Guest Outpost blog by Samuel Son
What makes or breaks a conference experience, more than speakers and schedules, is your roommate. Especially if it is eight days long like the 222nd General Assembly I attended as a commissioner in Portland, Oregon. If your roommate is a train-snorer, your sleep is shot and your days hazy. Nosy or talkative roommate? You will be sneaking into your room after they’ve gone to bed. On the other end, silent ones put you on pins with their gaze hot on your back as if are being quietly judged on your drawer organization and devotional length. You can pay and upgrade to single occupation or go with your spouse. Neither were options for me, so I played roommate-roulette. I was praying for a perfect roommate the way some pray for their future spouse.
A month before the assembly, I received my roommate assignment: Kenneth Kim. Korean American. Not bad. He will not mind me bringing some Korean squid-jerkies.
I requested his email from the Office of the General Assembly, but their policy forbade it so they offered to let him know of my request. But before I could respond to GA, my inbox chimed with a message from Kenneth Kim, my future roommate.
How did he get my email? He Googled it. Stringing “PCUSA” next to my full name, he found my church, New Life Triangle, then the church’s email address (as I am a church planter, I am also the secretary, so it came right to me).
He introduced himself: a ruling elder commissioner from the Presbytery of East Tennessee. When I finished the email, I wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or scared of someone who was Googling me.
On the eve of GA’s opening, I met him at a retirement dinner. Kenneth offered his hands to me first as he recognized me from our church website. “Rev. Samuel Son! I am Kun-Ha Kim, Kenneth. I saw all your sermons. You look better in YouTube.
“What did you get from GA?” my fellow Presbyterians are asking after my return. A lot. The beauty of PC(USA) polity, how it gives space for the smallest voice. Also, the beauty of our polity can be burdensome too, as few voices can halt or nudge a motion to another track. Did you know that you can make an amendment to an amendment? I also got a water bottle from the Presbytery of Cascades, a stress ball from the Board of Pensions, and three Lego USB drives from Presbyterian Mission Agency (which saved me a trip to the souvenir shop for my three kids). But the most precious gifts from GA were the connections, especially my friendship with Kenneth.
“How old do I look?” he asked while we were unpacking.
This is a tricky question coming from an elder. Safest to underestimate. He had a slight hunch, but a brisk gait. Full head of hair parting in suave waves, lots of hair dye; a broad face, wide eyes, and large nose on which sat his Warby Parker-looking glasses. His collared checkered shirt was tucked into a brown dress pants, that fell on well polished shoes; a dapper senior. “65?”
“I am 86.” My jaw dropped. “This is my second GA. When my presbytery asked me to go, I hesitated, but finally said ‘yes.’”
They sent him because he was one of their prized ruling elders. He started three Korean churches in Tennessee, another one in Raleigh, which, it turns out, eventually became the Duraleigh Korean Church that launched New Life Triangle, the new worshipping community I started in 2015. Yes, the world is thumb-tiny.
I learned all this through clips of stories he told between the packed days of committee meetings and plenaries. I got episodes over breakfast, riding the rail from our Double Tree hotel to the Oregon Convention Center (I can’t give you a tour of Portland but I can give one on the convention center), and evenings when we did not immediately fall asleep exhausted from work, which was actually only the first night.
He is a real-life Forrest Gump! Like Forrest, amazing things happened to him because he trusts people and is deeply loyal.
He matriculated in Seoul University, the Harvard of Korea, in March of 1950. His exciting first year was cut short by the Korean War breaking out on June 25, 1950. When the war was over, the land suffered the inevitable wake of a war: poverty. Seoul University could not receive her students back. His friend from high school, Seung-Won Park, got into a university in the states. So Kenneth accompanied him to Kimpo Airport to say goodbye. Seung-Won folded up a paper and scrunched it into Ken’s shirt pocket.
“This is a college application. You never know?” And he said goodbye.
It was an application to Duke University. Seung-Won gave it to Kenneth because Seung-Won didn’t even bother applying. He stuffed it into Kenneth’s pocket as a friendly joke. But Kenneth took it seriously. Kenneth didn’t know a thing about Duke University. So not knowing the odds, he penned in his information. At the end of the application he added a sentence: “If you want me to go to your school, you will need to provide full tuition for four years or I will not be able to go.” He did not know there was a separate financial aid application.
A few months later he got a letter from Duke, a small light envelope. The letter read, “You have been accepted. And you will get full scholarship because you asked.”
“That is amazing!” I exclaim with laughter. Kenneth’s laughter was louder because the story is funny to him, too, for its sheer impossibility.
“But that is not the most amazing story,” he continued.
“That story would beat anyone’s in an icebreaker.”
“No, the most amazing story is how I came to follow Christ. Would you like to hear it?”
His conversion story, I am thinking, cannot top the tuition-free-just-because-you-ask story. He is lifting up the conversion story because that’s the church rhetoric; the greatest miracle is the person who believes in Christ since it is, theologically speaking, a transposition from death to life. Turns out, the second story beats the first one by light years!
In September of 1973 a middle-aged man named Sang-Am Kim flew into the Raleigh-Durham airport in North Carolina to work at the Nello Teer company as an engineer. Kenneth greeted him at the baggage claim because that was what he did with every Korean immigrant. He welcomed all Korean immigrants (they were fewer then) and helped them as if he was family.
Sang-Am walked out with two large black-leathered books tucked under his arms. They were a Bible and a hymnal, but Kenneth didn’t recognize them because he had never shadowed a church building or read a verse of the Bible. Sang-Am never failed to have the two books enfolded by his arms whenever he visited Kenneth, as if they were two young ones whose hands needed to be held. Kenneth thought him strange.
Two months later, San-Am came to him with a hundred dollars of cash and asked Kenneth to help deposit it and wire it back to Korea. “Sure,” Kenneth said, always ready to aid. “To your family?”
“No, I want you to send this to Sansung Church in Korea.”
At this, Kenneth believed San-Am was either stupid or crazy, maybe both.
“Why are you sending money to church when you need a car and your kids back home cannot even go to school?”
“Mr. Kenneth Kim. Do you know why I came to America? I came here because God sent me here. I am here for three reasons. First, I came to preach the gospel. Second, to raise money for a new building for my church in Korea. Third, my family.”
“You don’t speak a single English word!” Kenneth had to speak his mind at the inanity of this man.
But Sang-Am didn’t change his mind and a frustrated Kenneth wired a hundred dollars to Sansung Church.
A month later, he got a phone call from the police.
“Do you know Mr. Sang-Am Kim?”
“He had only your number in his wallet. I am calling you to inform you that Mr. Sang-Am Kim was hit by a car and died at the hospital an hour ago.”
Shocked, Kenneth went to Sang-Am’s room as he was trusted with a spare key. It was a small one-bedroom apartment, sparsely decorated. On the table was the familiar Bible and hymnal. In the Bible, he found $45 dollars in an envelope on which it was written: For the work of God.
Kenneth went home trying to work though his emotions and how he would ever send the body back home when he got a call. It was Hugh Carey, pastor of Neuse Church, a local white congregation. Sang-Am was attending this English-speaking church because one day, in his motel, he had felt a desperate need to join a church and asked the motel owner for a referral. He didn’t understand a word of worship. But their common faith and common book made them family.
Pastor Hugh Carey said his church would like to host the funeral service with only one request, that Kenneth do the eulogy since he was the only one who knew Sang-Am personally. Kenneth could never say no when his help was needed.
So he opened the Bible for the first time and read it to find words for the eulogy.
On November 29, 1973, Kenneth delivered the eulogy. Everyone was stirred. His wife asked him on their drive home, “Do you believe?”
“Then how could you talk so inspiringly about God?”
Pastor Hugh Carey wanted to take care of Sang-Am to the end. He called and asked Kenneth how much would it cost to have Sang-Am’s body flown back to his family. Kenneth had already done his homework. “$3,500 dollars but the family doesn’t have that type of money.”
“How about you submit that eulogy to a newspaper and we set up a fund for Sang-Am?”
Kenneth submitted it to Charlotte Observer expecting a tepid response at best. Kays Gary, a popular columnist of Charlotte Observer in the 1970s, called him and worked with Kenneth to run a five-part column on the story of Sang-Am. Newspapers in Virginia and South Carolina, even as far as Florida, ran the column. National newspapers in Korea ran them.
The cost of $3,500 for treating the body and shipping the body to Korea was donated by seven funeral homes in the Raleigh area. The entire donated amount of $7,500 was sent to the surviving family.
After sending the final check to Sang-Am’s family, Kenneth sat on his sofa for a breather. He had been writing and interviewing non-stop. But when he thought about Sang-Am, and not about helping him, it dawned on him that everything Sang-Am came to do had been accomplished. He preached the gospel, through the newspaper of all things. He sent money to the church. And his family got $4,000. That is when Kenneth decided to fellow Sang-Am’s Christ.
Throughout GA, from the stage and in table conversations, organized and impromptu, many said, “Presbyterianism is connection.” Those words were answering the question “What does it mean to be Presbyterians?” It consumed many of the questions before The Way Forward committee. “We are connectional” is at one level a statement about our polity, that we make decisions through relationship.
But at a more fundamental level, it simply means we are together because we are friends, that we cherish our friendships because the heart of following Christ is friendships that challenge divisions and weather conflicts.
Kenneth’s friendship was the hallmark of my GA experience.
Not only did I witness Presbyterian connection in the coziness of a shared room, but also on the Jumbotron when J. Herbert Nelson was welcomed back to the stage as the newly elected stated clerk. Gradye Parsons went up to Nelson and gave him a big hug. Nelson is tall and black. Parsons is of average height and pale white. Gradye buried his face into the chest of J. Hebert. In another context, it would have looked hilarious. In the GA meeting, it looked like Rembrandt’s famous painting of the prodigal son. Of course, Gradye was not a prodigal son and Nelson was not a father prodigal with his love. They embraced with such careless intimacy because they were good friends and they did not care for impressions of prestige. In that way, it captured the prodigal story: the father who did not care whether people saw him as a shamed father and who never saw his son as a shameful son. It was simply two friends embracing.
SAMUEL SON is co-pastor at New Life Triangle, a new multi-ethnic church/1001 new worshipping community of New Hope Presbytery in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is also a columnist for North State Journal. Visit his website.