U-C: What I See

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A Day in Seoul - messages from our partners


I only spent fourteen hours in Seoul with our partners from the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PCK) and the Presbyterian Church of the Republic of Korea, but the day was rich and full. Here are a few quick reflections.

I had to pinch myself to convince myself I was really here as we drove into Seoul from the big airport at Inchon about an hour away. With twenty degree temperatures, I was scraping away the frost on the window of the van in order to be able to watch the sun come up over the city of fourteen million people. Our only agenda for the day was to have lunch with the Moderators, General Secretaries, and Ecumenical officers of each of our two partner denominations. Since we only had one day in the city, our hosts took us to Kaesung Restaurant, named after a mountain in North Korea, that offered us a six or seven course meal and allowed us to try to compress the entire Korean culinary experience into just one meal.

The primary concern on the minds of our partners from both churches, though the leaders of the much smaller PROK took the lead in articulating it, was to ask for our support in their efforts to promote reconciliation between North and South Korea. “We have great affection for our sisters and brothers in the United States,” Rev. Park of the PROK said, “and we were in anguish with you after the events of 9/11. But we cannot support the way that you are conducting the War against Terrorism. Why not ask what is fueling such anger against the U.S.?”

Our partners expressed their own desire for the church to lead the way in letting go of the hatred and seeking reconciliation between North and South Korea. They insisted that most Koreans – from the North and the South - are ready to do so, and that they need support from our church to convince our own leaders that this is a time to promote peace between the two nations. They insisted that the U.S. government’s current posture in naming North Korea part of the “axis of evil” is working against the possibility for a genuine reconciliation between their countries. The PROK will be hosting a Peace Consultation in early May for partner churches from throughout the region in order to create an action plan to move boldly toward reconciliation, and they have asked the PC(USA) to send a representative in order to listen and to learn how we might be supportive of their agenda.

Rev. An, the Moderator of the large and thriving PCK, added that he recently attended the ground-breaking for the construction of a new church building in N. Korea. He said that the PCK’s commitment to nurture new churches in North Korea is a visible expression of the desire they share with their brothers and sisters in the PROK to bring down the borders that have divided South and North Korea for so many years.

Having listened carefully and affirmed the agenda of the leaders from the PROK, Rev. An then named the other agenda that was on the minds of many in their churches. He also began by affirming the historic ties between our churches and the great love that Presbyterians in Korea feel for Presbyterians in the PC(USA). His message was clear: though many in the PCK feel compelled to critique some of our denomination’s positions, they do so in love and with a clear commitment to work hard at improving our partnership.

“What you need to understand,” Rev. An told me, “is that the actions you take as a church have a direct impact on our church as well. We believe that there is a natural order of things articulated in the Bible, and that order proscribes only heterosexual marriage. Is it true,” he asked, “that same sex marriages are allowed in your denomination? If so, haven’t you gone to far?”

I assured Rev. An that I was there to listen, that I would do my best to faithfully share his concerns with others in our denomination, and that we value our historic and current ties with the Presbyterian Church of Korea as they do. I explained to him that our constitution does not affirm same-sex marriage, though it is no secret that there are many questions around sexual orientation that have our church deeply divided. On this issue, as on the questions around peacebuilding and U.S. relationships with N. Korea, Presbyterians in the U.S. are not of one mind. Where I do believe we have complete unity among Presbyterians, however, is in our commitment to a strong partnership with the PCK and PROK. All of us at the table agreed that we hold that commitment in common.

Our lunch conversation ended with an invitation. Rev. Cho, the General Secretary of the PCK, explained that their church experienced a moment of great renewal in 1907. In 2007, our sister congregations in Korea will celebrate the 100th anniversary of that renewal by rededicating themselves to building up the church. That revitalization will be grounded in four areas: church growth (fueled by Bible Study, personal commitment, evangelism and prayer), a strong commitment to service and mission, people-based ministry that focuses on those who have been most marginalized in society, and pursuing a vision for peace and reconciliation.

“Your missionaries had a great impact on us during that first revival.” Rev. Park of the PROK added, making it clear that their two denominations are clearly united on this matter as well. “We would like to extend an invitation to the PC(USA) to join by committing itself to similar renewal during our own celebration one hundred years later.”

So what do you think, Presbyterians? A revival of all of our congregations in the year 2007, animated by a strong commitment to church growth, mission, the power of “people-based ministry,” and pursuing an agenda of peace and reconciliation. It sounds pretty good to me.

I’ve been hearing about the dedication of Korean Presbyterians for many years. They are famous, and rightfully so, for filling their churches two and three times over before dawn each morning as Presbyterians begin their days in prayer. It was a great pleasure to meet with these dedicated leaders of our partner churches here. Next time, I intend to stay much longer than fourteen hours.

On to Taiwan tonight.