Our last day in Korea was one of our busiest. We began at the Korean Church Centennial Memorial Building, built on the site of former mission housing, that is now home to both the PC(USA) Mission office and the Presbyterian Church of Korea General Assembly offices.
General Secretary Rev. Cho Seong-Gi greeted us as his staff gathered around a long conference table and in seats surrounding it for their morning staff meeting. Our time together began with a strong, Scriptural foundation, which Insik shared from Ephesians 4:1-6. I then added a confessional dimension by speaking of our common belief in the Nicene Creed, that we are "one holy catholic and apostolic church." That statement informs us as both the church in Korea and the church in the United States, as together we seek to make disciples, reach younger people, be faithful in mission, and maintain prophetic voices in our respective cultures.
Meeting with Rev. Cho and his senior staff, we heard him strongly emphasize that the seeds of the Presbyterian Church in Korea (PCK) were planted by missionaries from the United States 120 years ago. The PCK, which now has 2.7 million members in 7,800 congregations, also affirms a bold goal to double again by 2012. Rev. Cho helpfully suggested a consultation between their mission program leaders and ours, in order to learn from each other in areas such as evangelism, church development, Christian education, world mission and multicultural and migrant ministries. The latter is of particular importance, as Korea now has over a million migrants. He also urged that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continue to support reunification efforts – a theme we heard many places.
Our next visit - after negotiating very heavy Seoul traffic - was the Presbyterian College and Theological Seminary, which has a fascinating and rich history. In 1901, Samuel Moffett, a Presbyterian missionary, began teaching two students at his home in Pyongyang. In 1903, the Presbyterian Council decided to start theological education. On the wall of the large conference room in which we first met hangs a picture of the McCormick Theological Seminary graduating class of 1888, with Samuel Moffett, William Baird and D. Gifford, all of whom served and made a lasting impact in Korea.
Like the mustard seed in Jesus' well-known parable, PCTS, which began as the "smallest of all," has grown large by faith, and is now a gleaming campus of multiple buildings, with 3,000 students and faculty, including 1,000 in the seminary graduate school. The 2,500- seat chapel provides students a worship space akin to where many will serve in large Korean congregations. Generations of Korean leaders of the church and other institutions were educated at PCTS. Nurturing not only scholarship, but spiritual development as well, PCTS has a Spiritual Formation Center in a woodland setting that is attended by all of the seminary students early in their studies. Committed also to ecumenical formation and participation, PCTS has sisterhood relationships with 30 other seminaries in 12 countries, including several PC(USA) seminaries.
PC(USA) support has been critical to PCTS, including in recent years, scholarships for rural students, and the Presbyterian Women Birthday Offering, which helped the creation of the new Center for World Mission. “After 100 years of receiving support, it’s our turn to share our gifts with the world,” explained President Joong-Eun Kim, PhD. The mission of the Center for World Mission is to provide masters and doctoral level education for overseas students, particularly from developing countries.
From PCTS, we drove to another modern, impressive campus, Soongsil University. Soongsil was founded by Presbyterian missionary, William Baird, a hundred years ago, and now has some 13,000 students. We met in Baird Hall and a museum on the campus displays a large banner with his picture and words. President Hyo-Gye Lee is an impressive leader with tremendous charisma, who after a warm welcome, expressed deep gratitude for the institution's founding a century ago by Presbyterians and for the continued support that they receive from the PC(USA).
Insik estimates that over 100,000 students are currently enrolled in colleges, universities and seminaries founded - and supported over the years - by Presbyterians from the U.S. Soongsil University is Insik Kim’s alma mater, and both PCTS and Soongsil University (as well as other Presbyterian educational institutions) are the alma maters of many pastors who have served or are serving congregations in the PC(USA).
The profound impact of 36 years of Japanese Occupation of Korea, followed by the Korean War, was very much in the consciousness of the Koreans whom we met. U.S. Presbyterians have been important to Korea from the turn of the 20th century, through the bleakest of times into this new era of growth and prosperity. Great is God's faithfulness, and the faithful witness of the Korean people.
Traversing the city once more, we arrived at the offices of the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK) and were greeted by Rev. Yoon Kil Soo, General Secretary. PROK is a denomination of 337,000 members in 1,600 congregations that also counts 82,000 seekers. The PROK works and advocates for the reunification of North and South Korea, peace, gender equality and the reaching out to youth; they are concerned about democratization struggles in Southeast Asia. One initiative is a peace education curriculum being developed by Northeast Asian churches. PROK, like the larger PCK, has been a partner of the PC(USA).
In my previous entry, I mentioned the remarkable Korean Presbyterian Women, who capped off our trip and our evening.
As I reflect on our whirlwind tour of 3 countries in essentially 8 days on the ground, I am awed by the evidence of God’s work in this region. A few themes emerge:
o Each of these countries has had history in the 20th century that challenged the very existence of the church and has shaped its vitality and local leadership today.
- Missionaries were expelled from Thailand during World War II, and societal pressure against Christianity caused many to abandon the church. Schools and hospitals were seized and churches closed. Worship continued in secret, and after the Japanese surrender, a new chapter began. Missionaries returned, but the war years gave the Thais confidence to lead and our relationships developed into partnerships.
- “The church stopped for a while in China, but God kept working,” said Rev. De-Ci Su of East China Theological Seminary. Churches were closed during the Cultural Revolution, and Christians, especially highly educated ones and ones with contacts with the West were severely treated. Rev. Su himself spent 27 years working in a factory. Once the churches reopened in the 1980s after the Cultural Revolution, the church has grown explosively, from an estimated 700,000 members in the 1980s to over 15 million or more today. Rev. Su, like others we spoke to, now puts the Cultural Revolution in historical perspective, as a 10-year dark period of history that is behind them now. He confirmed my sense that 15 or so years ago there was more anger and preoccupation among the Chinese about the Cultural Revolution; people we spoke with for the most part have put that behind them now and are focused instead on the needs of the church today and into the future. The Chinese are now firm about their call to lead the church; no longer is it a foreign religion. The Three-Self Patriotic Movement - self propagation, self support and self governance - expresses that. A “Resurrection Story” is how we heard it described.
- Korea as a nation has been shaped by first 37 years of Japanese Occupation that ended in 1939, and then the Korean War and separation of North and South. These events are very much in the current consciousness of the Koreans with whom we met, as they described both political events and the work of the Holy Spirit in breathing life into the nation and the church in Korea. Foreign missionaries, including especially Presbyterian missionaries, gave the church its beginnings. Faith carried many people through dark and desperate times. The church is now very much led by Koreans, and we are blessed to be partners with them.
o Leadership development is high on the priorities of the churches in each of these countries. Thailand seeks to develop lay leaders for churches that cannot afford pastors. In China, lay leaders are critical to meeting the needs of the growing church, especially in rural areas. “Heresy” is a great concern to church leaders, as house churches and movements form without trained or educated leaders, making them susceptible to charismatic, even cult-like influences. Many of the church leaders trained in the '50s are retiring or dying, and the gap created by the Cultural Revolution has left a gap in trained leaders at the same time as the church is experiencing fast growth. Korea, too, sees a need for leaders; Korean Presbyterians have led now only the fast growing church but society and institutions as well.
o Presbyterians have been founders and supporters of many of the leading educational and health institutions in these countries.
“It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” Mark 4: 31-32.
o Again and again, we heard requests and desires for greater partnership. “How can we get more missionaries like Carol and Leith Fujii?” “We need 30 more English teachers,” “We want more partnerships with your presbyteries,” we heard in Thailand. “We want Young Adult Volunteers to teach,” “Pray for us,” “We want Americans to know that the Bible is spreading in China,” “We value our mutual exchanges and understanding” our partners said in China. The Korean General Assembly and leaders have suggested that we establish communication to learn from each other in ministries such as world mission, Christian education and services; and they ask for our prayers and solidarity for reconciliation and peace on the Korean peninsula.
Truly in these amazing days here my eyes have been newly opened to the great breadth of our church and its international witness. Praise be to God who makes all things new! Praise be to God who is still at work in the world!