving the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) as Assistant to the General Secretary for Ecumenical Relations, I met Rev. Dr. Choen Min Heui, who was Director of Ecumenical Relations for the Presbyterian Church of the Republic of Korea (PROK). I supported her in her effort to send resources, mission support, and short-term mission workers to Thailand in partnership with the CCT. I stepped down from that position in 2015 and she stepped down from her position in 2017 and we lost touch with each other. In May 2019, I went to Seoul to witness the marriage of Kim I-Re, one of our former Christian Volunteers in Thailand whom Dr. Choen sent to Thailand to serve as an English teacher at Chiangrai Vidhayakhome School for three years. It was on this trip that Dr. Choen and I reconnected, and she asked me to consider a request from her church for help with a new vision for outreach and evangelism conceived by Rev. Kim Dae Kil. Since it involves the use of Christian English teachers and the rural churches have little money to pay full salary for foreign teachers, she asked for my assistance to help them set up a program for volunteer English teachers at the church. She invited me to come and see what they are doing and to learn more about Rev. Kim’s vision for this ministry. I urged her to send a letter to the General Secretary of the Church of Christ in Thailand, Rev. Sayam Muangsak, with her request. That letter was sent in June 2019.
I missed several weeks of work in June 2019 – first, due to acute bronchitis and then, due to a broken bone in my foot. Around that same time, my Assistant Coordinator, Ms. Atchima Wongkhiao was on a trip to Chiang Mai on CVT business and worried about her mother who had been diagnosed with cancer. We missed submitting the request to the Officers Meeting in July. However, Dr. Choen had a personal telephone conversation with Rev. Sayam Muangsak where she came away convinced that he had authorized my travel. Based upon that, she laid her plans for my visit on July 22-30, 2019. When she sent me the finalized plan, I realized that she would face significant problems if I did not come as scheduled, so I purchase my airline ticket for those dates. I arrived in Seoul on Tuesday, July 23, and was met by a young man from the church named Mark. He and I then took a five-hour bus trip to Gwangju, the southern terminus for the bus route in South Korea.
Dr. Choen Min Heui met us at the Bus Terminal in Gwangju and drove to the May 18 Democracy Monument and National Cemetery. Between May 18 and 27, 1980, there was a mass protest against the South Korean military government that took place in the city of Gwangju called the Gwangju Uprising. Nearly 250,000 people participated in this protest. Although it was brutally repressed and initially unsuccessful in bringing about democratic reform in South Korea, it is considered a pivotal moment in the South Korean struggle for democracy. The worst day of the protest was May 27, when military forces ordered tanks, armored personnel carriers, and helicopters to attack the city. It took the military only two hours to crush the uprising. While official reports say that 200 people were killed in the uprising, Gwangju citizens and students claim the number was 2,000. The leaders who ordered the massacre were later successfully prosecuted for their crimes, and the May 18 Democracy Monument and National Cemetery was established to honor those who participated in the protest.
Dr. Choen drove us to Yangmuri Presbyterian Church in Haenam, where she currently serves as Associate Pastor. Over the next few days, I had the opportunity to meet with Rev. Kim Dae Kil, who shared his “Next Generation” vision with me. The focus of this vision is on the next generation; it is not on those who are currently members of the church. It is for the church to recognize that, without a focus on the “Next Generation,” there will be no church for the youth when they are adults. And it is a call to every member to reach out to the youth – whether they are part of the church at the present time or not – and witness to them as the “Next Generation” of God’s Kingdom on earth. Over the past ten years, Rev. Kim has taken an Asian church – which would typically expect the young to serve the old – and convinced the old that it is their duty to serve – that is, to mentor and to guide – the young. The message from the pulpit each week focuses on a Christian’s duty to share the Gospel, and no one is either too young or too old to participate.
When I was not meeting with Rev. Kim, Dr. Choen introduced me to the many ways that the church is reaching out to the community around it. It seems that finding English teachers for the schools in this rural area in the far south is very difficult. So, the church is supplementing what the schools are doing by offering English instruction for all age groups at the church. There are classes beginning as early as 6 AM for those who have to go to school. In these classes, older youth help the younger ones learn. There are other classes for older youth where young adults help. The instruction combines an English curriculum with Christian songs, Bible stories, and games to make the learning fun.
Earlier, I said that no one is either too old or too young to participate. One of the most interesting classes that I observed was for babies, aged 3 months to 3 years. These classes are held on weekdays from 10 AM to Noon. The mothers, who would normally be at home with their young children and isolated from others in the community, bring their babies to the church. Yes, the mothers are learning more than the babies. And the classes are not limited to mothers who are members of the church. Non-Christian mothers bring their babies to these classes and they learn about a God who loves them. The mothers are also building relationships and a strong support network for themselves with mothers of other young children in the church and in the community.
Who teaches all of these classes at the church? At the present time, it is Dr. Choen herself who teaches every class, every day. Yet, how can she do all of the teaching and still complete the other tasks that are expected of an associate pastor? That is the challenge and one of the key reasons why Dr. Choen asked for my help. The church cannot afford to pay full salary for foreign English teachers and there is no guarantee that English teachers hired through an agency would be Christian. The church wants teachers like those recruited by Christian Volunteers in Thailand. Having such volunteers, especially those who have completed some theological education or a seminary degree, would allow the church to offer English classes, and teach the Bible along with English. Dr. Choen could work alongside them, but complete her other pastoral duties, as well.
On one of the days that I was in South Korea, Dr. Choen was leading a Youth Camp in another area. I was taken to see some places of interest in the southern tip of the peninsula. One place that stands out in my mind was the memorial to a Christian martyr, Mun Jun Kyung. She was a woman born into a wealthy family in Jeungdo. After her marriage failed due to her husband’s infidelity, she studied theology in Seoul. She returned to her hometown in the 1930’s to spread the Gospel in Shinan, the more than 1,000 islands off the coast of South Korea. Today, more than 80% of the population there is Christian because of her witness. When the Communists came into Korea after the World War II, they tortured and killed Christians. This faithful servant of God was given an opportunity to escape this persecution, but she refused to leave her congregants behind. When the Communist soldiers returned, this woman was martyred with those to whom she brought the Gospel message.
Another awe-inspiring exhibit was the Kim Dae Jung Nobel Peace Prize Memorial, constructed to commemorate the life and work of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who is the only Korean Nobel Prize winner in history. He is sometimes referred to as the “Nelson Mandela of South Korea.” He first became widely known as an opposition leader to the dictator Park Chung Hee who took power in a military coup in 1961. There were several attempts on Kim Dae Jung’s life in the 1970’s. Each time, he believed his faith in God saved him. He ran for president two other times without success, but when the Asian financial crisis caused the nation’s economic collapse in 1997, he won the presidency. President Kim Dae Jung was known for his strong commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation. He invited both former presidents Park and Chun to the Blue House during his administration and forgave them for all they had done to him. He restored the nation to economic solvency. He began a détente with the communist government of North Korea, which resulted an historic summit in 2000 and the beginning of a new relationship between the two Koreas, which continues today. For this, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.
Another inspiring story that I first heard from Rev. Kim was the story of Admiral Yi Sun Sin and the Battle of Myeong-Nyang. In 1592, after General Toyotomi Hideyoshi united Japan, he decided to invade Korea. Initially, the Japanese army easily defeated Korean troops. However, the invading Japanese army needed supply lines on sea routes in the south. Admiral Yi Sun Sin’s Joseon Navy had defeated Japanese naval fleets in consecutive battles, but a political plot instigated by the Japanese resulted in Admiral Yi being imprisoned by the Korean government. Another admiral was assigned to lead the Korean navy. In his first and last battle, this admiral was defeated, losing more that 200 warships. Admiral Yi was released from prison and returned to command the navy with just 13 ships, even as the Japanese fleet returned with 330 ships to take command of the shipping routes. In a spectacular story of strategy and courage, Admiral Yi and his 13 ships caught the Japanese fleet in the Strait of Meong-Nyang and, after destroying 31 Japanese warships, won the battle, forcing the Japanese fleet to retreat. His victory is memorialized in the 2014 movie “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” and in a statue and museum overlooking the Strait.
There are so many other stories that I could tell from my brief visit to Haenam and Yangmuri Presbyterian Church. I could share how two wonderful young men took care of me during my visit. Having broken a bone in my foot just four weeks before my visit, I was wearing an airboot and walking with the use of crutches. Mark and Kevin took care of my every need while I was in South Korea – pushing me from meeting to meeting in a wheelchair (because walking on crutches takes time), introducing me to people in the congregation, replenishing supplies of towels and toilet paper in my guest room, and sharing the significance of Korean people and places (through their studies, Google, or movies they had seen). Mark is an aspiring young businessman who is traveling to the USA this fall to study at a university in Wisconsin. Kevin is in his final year at a university in Seoul, studying theology and following in his father’s footsteps. His father is the pastor, Rev. Kim Dae Kil. These young men are smart, responsible, and a blast to be with! We had a great time together, talking, laughing, sharing and, as we got to know each other better, poking fun at each other.
It was on one of the last days of my visit that Rev. Kim Dae Kil shared with me an even wider vision for Haenam: that of helping the smaller rural churches to survive and thrive by using English teaching as a means of outreach and evangelism. There are so many small churches that have difficulty attracting pastors to the rural areas far to the south of Seoul. Christian English teachers, particularly those trained in theology, could help to change those dynamics and strengthen the Christian witness of those rural churches. Rev. Kim believes that Yangmuri Presbyterian Church is ready to provide the leadership to do this. In the ten years that Rev. Kim has served as pastor of Yangmuri Presbyterian Church, it has doubled in size from about 300 congregants to just over 600. He does not want them to rest on their laurels. Rev. Kim has prayed and worked to prepare the congregation and the church staff for this new goal. He believes that God has sent Dr. Choen to Yangmuri Presbyterian Church in January of 2019 for this purpose and that the time has come to act.
On the final evening, Rev. Kim Dae Kil took me, Dr. Choen and other church leaders out for Korean barbeque. It was the Pastor himself who cooked the meat for me to eat. We went from there to a coffee house, where we were the only customers for a time. We sang old, familiar hymns together. We shared stories. On a dare from one of the church leaders, I sang “I Love To Tell The Story,” which is a hymn they do not use in this church. Yet, I see it as a theme for this new outreach and evangelism effort. We stayed for three hours, sipping coffee, talking, sharing, and laughing together. I saw in that evening – as I had seen all week – a group of people caught up in the passion of this visionary leader and the strong team that he has built to do God’s work in this place. He did not dominate our time together and yet, his leadership was silently acknowledged by everyone who was present.
One of the exercises that Dr. Choen has the children do in their English classes is to complete the sentence, “When I grow up, I want to be the best… in the world.” Kevin, the pastor’s son, completed that sentence by saying, “When I grow up, I want to be the best pastor in the world.” He has a great example to follow living in the same house – his own father and the pastor of the church, Rev. Kim Dae Kil. It would be an honor to help Rev. Kim and Yangmuri Presbyterian Church achieve this vision for outreach and evangelism to the glory of God.