In the late 19th century, Protestant Christians who sought to engage in foreign mission work carefully observed diplomatic developments in East Asia. As the routes across the Pacific Ocean opened, American missionaries soon began to push foreign mission boards to expand into new mission fields in China and Japan. Many actually did not pay much attention to this peninsula located in between China and Japan, a small country known as “Hermit Kingdom” among the Westerners.
But in 1884, a young medical missionary from Ohio, Horace Newton Allen, requested the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to transfer from his mission post in China to a new mission post in Korea. A year later, with the support of the Korean royal court, Allen established the very first Western-styled hospital in Seoul, which became the first official Presbyterian outpost in Korea.
In the following years, other pioneering missionaries such as Horace Underwood, William M. Baird, Lewis Boyed Tate, Cameron Johnson and William Davis Reynolds continued traversing the Pacific Ocean and laid the Presbyterian foundation in Korea. Since then, the Presbyterian Church in Korea has grown to seven million members that, in turn, are sending 10,000 mission workers to 170 countries now.
This faith legacy has remained as Koreans who have immigrated to the United States maintain their Presbyterian identity and continued playing a significant role in the Presbyterian Church. Over the past two decades, Korean congregations across the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have witnessed significant growth with more than 400 congregations over 50,000 active members. In 2015, the PC(USA) celebrated the 130th anniversary of Korean mission.
In order to bestow this transnational, historical legacy of faith upon the next generations, the PC(USA) and the Presbyterian Church of Korea have worked in partnership to provide opportunities for Korean-American college students to visit Korea. Specifically funded by the National Korean Presbyterian Men (NKPM) associations of both denominations, hundreds of college students have been given valuable chances to visit their motherland and learn about the rich heritage of Korean Christianity. Each year, students have an in-depth experience as they visit Korea’s rich historical, cultural, natural and religious sites.
For the 27th trip to Korea in 2015, 25 Korean-American college students from the United States were accompanied and supervised by elders from the NKPM. The students visited 14 cities in Korea including Seoul, Busan, Daegu, Gyoungju and Yeosu. From the capital city of Seoul to the breathtaking nature of Jeju Island, the young college students were fascinated by each city’s history, unique culture, beauty and story.
The group visited numerous historical sites including palaces, temples, museums and traditional villages that contain about 4,000 years of Korean history. The students were captivated by Korea’s rich cultural heritage and long-lasting traditions, but at the same time they were also reminded of the country’s painful memories, such as the Japanese Colonial Period (1910-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953). The students also visited the Korean Demilitarized Zone, which is the buffer zone that has separated North and South Korea for over 60 years. As they vividly experienced the tension and pain, the students were challenged to think about the division of Korea carefully and critically. “I am going to start praying for the unification to come. I want to think about how I can get involved with this reunification movement as I continue my study in the United States,” one student said with mixed emotions.
For about two weeks, the group came together as a genuine community with the momentum of excitement to learn and explore. But some students, having grown up in the U.S., were concerned about language and cultural barriers. However, the fear gradually went away as the group built relationship with the brothers and sisters in Korea. “Every place we went, we were welcomed with wonderful hospitality and care. We were so blessed by our hosts in Korea,” one student said. In each city, regional representatives from the NKPM provided site tours, spacious lodging and delicious meals with unimaginable hospitality.
The hospitality continued in the local churches throughout the trip. The group was able to visit many Presbyterian churches in Korea and attended various worship services and activities. Attending worship services in Korea was indeed one of the most powerful experiences for the students. In particular, many talked about the early morning service at Myungsung Presbyterian Church in Seoul, the largest Presbyterian church in the world. “It’s incredible to see how so many people come to worship God everyday at 5 a.m. Their piety and spirituality are quite special,” one student said. Impressed by the corporate prayer time at the service, another student added, “That’s the Korean spirituality that we must inherit from our parents and spiritual ancestors.”
Throughout the trip, the students started each day with a prayer meeting and ended the day with group discussion and reflection. One question repeatedly came up: What were some factors behind Korean Christianity’s dramatic growth over only 200 years? As the group traveled through many parts of the country, the students were able to find some answers, particularly when they visited Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery in Seoul, which is the final resting place for Korea’s foreign missionaries.
This sacred place was designated in 1890 as a site for foreign missionaries. Many of the missionaries from all over the world who dedicated their lives to the growth of Christianity and Korea’s independence from Japan are buried here. Now, over 500 missionaries and family members are buried here including Horace G. Underwood, Henry G. Appenzeller, Mary Scranton, Ernest Bethell and Homer Hulbert. In particular, the epitaph of Hulbert shows his unspeakable love for Korea: “I would rather be buried in Korea than in Westminster Abbey.” Strolling around the path between the graves, the students were solemn, yet powerfully moved by the lives that were dedicated to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to Korea.
Today, Korea is not only the world’s 11th largest economy, but also a vibrant democracy and an emerging cultural force. When foreigners think of Korea, they think of Korea’s tech culture with the fastest internet speed, an economic powerhouse home to Samsung and Hyundai, K-POP (Korean Pop music and drama), competitive education and more. In fact, these are the things that many students had in mind when they first arrived in Korea from the U.S. However, through this trip, the students saw and experienced so much more than their preconceived images of Korea. These young generations of Korean-Americans witnessed Korea’s rich stories of redemption that God has written over many centuries: how God has used the people of faith to protect and bless this nation throughout history from the Japanese colonial period, to the Korean War, to the division of Korea. Most importantly, they were moved and challenged to continue living out their Korean spiritual heritage in America.
“I really saw where I came from,” many students testified with conviction at the end of the trip. In America, many adolescents of Korean descent go through an identity crisis, struggling to understand what it means to be Korean and American at the same time. However, as they were physically present in their motherland, these young future Christian leaders witnessed where their ancestors came from and more importantly, where their tradition of Korean Presbyterianism came from as well. One student said: “Now I think I know what it means to be a Korean Presbyterian. Now I am very proud of my heritage of ethnicity and faith tradition.”
In the summer of 2017, another group of 25 Korean-American college students will be on their way to the motherland. Introducing younger generations to their Korean heritage and Presbyterian identity has been the driving force behind this transnational traveling program. The Korean leaders of PC(USA) see this program as a crucial ministry as communities witness the spiritual decline of the second and third generation Korean-Americans. It’s the prayer of the older generation that they will continue to do whatever it takes to lead and educate their children “to remember what God has done” by bestowing the spiritual legacy from generation to generation.
Eunil David Cho is a Korean-American pastor serving at Bethany Presbyterian Church in Marietta, Georgia.