Syngman Rhee, a Presbyterian pastor, seminary professor and respected leader in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and wider faith community, died January 14 in Atlanta shortly after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. He was 83.
Elected in 2000 as moderator of the PC(USA) General Assembly, Rhee was the first Asian American to serve in that position. He also served as president of the National Council of Churches from 1992 to 1993.
Rhee was born in Pyongyang, Korea, in 1931 where his father was a Presbyterian minister. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, he and his younger brother joined the flood of refugees fleeing south. They left behind their four sisters.
Rhee lost contact with his family for 28 years, until a friend of the family arranged for him to meet with his sisters in North Korea in 1978. He learned that his mother had died eight years earlier and that his father had been arrested by the Communist regime and died in prison. The painful experiences of war and separation from family motivated Rhee’s lifelong quest for peace and reconciliation, particularly between North and South Korea.
After emigrating to the United States, Rhee attended Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia. He graduated from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1960 and he and his wife, Haesun, married in July of that year.
Rhee began his career serving as pastor of two small congregations in Louisville. As a campus minister at the University of Louisville in the early 1960s, he participated in the Civil Rights Movement with Martin Luther King Jr.
Rhee served for 25 years on the national staff of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (the northern Presbyterian church prior to reunion in 1983) and the PC(USA). He coordinated mission work in the Middle East and East Asia and then became associate director for the PC(USA)’s Worldwide Ministries Division.
In 1998, Rhee was appointed Visiting Professor of Mission and Evangelism and director of the Asian American ministry and Mission Center at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. He retired in 2013 and the following year was invited to become Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Practice of Global Leadership Development at Columbia Theological Seminary.
Rhee had been serving on the board of the Presbyterian Outlook since 2011.
Rhee is survived by his wife, Haesun, and his children, Anna, Peter, and Mina.
The Outlook has gathered words of memory from those who worked with Syngman Rhee.
I will forever cherish the opportunity to be mentored and befriended by Dr. Syngman Rhee. He was a man full of intellect, passion, grace, humility, love, patience and the indefatigable desire to serve. I believe Syngman retired at least three times at Union Presbyterian Seminary during the years he and I served together from 2007 through 2013. Prior to coming to Union, he had retired from Louisville Seminary. And following his final retirement from Union and move to Atlanta to be near family, he accepted a call to Columbia Seminary. One of his great joys in life was an obedience to God’s call that issued into a life of continuous service for God’s people. He followed that call until he retired from this life and subsequently followed God’s call into the life eternal. I would not be surprised if he is not already at work in the transcendent realm.
While at Union, Syngman was the consummate professor, mentor to students, and missionary for reconciliation in this country and around the world. A tireless advocate for justice, he participated with determination in the African American struggle for Civil Rights early in his ministry. He continued his ministry of justice by working for reconciliation between the disenfranchised and the empowered in the United States and, as moderator of the PC(USA), around the world. I was privileged to witness firsthand his passion for reconciliation in his home country of Korea. It saddens me that he did not live to see his dream for reconciliation between North and South Korea. It is for that hope that I suspect he is making petition with God even now.
The energy of Syngman’s life and ministry will not dissipate here at Union. We will always remember and cherish his gentle, yet assertive faith. The lives of students, faculty, staff and trustees are forever imprinted with his spirit. It is my hope that we will be able to honor his memory and support his legacy by kindling in our own ministries the fire that burned so intensely in his. Even in his last moments, when we came to pray for him, when he was able, he prayed for us. His was a faith and a ministry that simply would not retire.
– Brian Blount
Syngman could be very persuasive. Even though I had determined never to be a secretary, that’s exactly what I became when he asked. Having met him on a Mission Study Trip to the Middle East in 1980, it was just six weeks later I was sitting in the secretary chair outside his office. I quickly learned he was a man full of energy, dreams, compassion and spirit. When he was in town, the air buzzed with excitement and energy.
Over the years in the Global Mission Unit, later named Worldwide Ministries Division, Syngman taught me so much about the Middle East and then East Asia and the Pacific. I was introduced to church leaders, missionaries and citizens from around the world. When Syngman was in his office from his overseas travels, guests would phone and appear. As the paperwork backed up, I learned from Syngman about the value of hospitality and relationships. He was on call 24/7 and humor was also a regular part of our work lives.
Syngman collected turtles (not live ones) as a symbol of life. He declared that the turtle had to take risks by sticking out its neck to move forward. Syngman worked for loving social justice, never shying from sticking out his neck. Dear to his being was his hope that North and South Korea would unite. He was a man with a generous heart. He lived a life of gratitude.
– Katharine Griswold
I remember with gratitude Syngman’s willingness to help cast a vision by preaching at my inauguration at Columbia Seminary when he was moderator. He embodied a leadership that transcends all kinds of boundaries – geographic, political, economic, denominational, racial, cultural, men and women, elder and youth – for the sake of Christ’s Good News for the world. He was a reconciling leader.
And I remember when he received the Outlook’s E. T. Thompson Award in recognition of his lifetime of service to Christ’s church. In accepting the award he turned to his wife and said, “This one is for you.” It was more than his humility; it was his devotion and the generosity with which he lived his life.
Syngman taught, led, inspired so many of us. We will remember and give thanks to God for Syngman Rhee.
– Laura Mendenhall
Syngman Rhee and I came from very different backgrounds, different cultures, different life experiences and even different parts of the Presbyterian family, but we quickly became friends, colleagues and brothers in Christ. Syngman is a dear, dear friend who has blessed my life in countless ways and who has been a blessing to the church – Presbyterian, ecumenical and global. He was a gift of God to us and a great saint of the church. I will miss him very much, but I give thanks that my life has been enriched by this remarkable man.
We first met when we were working as staff members in the world mission programs respectively of the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church U.S. We quickly discovered in each other a common passion for the global Christian family and its work for peace and justice around the world. For a decade, we were colleagues together in the Global Mission Unit of the newly reunited church. When I became stated clerk and Syngman headed to Union Seminary, we stayed in contact as friends who were enriched by our diversity and who shared deep common commitments to ecumenism, world mission and the renewal of the church. Then, in 2000 we found ourselves once again as close colleagues as Syngman served (with distinction) as moderator of the PC(USA) and I served as stated clerk. If there ever was a model of how a moderator and clerk can work well together, we had it that year.
I have also been deeply touched by Syngman’s deep love for his family – for Haeson, Anna, Mina and Peter and his grandchildren. But he also had a family, including his mother and sisters, that he could never forget, who lived in North Korea and for which, like many of Korean ancestry, the walls of division between North and South Korea made it difficult to keep connections. But Syngman could not let that stand, and he became one of the most prominent and most effective advocates for reunification and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula. An experience I will never forget is meeting Syngman’s family in North Korea and realizing that Korean issues are not just political issues, but also deeply personal issues.
Syngman was a unique human being with whom God has deeply blessed all of us. It gives me great confidence, in the words of the Brief Statement of Faith, that “in life and in death we belong to God.” That great truth was at the core of Syngman’s being and is now his reality in a new way. Thanks be to God.
– Clifton Kirkpatrick
What an incredible gentleman, an outstanding thinker, a deep feeler, a passionate lover of Jesus was Syngman Rhee. After having brief encounters and conversations for years, I was so pleased to have him join the board of directors for The Presbyterian Outlook Foundation – and we gleaned much wisdom from him.
But above all, and unforgettable, was the 10 days we shared together in Korea, where attended the World Council of Churches’ assembly in Busan, rode a train to and from Seoul, and worshipped together in the world’s largest Presbyterian church – where he was treated like royalty. The highlight of it all was visiting the border where the view into North Korea caused him to break down over his 60 years of pain over the division of his nation and of his own family. The depth of emotion he expressed left me with a depth of empathy for those suffering such separations, such losses, such pain.
He rubbed off on me – and I’m so much the better person as a result. I miss you, Syngman.
– Jack Haberer
Serving on the Outlook board together, Dr. Rhee and I often sat next to each other. Over two intense days of meeting, I observed what a thoughtful, honorable, and wise man he was. He seldom commented, but when he did, his questions and observations were always so pertinent, engaging and brought to light areas of larger concern, expanding our vision.
He will be sorely missed.
– Judith Cutting
Syngman Rhee was a giant – a dedicated leader, a creative ecumenist and a faithful advocate for the Presbyterian Outlook. He was a tireless worker for justice and a powerful force for reconciliation. We are so very grateful for his witness.
– Glen Bell (Outlook board chair)
In life and in death, we belong to God.
Filled with gratitude this day for the life of Syngman Rhee.
Almost every email I ever received from him included these words:
“I am grateful for you. And I am available to help.”
He certainly helped us be a better church.
– Jenny McDevitt
Syngman Rhee inspires me to risk more for the sake of the Gospel. His humility, courage and passion for reconciliation demonstrated a Christ-like spirit that both transformed systems and touched individuals with the love of God. My prayer is that Syngman’s powerful witness will move us to work for justice, unity and peace in the church and in the world.
– Jill Duffield
In pondering the incredible life pilgrimage of Syngman Rhee, I am deeply aware that his faithful and long journey of Christian discipleship has been nothing less than a series of grace-filled miracles and profound acts of Christian stewardship and servanthood. From his endangered teenage years in Korea, to the occasion of his new life in the great company of heaven, made possible by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, Syngman’s own remarkable life work has blessed our human race as an inspiring parable of the Spirit’s leading, comforting, energizing, uniting, and prophetic power in our midst. He literally poured himself out, across this small spaceship earth, as an exemplary and trustworthy servant of Christ and steward of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:1-2). As a revered pastor, chaplain, teacher, preacher, administrator, and international church leader, Dr. Rhee has glorified God and served church, world, and neighbor as a preeminent role model of Christian statesmanship.
Syngman’s style of leadership was a marvelous blending of competence, confidence, and humility. Indeed, he carried his deserved and wonderful laurels as self-effacingly as any outstanding leader I have ever known. Infused with a mystical sensitivity that my words are not sufficient to express, Syngman soulfully and unwaveringly depended on the providing, caring, and ordering hand of God across the demanding decades of his life. Since 1948, when he was kicked out of high school in the city of Pyongyang, North Korea, for his membership in a minister’s family, Syngman was always spiritually and historically aware of a cloud of witnesses on whose strong shoulders he stood. They were his sacrificial forebears, family, mentors, and supporters whose bravery, kindness, generosity, and vision both faithfully and imaginatively rescued him from danger (even from perishing!), again and again, at multiple crisis-crossroads, as Syngman sought to follow Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter” of his faith (Hebrews 12:2).
Today, by the grace of Jesus Christ, we stand on Syngman’s shoulders. We, all of us, are his debtors.
– Dean K. Thompson
Syngman Rhee, while exhibiting a somewhat self-effacing personality, yet was forthright and firm in his convictions; a prince of the church without self-aggrandizement.
– John B. H. Caldwell
Syngman Rhee preaching before a congregation in Seoul, a hand-held cassette player in front of the microphone to amplify the voices of people singing “Jin Shil Ha Shin Chin Goo” (“What a Friend We Have in Jesus”). “These are North Korean Christians gathered in worship and praise to God,” Syngman tells the congregation—with two rows of mostly retired military men, the session, seated right up front. Some of the men, who had seemed diffident, even hostile, at the beginning of the worship service, now perked up, smiled. Some even began to wipe away tears from their eyes. Students from Union, on the three-week study tour, showed misty eyes as well when Haesun translated for them. Syngman Rhee preaching, teaching reconciliation.
Syngman Rhee, energetic and effective, preaching Christian faith and reconciliation. With little churches and huge ones, in seminaries and conference halls, with students, pastors, educators, world leaders, and people of every stripe. Building up the Body of Christ by building good will and tearing down the walls of separation that divide us. …
Syngman Rhee was called to serve as Presbyterian Campus Pastor and advisor to the Black Students Union at the University of Louisville, in the midst of the struggle for civil rights for African Americans. He met Dr. Martin Luther King and several times marched with him and black students at U of L. Dr. Rhee said Dr. King’s presence, hearing his speeches and reading his books, convinced him that non-violence was the best Christian approach to seeking reconciliation. But Syngman not only joined the students in marches, he also served as pastor, confessor and sometimes provider of bail fees. …
Syngman, at the urging of many from across the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), soon stood for moderator at the 212th General Assembly in 2000. Many from Union-PSCE worked for his election at the assembly. Elected on the first ballot, he became the first Asian American to serve in that capacity. He traveled throughout the world for that year, even more frequently than he had before, proclaiming the Christian faith and his hope for reconciliation especially in Korea.
Upon his “retirement” (again) from what had now become Union Presbyterian Seminary, Syngman continued to serve as “special assistant to the president,” Brian Blount. In the summer of 2014, Syngman and Haesun moved from Richmond to Atlanta in order to help care for some of their five grandchildren (Benjamin, Jesse, Kate, Sophia and Synger). Immediately, Syngman was again enlisted to assist the Asian students at Columbia Theological Seminary.
At the installation of PSCE graduate Laura Mendelhall as the president of Columbia Theological Seminary in 2000, Syngman Rhee was delivering the keynote address. It was a gorgeous outdoor service on a windy day, replete with banners and elegant sprays of flowers surrounding the rostrum. As he frequently did, Syngman spoke of the need for Christians to attend to both the roots of the faith (piety, worship, self-discipline) and the fruits of the faith (service, mission, social justice). He said those who attend only to the fruits of the faith become like cut flowers, soon withered and blown about. Just as he said that, one gigantic spray of flowers caught the breeze and toppled, disturbing, but not injuring, Laura and the others on platform. Those familiar with Greek and Hebrew words for God’s Spirit probably caught on first, but everyone perceived Syngman preaching with visual aids.
– Louis Weeks
By Presbyterian News Service and Outlook staff