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A pilgrimage toward peace work in Korea

Two Presbyterian pastors answer Godʼs call from the U.S. to South Korea — with many stops in between.

Photo by Brett Zeck on Unsplash

We carried our son, Sahn, age two and a half months, onto an airplane headed to Seoul, South Korea, in May 2013. We were traveling there to serve as Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-workers. Sahn had been born in Chicago, Illinois, as we prepared our U.S. network of prayer and financial support for our position as site coordinators for the Korean location of the denomination’s Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program. Our true pilgrimage to becoming mission co-workers, however, began much earlier.

My early path to ministry

My father was pastor of a church in Ulsan, South Korea. The church was part of the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PCK), a partner denomination of the PC(USA). I showed greater interest in pursuing ministry than my two sisters or younger brother. I also had an inclination to broaden my horizons beyond my experience of Christianity in Korea.

While majoring in Christian education at Youngnam Theological Seminary in Gyeongsan, South Korea, I jumped on the opportunity to spend a year in the Philippines, where Korean missionaries were running ministries, connecting to churches in the Philippines and providing English immersion opportunities. That year was my first experience living somewhere people spoke languages other than Korean, and it stretched my ability to live independently while depending on my English-language ability.

I felt isolated because, for the first time, I felt completely different from everyone else. The discomfort of not understanding what everyone else was saying, and knowing they could not understand what I wanted to say, stays with me. But I found supportive friends who welcomed me into their home. They comforted me and affirmed my ability to connect to people even with minimal vocabulary in common. Through their encouragement, I became confident enough to seek other opportunities to study theology internationally, the next step in my pilgrimage.

My early path to ministry

I began considering my call to ministry in high school. I had never completely fit in with my schoolmates in Texas, so everyone treated me as just a little too strange to be part of the group. But I found a youth pastor, Mary Alice Lyman, at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Midland, Texas, who treated my oddities as something to celebrate. Emulating her example, I sought to create space around me where others who are treated as different – due to ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or musical taste, for example – can find a community where they belong. Lyman and other mentors noticed my care for others and encouraged me to consider ministry.

Heading to college while thinking about a future in seminary, I also knew that if I was going to cultivate safe spaces alongside people with differences, I needed to learn more about the differences that make up people all over the world. So I went on a pilgrimage around the world. First I studied abroad at the University of Glasgow in Scotland during college. Then I applied for the YAV program after graduation, which sent me to Burnley, England. I quickly realized how little I knew of the world around me, having lived only in Texas for so long. My realization became a need to learn about more of the world. I considered that need when I went looking to apply to seminary.

My experience at McCormick Theological Seminary

I learned about Chicago’s McCormick Theological Seminary from family and friends who had studied in its doctor of ministry programs. Hearing of McCormick’s welcoming atmosphere, I applied for the master of divinity program and arrived in the United States for the first time in the summer of 2003 to prepare for fall classes.

Kurt Esslinger, Hyeyoung Lee and their son, Sahn.

Despite my year in the Philippines, I still felt uncomfortable and frustrated with myself in classes alongside people who were so different from me. I had questions about why people act one way or another. I was sure other people wondered why I acted the way I did. Sometimes I felt isolated and alone when I got stuck thinking that no one could possibly understand me. In one ministry class that first year, I burst out crying because it was my turn to talk in the discussion. Everyone’s eyes were on me, but I had already lost track of the conversation and found it impossible to formulate my thoughts in English related to the original topic. Instead of words, only tears came out. I felt fear and embarrassment.

However, over the course of that first year at McCormick, I found comfort among other Korean students who had gone through the same difficulties. The seminary’s Language Resource and Writing Center and its director, Rob Worley, connected me to not only other Korean students, but also other international students from Turkey, Germany, India and more. These friendships filled me with the confidence to build relationships with people who looked completely different and spoke completely different from me. They slowly welcomed me. They showed a willingness to get to know me and even wanted to be friends with me!

I began to wonder whether maybe it was me who was not opening my mind and heart to them. Once I realized that, I became more comfortable and began to notice aspects of life that I had missed up to that point. McCormick students truly welcomed me and confirmed for me that being different need not be a negative value. They encouraged me to share my own thoughts and ideas, especially when those ideas differed from the norm in the United States. They also encouraged me to celebrate my differences and helped me to value the uniqueness of my own perspective.

Those friends and mentors were invaluable in helping me adapt to my new context in a new world. This growing comfort gave me the confidence to apply to spend a semester abroad at the Near Eastern School of Theology in Beirut, Lebanon, in the fall of 2004 in my second year of studies.

My experience at McCormick Theological Seminary

While Hyeyoung was settling into her first year at McCormick Seminary, I had begun looking at seminaries and deciding where to apply. At the time, McCormick’s student population had a large proportion of international students. I saw this as the perfect opportunity to learn more about the world — sitting in classes with people from all around the globe and joining in discussions that included their perspectives. I began my studies at McCormick in the fall of 2004, as Hyeyoung was getting ready to leave for Lebanon. We met only briefly before she made the trip, and I spent my first semester meeting most of the other international students. That year, I especially developed an interest in Korean culture. I had never had much exposure to Korean culture or food before entering seminary. I tried kimchi for the first time!

That first bite became one of the many aspects of Korea I came to love. I spent much of my first year getting to know the many Korean students at McCormick, feeling drawn to a better understanding of their culture. I joined McCormick’s Korean “poongmul” team of folk drummers and grew more familiar with the rhythm of Korean culture through the beat of the drums. But I also knew this participation did not afford me a full understanding of the culture.

Then I found out that McCormick had an exchange student program with Hanshin University, connected to the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK), with a theological school campus in Seoul, South Korea. As I came to know the McCormick students who had been in the Korea program, I planned ahead to become an exchange student in my third year of seminary. I thought this must be the next step on my quest to better understand differences among people around the world. This program was my first chance to spend time in a country whose primary language was not English, a long way from either the United States or the British Isles.

How we came together

As Kurt was making these plans in his first year of seminary, Hyeyoung returned from Lebanon and spent her spring semester back in McCormick. When she returned, the poongmul team was gaining steam and gaining members. Hyeyoung also joined the team along with Kurt, and our shared interest marked the beginning of a good friendship between us.

During his second year, Kurt began preparing to study in Korea for his third year. Thanks to Korean friends who were willing to teach him the language between seminary classes, Kurt learned to read, write and introduce himself in Korean. From Korean students who had already studied at Hanshin University, he learned about some social issues in South Korea, especially the division of the Korean Peninsula, the ongoing Korean War and the movement for democratization in the midst of a military dictatorship. Hanshin students at McCormick introduced Kurt to the Rev. Ik-Hwan Moon, a hero of the democratization movement who also struggled for reconciliation and reunification between North Korea and South Korea.

During that year, our relationship moved beyond friendship as we started dating. Soon Kurt was on his way to Seoul, as Hyeyoung stayed in Chicago to finish her degree, so we continued dating long-distance.

My year in Korea

I spent my third year of studies treading the pathways of theological discussions with Korean professors and students, as well as playing many games of soccer in the field just outside campus. Friends invited me into their homes and filled me with all sorts of tasty Korean food and drink. They also introduced me to “minjung” theology, a kind of liberation theology. Minjung theology developed among the leadership of the resistance to the right-wing military dictatorship that was violating human rights in South Korea. I visited locations like Gwangju, the city where demonstrators who called for democracy in May 1980 were massacred by the South Korean military, with the approval of U.S. military commanders. I met grandmothers who told me how their children disappeared after going outside to join the resistance, having been either killed or arrested and taken to be tortured.

I also volunteered with My Sister’s Place, a support center for women who worked in brothels and hostess bars outside U.S. military bases in the northern parts of South Korea. This leg of my pilgrimage led me to reflect on the effects of U.S. presence, policy and actions around the world. I often mulled the question of what my role as a U.S. citizen and a Christian should be.

I brought those questions back to McCormick Seminary, along with greater fluency in the Korean language.

My journey after graduation from McCormick

After I graduated McCormick by the summer of 2006, I moved to the School of Social Service Administration (SSA) at the University of Chicago to receive another master’s degree, this time in social work. This leg of my journey led me to work in social service centers supporting immigrant populations in the Chicago area, especially the Korean American community.

My thoughts turned to the vulnerable populations traversing the labyrinth of services and institutions across the United States. I became adept at making connections across communities and shepherding people through sensitive and critical times in their lives. However, I was not yet considering a path toward ordination as a minister in the church.

How we are continuing
our pilgrimage together

Kurt finished his degree at McCormick as Hyeyoung finished her degree at SSA. Hyeyoung took up a full-time job at Korean American Community Services, and Kurt took an ordained position at Agape House Campus Ministry on the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois.

Around that time we married. We were just settling into our respective jobs and into our married lives when Kurt received an email from the YAV program suggesting another path on our pilgrimage. The YAV program had created a site in South Korea. But the mission’s founding co-workers had just retired, and if their positions couldn’t be filled, the YAV site would be closed for two years in a row.

The staff in the YAV program recognized that our identities as individuals and as a couple fit perfectly with what the Korean YAV site needed. Our shared knowledge of Korea, our experience bridging U.S. and Korean cultures, and Kurt’s history and familiarity with the spirit of YAV program provided a unique opportunity. For her part, Hyeyoung relished the chance to give others the support and mentorship she had found so invaluable herself when she ventured into unfamiliar territory. Now she could mentor U.S. young adults trying to navigate Korean culture for a year. She could connect them to ministries supporting vulnerable populations in Korea. Kurt could pass on his passion, help U.S. young adults to better understand a different culture and share the experiences of Koreans living under division and a state of war.

Eventually, taking this path led Kurt to seek work with the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK), an ecumenical council including our Presbyterian partners in Korea, the PCK and PROK, as well as other mainline Protestant denominations. Hyeyoung, in turn, became the sole coordinator of the Korean YAV site.

Through the NCCK, Kurt learned the origins of the division of the Korean Peninsula, including U.S. military and missionary actions that contributed to the tension that led to the Korean War. This journey also led him to the Ecumenical Forum for Korea, where he met the Korean Christian Federation, a group of Protestant Christians living in North Korea that is recognized by the North Korean government. This work brought him along in a Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace, jointly held by the World Council of Churches, the NCCK and the Ecumenical Youth Council of Korea. These twists and turns have led Kurt to understand how U.S. government policy has become an obstacle to the peace process on the Korean Peninsula.

So together, we are considering how we can be positive participants in the Korean-led movement for peace. Together with our YAVs, we considered two questions. What is our role as U.S. citizens and Christians in this context? And how can we walk alongside Koreans in solidarity in their struggle for peace and justice?