South Korea

South Korea

Monday, August 8, 2016

Jeju, a complex and beautiful island

July 25th 2016

Today we flew from Gwangju to Jeju island. Jeju is the largest island of Korea and is located directly south of the peninsula.

Map of South Korea

In the late afternoon we visited the April 3rd Peace Memorial. The memorial stood in remembrance of the thousands of victims of government oppression killed on Jeju Island. Starting in 1948 the newly divided north and south of Korea were scheduled to each hold elections, thus formalizing their division into two countries by outside governments. The people of Jeju strongly resisted being divided and protested the elections. The South Korean government, supported by the United States, sent troops to quell the resistance. In a three year period nearly 30,000 residents of Jeju were killed including women, children and elderly. The South Korean government, after the 1948 elections, subsequently passed a law referred to something like "patriotism and treason" which declared that any public discussion of the deaths on Jeju Island would be punished by prison or death, thus effectively silencing the story of what happened on Jeju for years.

It wasn't until nearly 50 years after the incidents occurred that the truth came to light and that a movement was made to seek transparency. The Peace Memorial standing as a reminder of government repression against ones own people.

You can read more at:

Jeju Island itself is known for water, wind, and women. Korean's believe in Yin and Yang, always balancing each other out. Jeju Island reportedly had too much of a feminine presence (it was a partially matriarchal society- see comments on women diver's below). To rectify all of that female influence phallic stone status are located all over the island.

Being an island surrounded by the abundance of the sea, Jeju has a long history of sea diving. Divers would bring up precious foods and items for commerce including abalone, shellfish and octupus. By the 18th century many of Jeju's most accomplished divers were women, who thus became the primary bread-winners for their families. Female babies were celbrated and women's families were known to pay doweries to men. Women divers were a staple in Jeju's history until modern time when technical advances in seafood collection have altered their way of life. More can be found at:

July 26th 2016

Today was a strictly fun day. We went horseback riding, had a great sashimi lunch overlooking Jeju island's most famous outcropping, took a dip in the ocean and went to bed early!

July 27th 2016

Today we drove to the sight of the naval base on Jeju Island. The base is extremely controversial because of it's impact on Jeju's delicate coral reefs and because of the soverignty of Korea being host to several major U.S. military bases.

 Information about the base and the protests surrounding it's installation can be found here:

Protesters were gathered in front of the gates the day we visited. One of the signs translated that the Sewol Ferry, which was known to have capsized due to excessive cargo, was carrying supplies including construction materials for the new navy base. This information added to the already complex and tragic story of the Sewol Ferry disaster.

After visiting the Nave Base and lunch we stopped by one of Jeju's many museums. There is a tax incentive for those opening museums on the island and there are hundreds of them of all shapes, sizes and topics. I found an interesting Wall Street Journal piece on some of the more colorful museums: The one we visited was the international car museum.

Jonathan and I had an evening flight back to Seoul and settled in for our last day.

July 28th 2016

Today was our last full day in Seoul. We spent the morning doing some last minute shopping, packing, and sightseeing. We returned to the PROK office to say farewell to the ecumenical office staff and to the General Secretary. During the trip I've been keeping a running list of potential follow ups between the UCC / DOC and the PROK Rev. Min Heui and I reviewed the list and made plans for her trip stateside in the fall.

It's worth mentioning that while we were in Korea both Republican and Democratic national conventions took place in the U.S. and several Korean's expressed concerns over U.S. presidential elections.

Taking advantage of the last moments of daylight we did a whirlwind tour of the King's Palace in downtown Seoul.

We ended the day with dinner with members of the Seoul South Presbytery who have recently signed a partnership agreement with the Hawaii Conference of the United Church of Christ.

We said farewell to Rev. Min Heui, thanked her for her extravagant hospitality, leadership and ecumenical vision. She showed us where to catch the airport bus in the morning and we were off to our next adventure.

God, we are grateful for new opportunities, for your every unfolding story and for the chance to engage with others. We give thanks for safe travel, new friends, and the faithful witness to the life and ministry of your son Jesus and show through people and places throughout the world. Amen. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Gwangju and surrounding region, March 18th 1980 Uprising

July 20th 2016

Today we spent the day sight seeing in Gyoengju, our host was one of the elders from a local PROK church. He took us to see an extremely large and well maintained Buddhist temple that is on UNESCO's world heritage list. Next we went to the sea to see the rocks where an ancient king's ashes were scattered. Then we visited a section of the city that is dotted with large mounds (taller than multi-story buildings) the mounds were burial sights for ancient royalty during the Shilla period. One of the tombs had been excavated and we were able to tour inside. The elder treated us to a large home cooked mean in his house and we toured the church. Afterwards we took a four hour bus ride to Gwangju which will be our home base for the remainder of the week.

July 21st 2016

Today we visited four different PROK congregations. The first one (Gwangju Gwangsan Church) there were about 40 women who were in small groups doing outreach work in the community. Each group reported on their efforts; visiting addicts, shut-ins, hospitals etc. They were extremely strong in their faith and dedicated to their ministry.

Next we visited an alternative high school run by this congregation. Each of the 1st through 10th grade classes use a Bible Study curriculum developed by the pastor. The students at this school, roughly 100, attend either because their parents want a faith centered education or because the youth struggle in the highly competitive Korean public education system.

Our next stop was a smaller PROK church, Gwangju Hae Thel Church. The pastor really wanted to give his young adults a chance to interact with international visitors, so we met with four college students in the chapel and talked with them. The young adults took us to see the after school program run by the church where we sang songs and colored with the children. Next the college students and pastor took us through downtown to visit a third PROK congregation. The pastor of this 3rd congregation, Gwangju Moodol Church,  presented us with a beautiful scroll painting of North Korea done by a North Korean artist.

After saying farewell to the young adults we went to a fourth PROK congregation, Gwangju Hansomang Church. This was a new church start that began with only the pastor and his family but has now grown to a mid-sized congregation that greatly benefits the welfare of the community in which it's located. This particular presbytery has a partnership with the Southwest Pacific Region of the Disciples of Christ. Several of the pastors expressed their pleasure that later this summer ten teenagers and a chaperone will be traveling to the U.S. to participate in a week of church camp, a week doing mission work on the U.S. / Mexico border and finally a week home stay with DOC families.

In these four churches, and in dozens of other PROK congregations we've visited in the past five weeks we notice three consistent values:

1. Dedication to the Gospel
2. Commitment to peace and justice (particularly reunification)
3. Demonstrated impact in the communities where the church is located

July 22nd 2016

Today we traveled to the Mokpo region. Our first stop for the day was with a center for the mentally and physically disabled. The center is quite unique because it is a center developed by people with disabilities for people with disabilities. All three of the directors we met were blind. One director is in charge of advocacy work, particularly coordinating advocacy efforts to change federal laws and to keep the government accountable to prior laws passed to support those with disabilities. The second director was a woman who is in charge of a settlement program that helps people with disabilities to live independently. The third director was coordinated a braille printing library. People with disabilities are often marginalized in Korea and this program's stability, vision and empowerment was inspiring.

We enjoyed a fresh fish caught by the sea and cut into sashimi for lunch with the pastor who serves as the executive director of the disability advocacy center and with the president of the PROK presbytery. The fisherman / owner of the restaurant was thrilled that foreigners enjoyed his fish.

Next we drove to an extremely remote village to visit a very small PROK congregation. One of the elders from this church has a very wide view of ministry and mission. In fact, he was one of the PROK representatives that traveled to Haiti for the inauguration of a school jointly supported by Global Ministries and the PROK. This congregation is known for providing free hot tea in the town hall throughout the winter and for going to locations where senior citizens gather to teach yoga.
The church also operates a daycare center that we were able to visit.

Our next stop was to a PROK church in Haenan. We toured the church building and an after school center run by the church. The pastor and a college student who is studying English took us to visit a very large Buddhist temple and out to for dinner. We spent the evening at a small retreat run by one of the church's deacons.

July 23rd 2016

This morning we traveled back to Gwangju. We picked up Dr. Kahala Cannon at the train station and then went with Rev. Min Heui Choen and her parents to the March 18th, 1980 memorial. In 1980 there were democracy protests taking place throughout the country. The president ordered marshal law. In Gwangju one of the military leaders took this opportunity to begin a coup. The people of Gwangju were brutally attacked as the military leader moved in to take over the presidency as he declared that he squelched  a "communist" uprising in Gwangju. The unrest lasted for nearly ten days, the number of civilians killed is still unknown because garbage trucks were used to transport bodies to a mass grave to a remote area outside of town. The military leader did become president, later in 1993 he was tried for human rights atrocities and sentenced to life in prison.

An account of the uprising can be found here:

After an emotionally deep morning we went to a bamboo forest in the afternoon. It was hot, hot, hot out. We were able to watch "Human National Treasure #48" work. He is recognized for his skill in making Korea's famous bamboo fans for decades. We stopped to cool off with some ice cream and then dinner.

July 24 2016

We started off the day at the Suugwang (Holy Light) Church. We joined the congregation for the beginning of worship, this was the first church service we've attended in Korea where the children were present for worship (most have concurrent Sunday School). Here the children are blessed after the opening prayer and hymn and then go downstairs for Christian Education. This particular congregation was introduced to Children's Wonder by a visiting minister from the Disciples of Christ. The congregation is smitten with the story-telling aspects of Children's Wonder and uses it not only for their own children but replicate the concept in other southeast Asian countries such as Laos, East Timor, and Cambodia where they do annual mission trips. The pastor would very much like to send some of the teachers to the U.S. to experience Children's Wonder in a DOC church so they can return with best practices for the curriculum.

At lunch (every church serves a full lunch on Sunday's after worship) the pastor told us about his involvement as a students leader in the March 18th 1980 uprising. He was arrested and tortured daily in attempts to have him sign a declaration saying that he was a communist. He was finally released when President Reagan came into power in the United States and Reagan asked to the south to release its political prisoners in a sign of democracy as opposed to the north with whom tensions were rising.

Our conversations centered around the many grassroots movements taking place across the globe in the 1980's seeking justice for the most oppressed. Several of the leaders of the March 18th 1980 movement were college students, who after their terms in prison for their activism, went on to study theology and to work serving communities at the grassroots level.

We left the Holy Light Church and went to the Gyerim Church which is Rev. Min Heui Cheon's home congregation and the congregation where her parents are elders. We attended the 2pm service which was a special program honoring Sunday School teachers, children and youth. I asked their prayers for the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ National Youth Event taking place next week in Florida.

Today marks the 40th day of our trip and the last of our intense travel. Tomorrow we'll travel to the island of Jeju for a few days with instructions to see a few historic sites, then a wrap up day in Seoul with the PROK national offices, leaving Korea the morning of July 29th.

Loving God, you have come to walk among us in the form of Jesus Christ. Christ taught us to love you and to love one another. Today we ask that we continue to remember the stories Jesus taught us in parables about the Kingdom of God, a kingdom where the last shall be first and were the weak shall be strong. May to together work to bring your kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. Amen. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Embodying Partnership

July 17th 2016

Today I was invited to preach the 11:00 service at the Hyodong Church in downtown Seoul. I preached the same sermon on the transfiguration previously published in this blog. The Senior Pastor is incredibly supportive of woman in ministry, after worship he treated the group of us: myself, Rev. Min Heui Cheon, the female associate pastor from the church, Dr. Kahala Cannon, a female minister from Japan and Jonathan to coffee and sweets.

After a much needed Sunday afternoon nap, Jonathan and I went to explore Gangnam, the very high end neighborhood in Seoul sang about in Psy's popular K-Pop tune. ( The subway station and street were filled with young Koreans, tourists and shopping!

July 18th 2016

We needed to adjust our schedule slightly today and had to cancel a trip to visit a eco project of the PROK. We were however, able to take the train (South Korea has amazing public transportation, we cannot figure out why the U.S. does not invest in a high speed rail system) to meet with the Ecumenical Committee of the PROK. It was delightful to share lunch with roughly 17 members of the committee and to bring them greetings from Global Ministries on behalf of both the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Our presence at the lunch and meeting were a tangible connection for the ecumenical work that these pastors and lay members have been supporting through the work of the PROK. There is sincere hope that our partnership will continue and will be lived out at the grassroots level connecting congregations to one another and creating opportunities for exchanges with youth and young adults. 

July 19th 2016

Today we packed up and left Seoul. We took the bullet train (we estimate that it travels at about 172 miles per hour- and has free wifi!) to Gyeongju. We were invited to be present at the annual PROK Elder's Meeting. This is a gathering of over 1,100 Elders from across the denomination. Less than 10% of Elders are woman so it is a very large gathering of men. We spent the afternoon in plenary sharing in the opening worship service, listening to an excellent ecumenical choir, and receiving introductions and reports from officers and church officials. I was asked to bring greetings from Global Ministries (United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ). It was quite an honor since I was the only woman to address the gathering. I gave my greetings and encouraged continued ecumenical partnerships. I said that throughout our trip we have been very impressed with the congregations we have encountered; their commitment to Christ, work towards reunification and significant impact each church makes in the communities in which they are located. Again, the power of partnership is being made manifest in these gatherings and it feels quite significant to have physical embodiment of our commitments to dialogue, education and support of one another, I am glad that Jonathan and I were able to be present at this event.


Our Day at the DMZ

July 16th 2016

Our visit to the DMZ was rescheduled several times so far during this trip because of military exercises taking place. We were able to secure seats on a tour run by a specific DMZ tour group for Saturday July 16th. Both Jonathan and I found the day to be quite strange. It was a very touristy experience of what is considered to be an active war zone. We weren't sure whether to smile in pictures or to look serious. Where and when we were allowed to take photographs was very limited and it was obvious that spoke to us had a particular narrative that they provided to our group.

I was very interested to hear the tour guide talk about the DMZ as an extension of the Cold War that has never ended. She talked about the Korean Peninsula being united under the Joseon Dynasty, then being occupied by the Japanese and then divided by China, the Soviet Union and the United States in 1945.

The actual military demarcation line runs close to but not exactly on the 38th parallel. It is a low wire that can easily be stepped over. In order to reduce tensions a 2 kilometer buffer was established on either side of the line, this 4 kilometer stretch is know as the Demilitarized Zone. In addition, the South Korean side established a few additional kilometers that it calls the Civilian Security Line that is heavily fortified by the South Korean military. No South Korean citizen can cross the CSL line nor the DMZ without explicit government permission, for that reason South Koreans are not allowed to participate in the tours of the DMZ.

After hearing about the division of the peninsula by other governments during our drive from Seoul towards the Civilian Security Line, we arrived at the location of what is known as the third tunnel. In the time after the 1953 armistice agreement North Korea dug at least four tunnels under the DMZ reportedly to attack the south. We were able to go down into the tunnel but not to take pictures. At this location there was also a small museum with information about the region and a symbolic sculpture continuing to call for reunification.

Next we went to an observatory where it was possible to see the actual demarcation line as it stretches through the rice paddies and countryside. Ironically the 4 kilometer stretch has become one of the most biologically diverse areas of wildlife in the country. This particular day was extremely rainy so our view was minimal. Many of the tourists took pictures with the South Korean military members at the site. There were also sovereign shops that sold "DMZ" themed gifts.

Our next stop was the Dorasan Station which is the northern most station of the Korean subway line. This station was completed in an era before the current South Korean president. The concept was for Koreans to take the subway to Dorasan, then connect to an inter-Korean rail line that could take passengers throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe. U.S. President George W. Bush came to the station and signed one of the railway ties supporting the increasing collaboration between the north and south. The station also had a part of the Berlin Wall as donated by Germany. The wall has a permanent display on one side showing the length of time that Berlin was divided into East and West (just over 40 years) on the other side is an electronic clock that continues to track the length of time that Korea has been divided (over 70 years and counting).

The next stop on our tour was the "Friendship Bridge" named and built by CEO if Hyundai. He was born in the north but escaped to the south and stole a cow along the way. He sold the cow to start his business ventures, eventually creating a huge company. He wanted to return the cow plus fifty years interest so he build the friendship bridge and transported 1,001 cows to North Korea. At this site he also built a large venue where Korean families separated from the division of the peninsula could meet to celebrate holidays and special occasions. This area is outside of the CSA so South Koreans can travel there and the longing for reunification, not just of governments but of parents and children is obvious in this location because of all of the prayer ribbons tied to barbed wire.

We could see the road to the Kaesong Industrial complex in the distance. This large system of factories was build during the sunshine policies of South Korea (there is a folktale that the sun and the wind were competing to get a man to take off his coat, the wind blew and blew and the man only held his coat tighter, the sun warmed him up and the man took off his coat- this was the philosophy of cooperation supported by former South Korean presidents). The Kaesong Industrial Complex is located within North Korean territory and employed North Korean workers and the products moved between the two nations. However, this January (2016) the current hard line South Korean President Park closed the factories by executive order.

Next we had our passports checked again, signed papers that no one was liable if we got hurt / killed and then crossed over into the CSA. We had a slide show of the complex including a bit of history. The presentation showed the layout of buildings within a neutral zone, this is where the building is located that is half on the north, half on the south where the 1953 armistice was signed. Prior to 1976 there was a mix of north and south Korean building throughout the property and soldiers of the two regions moved freely between the buildings. However, in 1976 two United Nations soldiers who were from the United States when to trim the branches of a large poplar tree that was blocking the sites between two check points. The north did not like them trimming the tree and the argument escalated to violence, resulting in the two Americans being killed by axes. This incident nearly launched the two nations back into full fledged war but the north quickly sent an apology letter. The tree was eventually cut down and the two sides moved their buildings into alignment on both sides of the demarcation line watching one another 24/7.

We were able to take pictures of the soldiers standing guard and were able to cross into the building where the armistice was signed, technically walking over the demarcation line into North Korean territory.

Our trip out of the DMZ / CSA took us past the Bridge of No Return where prisoners of war were giving the option to go to the north or the south but once they crossed they were not permitted to change their minds and return. We also passed several signs along the road warning of land minds which are still active in the region.

Dear God, today we pray for wisdom and understanding. We pray for those who serve in active conflict zones as members of the military, civilians, or humanitarian aid workers. May you bless O God families separated by conflict. May we continue to learn history and listen to multiple perspectives. Most of all O God help us to follow your will and to seek peace through grace and understanding. Amen. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Road from Jeonju back to Seoul

July 15th 2016

This morning began with a lovely walk around a gigantic lake filled with thousands upon thousands of blooming lotus flowers. Our host pastor even treated us to a duck boat ride on the lake.

We said farewell to Rev. Lee and his family. Then we took a bus to Cheongju. where we met with Rev. Kun Hee Lee the pastor of one of the most historic churches in the PROK. In his office we had a lengthy conversation on theological education, ministerial assessment, and pastoral misconduct policies. Afterwards he showed us around the church campus. The building is located on a site were several Catholics were martyred. The church is known for its integral involvement in the democracy movement within Korea and there were numerous markers celebrating the church's impact on society. One of the former pastors was even elected to be be the vice president of the country. The church has bullet holes along one side of the building from gun fire during the Korean war.

After this visit we traveled about 30 minutes by car to Dukchon Church. This is a very rural church who have an exemplary ministry. Many years ago the church started a credit union for the community, which is mostly farmers. The credit union now has over 1.2 million U.S. dollars in its holding which are used to support local farmers and community projects. The congregation did agricultural training for years, building trust and support in the community. When the church began to look at the agricultural market they realized that their traditional crops would not be sustainable in the long run, so the congregation encouraged local farmers to switch to raising a particular type of pumpkin. The community now produces 80% of this product within the country, thus determining the market rate. Farmers in this village earn twice the wage of farmers in other parts of Korea. The church also supported a livestock cooperative, a coffee shop, day care center and other rural advocacy training programs. Additionally, the congregation noticed that there were many migrant laborers from Thailand in the area so they hired a minister from Thailand to serve the community. Seeing this congregation's work makes me glad that the new UCC Local Church Profile asks the question "Who is our neighbor" my prayer is that congregations will take that question seriously and provide services such as this church is doing to make a difference in the lives of the community where the congregation is located.

After a lovely dinner with the pastor we took a bullet train back to Seoul.

Jeonju: Day Two

July 14th 2016

Today started out with examples of hybrid religions:

  • We visited a Presbyterian Church built in 1909 in the shape of an L so that male and female worshipers could not see each other which was part of Confucius practices. 
  • Then we went to a temple that I would best describe as unitarian, supporting teachings from multiple religions. 

Then we visited Go Baek PROK church. This church was founded 50 years ago, modeled on Bonhoeffer's confessing church. They were founded with three main goals 1. to confess the trinity, 2. to support their community and 3. to work for Korean reunification. (I personally have deep appreciation for the clarity of purpose described by many PROK congregations). The Go Baek Church is pastored by a husband and wife team. We had met the male pastor earlier in the week at the PROK reunification committee meeting, today we were hosted by the female pastor, Rev. Kangsil Lee.

She told us a story about her husband's work for reunification. The congregation had been praying for movement on reunification by August 15th 2000. On June 15th 2000 the presidents of north and south Korea met for the first time. This date, June 15th, became an important day to celebrate the work of reunification. By the year 2010 South Korea had a much more conservative president who banned all unofficial travel to the north. The pastor felt it was important to continue to build church relationships (remember these have to be in person because phone or email communications are limited to the north). He decided to cross into the north to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the June 15th 2000 meeting of Korean leadership. He spent 70 days meeting with church members, laborers  and teachers. He then walked back through the Demilitarized Zone and was promptly arrested by the south for not receiving government permission to travel. He remained in jail for three years. Released in 2013 he continues to work for reunification.

Rev. Kangsil (who had spent time at Andover Newton Theological Seminary) spoke about some of her research in New Zealand on reconciliation and believes that there is possibility for a formal reconciliation process to take place between the north and south using principals of restorative justice.

She took us to have tea with a very well known monk. He was the person who invented "Temple Stays" a very popular way for tourists and curious individuals to spend a few days living in a temple and experiencing the routines of a monk. We had a very robust conversation with the monk, Rev. Kangail Lee and our host pastor Rev. Soon Tae Lee about U.S. hegemony in the region. They asked for our prayers for Korean reunification and we asked their prayers for gun violence and racial tensions in the United States

We discussed Buddhist philosophies of the lotus flower as emerging from the mud to be something clean and beautiful and of impermanence; meaning that everything is constantly changing.

After the temple we went to a Senior Center (Rev. Soon Tae Lee is the chair of the board). Visiting senior centers has been an important part of our trip because this is an emerging ministry for the church. Historically there were deep roots in children caring for their parents, however, now with the increased migration to cities for jobs families are not all geographically located close together and the family system of support is eroding, opening up clear ministry needs for seniors.  This particular center offers 200 free lunches a day to seniors, provides counseling, continuing education, group activities, job training and preventative health care. A partnership between the UCC's Council on Health and Human Service Ministries (CHHSM), Retirement Housing Foundation (RHF) or United Church Homes with the PROK programs serving the elderly could be very fruitful.

Our dinner program was filled with both sadness and hope. There was a PROK pastor serving as a missionary in China. He was doing excellent work both with the Chinese community as well as North Korean Refugees in China. Tragically he was killed in a traffic accident. His fellow pastors have started a foundation in his honor in order to continue this vital work. We listened to their compelling
stories. They would very much like to find a conference within the United Church of Christ or Disciples of Christ with whom to partner in order to strengthen this ministry.