My grandfather beat my grandmother every time she went to church. Because every time she went, she tithed and my grandfather couldn’t understand why my grandmother would pay a tax to a church that didn’t do a thing against the Japanese occupation that was already taxing them heavily. He saw the village pastor as a crook and the church as a Western scam fleecing the poor and profiting on the desperation of the oppressed by promising the hope of heaven, a promise that can never be tested.
But the more my grandfather beat my grandmother, the more she stood her ground. She tithed his meager salary, as well as eggs laid by her hens and rice from her small harvests.
After one particularly bad beating – he was more drunk than usual – my grandmother knelt under the wooden cross of her village church and through swollen cheeks vowed to a 100-day prayer. She remembered the widow who got her justice from a corrupt judge by her tenacity. She was going to beg and exhaust God until God finally helped her.
Around the 80th day, my grandmother woke up to complete silence except for their mutt barking outside. Grandfather was supine on the floor and quiet. He should’ve been harping for his breakfast. He motioned for paper and pen and wrote, “Can’t talk.” He was struck dumb. The he wrote, “Ask for the pastor to pray for me.” My grandmother, in her 50s, ran the two miles to pastor’s home like a teenager: swift, scared and excited.
The village pastor came with two elders and encircled my grandfather. He asked them, through his scribbles, to sing a hymn. Over the years, my grandmother read Scripture out loud and sang hymns while doing the endless chores. He would try to shout her down because he thought the Scriptures sounded like hocus-pocus, but the hymns were beautiful; the words were sparse and they came out on melodies that had the pentatonic scale of Korean folk songs. There was hope, but also ache, in the melodies. He would catch himself humming or even singing a hymn. He ended up knowing some by heart. The pastor, two elders and my grandmother started singing:
Pass me not, O gentle Savior/Hear my humble cry/While on others Thou art calling/Do not pass me by.
When they finished the second verse, grandfather joined them for the chorus. The pastor and elders were open-mouthed. Grandmother clapped her hands in giddiness.
Savior, Savior, hear my humble cry/ While on others Thou art calling/ Do not pass me by.
So when my grandfather was supine and unable to speak at my home years later, I prayed for a similar miracle. He was 68 and had been living with my family in New York for six years. We had a contentious relationship. He was hilarious but extremely strict, forcing me to take Korean classes on Saturday while I was in middle school. I didn’t understand why he was so hung up on the Korean language. Besides, wasn’t English the lingua franca? Master English, doors open. Korean isn’t going to open any doors. Had I known that he lived through the Japanese occupation where a Japanese name and language was imposed on him, I would have understood that for him, language for was the breath of a culture and to think lesser of Korean was to think lesser of him.
As he lay dying, I wanted him to forgive me. I promised God I would venture to Antarctica and preach to the penguins if God would give me just one more year with him. He passed away without saying, “I forgive you.”
“Faith” and “healing” are words often partnered together. But faith is bigger than healing. Faith can hear the words of love in silence.
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.