In the spring of 2010, by the grace of God, Syngman Rhee celebrated the 50th anniversary of his graduation from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The history of his precarious and inspiring pilgrimage, from his teenage years to the present time, is a most remarkable parable about the Holy Spirit’s ongoing and providential ministry of theological education and Christian nurture and unity, both in the Presbyterian Church and also throughout the ecumenical denominations of our global Christian community.
Consider I Cor. 4: 1-2: This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.
In 1948, when Syngman Rhee was kicked out of high school in the capital city of Pyongyang, North Korea, because he came from a minister’s family, he was mercifully taken into the Sung Wha Methodist Seminary. There, he and 200 other outcasts were trained at a college level from 1948 to 1950. There, his major professor was a saint named Tae Sun Park.
In September 1950, Syngman’s parish minister father, the Rev. Tae Suck Rhee, was martyred, while a prisoner, by the North Korean Communist regime. Before the United Nations troops came northward, he and several other church leaders were shot and buried in a common grave dug into an athletic field. A prisoner who survived those executions led the Rhee family to the mass grave. They retrieved his body and arranged for a Christian funeral and burial. When the Chinese troops joined the war and arrived in December 1950, Syngman’s fearful mother, Song Hee Kim, a teacher in a Christian mission school, made the critical and agonizing decision to send her two sons on a life-saving trek southward toward Seoul with hundreds of other desperate refugees. Many of them died on the one-month walk in freezing weather to the tip of South Korea.
Song Hee’s last words foretold the unspeakable losses yet to come, for they would never see their mother again. “Remember to pray to God wherever you go, and we will see each other in our prayers,” she promised them. (Song Hee Kim died December 6, 1970, fully two decades after her sons had fled from Pyongyang. Syngman did not know of her death until he was able to visit North Korea in 1978.)
In January 1951, Syngman, age 19, and his brother Syng Kyu Rhee, age 17, joined the South Korean Marines, fighting on the front lines of the Korean War. It was the only means of survival available to them. Because the two were from one family, Syngman was able to secure a discharge for his younger brother in 1953. While Syngman sent Syng Kyu to college, he remained with the South Korean Marines until he was discharged in 1955.
Tae Sun Park, Syngman Rhee’s revered professor at the Sung Wha Methodist Seminary, had also fled for his life from North Korea to South Korea. Thereafter, he made his way to the Boston University School of Theology where he earned his doctorate. During his graduate studies, Park was asked to speak at a church camp in the Boston area. Park used his speech to implore someone to help him find a scholarship for one of his former students, a refugee in South Korea. Miraculously, Dr. Charles Culpepper, a Methodist pastor from Elkins, West Virginia, promised that he personally could and would direct Park to a scholarship at Davis and Elkins College. That scholarship would be awarded to Syngman Rhee, if Syngman Rhee could name a citizen of the United States who would serve as a sponsor. Lt. Gunner Hansen, a Christian Marine Officer in Quantico, Va., agreed to sponsor Rhee, with whom he became friends as they were trained together at Quantico in 1953-54.
Syngman survived the Korean War. He began the odyssey to his new life — journeyed from Seoul to Seattle; then from Seattle to Elkins — 10 days on a Greyhound bus.
In January 1956, with a tuition scholarship but no other resources, Syngman began his studies at Davis and Elkins, That spring, Sarah Little, the Dean of Students, notified Syngman that Dr. George H. Vick, the pastor at First Church, Charleston, West Virginia, wanted an international student to speak at a monthly women’s meeting. Syngman declined because he felt he could not afford to miss two days of classes. Little took that message to the college’s president, David K. Allen who, in turn, informed conscientious Rhee that the invitation from trustee Vick was actually an offer he could not refuse!
Reluctantly, Syngman agreed to go. There, he humbly shared the incredible account of his treacherous walk of faith through the valley of the shadow of death as a refugee of war. He offered testimony to the Holy Spirit’s comforting personal presence through horrendous dangers. He proclaimed his deep gratitude just to be alive, and especially to have the privilege and the calling to follow in his courageous father’s footsteps by studying for the gospel ministry.
When Syngman Rhee finished his speech, Dr. Vick introduced him to Agnes Preston, a prominent leader in the Women of the Church organization at First Church, Charleston. She told the Korean student that she would be honored to supplement his scholarship and to cover his additional expenses and pay for his entire senior year. Further, upon his graduation, she offered to pay for his entire education at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Syngman reverently accepted, and the rest is history.
He graduated with honors from Louisville Seminary in 1960, and was ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. He married Haesun Lee, a medical doctor and beloved friend from Korea, whose parents had been educated together with Syngman’s father at Union Christian College, Pyongyang.
Syngman had pastorates in two American Presbyterian congregations in Kentucky. He was a campus minister at the University of Louisville, where he served as the first faculty advisor for the Black Student Union and was a brave participant in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. He earned a master’s degree from Yale University Divinity School, and a doctorate in Sociology of Religion from Chicago Theological Seminary. He served the Presbyterian General Assembly Staff for World Mission for 25 years (1973-’98). He was President of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S. A. (1992-93); moderator of the 212th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (2000-’01), and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Evangelism and Mission, Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond, Virginia (1998-‘08). Haesun Rhee also served at Union Seminary as Director of the Carl G. Howie Center for Science, Art and Theology (1998-’07). Since 2001, Syngman has been the Director of Union’s Asian American Ministry and Mission Center.
Today, he is revered as a prophetic leader and an international church statesman who continues to pour his life into the rebuilding of churches in North Korea, and into the dream of reconciliation between North and South Korea.
Syngman Rhee returned to First Church in Charleston, West Virginia, roughly a decade ago, during the time of my own ministry with that congregation. He gave the keynote address for our Westminster Foundation Endowment Campaign for campus ministry throughout the state.
That afternoon, he asked me if I would take him to the grave of Agnes Preston. She had been the Rhee family’s surrogate mother and grandmother. My wife Rebecca cut a bouquet of flowers from her garden, and I took Syngman to the graveside. He placed the flowers and knelt down, weeping. He shed tears of grateful praise and thanksgiving. And there I prayed for him, his family in Korea and in the United States; Agnes Preston and her husband, John N.D. Preston; Davis and Elkins College, Union Seminary (where Syngman taught at that time), Louisville Seminary (where he had studied), and the worldwide church of Jesus Christ.
I praise God for Syngman Rhee and for all his family members and faithful benefactors. They, too, by the gracious and labyrinthine providence of God, were servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries — stewards of God’s overall plan of salvation. And they, too, were found trustworthy!
I also praise God for the contemporaneous missional, ecumenical, intimate, and corporate manifestations of the body of Jesus Christ. I am grateful for the untold numbers of dedicated lay leaders, missionaries, ministers, teachers, physicians, technical workers, and faithful disciples who continue theological nurture, training, and hope. They are stewards of God’s overall saving plan for our human race, entrusted to study, teach, preach, confess, embody with human action, and pass on to the coming generations. They, too, are being found trustworthy.
Today we choose to believe that the same God who acted in Israel and in Jesus Christ continues to act in the missional church of the 21st century for the sake of the entire world.
Today we choose to believe that God’s Word cannot be suppressed. It is forever. The resurrection has seen to that. Wherever the gospel is preached, taught, and shared faithfully, the Spirit of Jesus Christ is among us — leading the way.
May God grant that we, too, will be found trustworthy.
DEAN K. THOMPSON is president and professor of ministry at Louisville Seminary, and a church historian. Ordained a Minister of Word and Sacrament in 1969, he will retire August 31. Prior to his ministry at Louisville Seminary, he served as a parish pastor in West Virginia, Texas, and California for 31 years.