November 2018 – Sometimes a trip can change a life.
Drew Theological School students who joined Associate Professor Angella Son on a cross-cultural trip to South Korea experienced a powerful transformation while exploring the history and current-day activism of Korea’s “comfort women.”
The trip centered on Son’s research into the lives of thousands of women who were taken—many as girls—by the Japanese government during World War II to act as sexual slaves for their soldiers. Upon their return to their families after the war, the women faced severe social stigma and personal shame. Most kept silent for decades about the abuse.
During the last 30 years, many of these women began to break their silence. Despite the tragedy of their experiences, many found a distinct type of joy by telling their stories, connecting with partners to advocate on their behalf and becoming advocates themselves for other victims of sexual violence, according to Son’s research.
The experience of being an activist and advocate is central to emerging from shame to healing and from silence and stigma to self-worth, added Son, associate professor of psychology and religion.
“What is joy? It’s liberation, that’s what it is,” said Kamellah Marsh, a Theological School student on the trip who recognized parallels to the #metoo movement. “It’s a liberating moment. You are not to blame. Just like the comfort women. It’s not your fault.”
Given the advanced age of comfort women and their desire for privacy, it’s rare to meet them. But during a visit to the House of Sharing—a nursing home on the outskirts of Seoul that cares for former comfort women in their old age—one woman surprised the group by requesting to talk to them.
Il(il)-Chul Kang’s bearing was serene, but her words were powerful. She confessed that when she closes her eyes, the traumatic memories still come back. She thanked the group, though, and said that knowing they’d continue their advocacy work on behalf of sexual violence victims long after she is gone is what gives her hope.
“We were all in tears,” said Son.
“It was unbelievably powerful. She was so gracious and gentle,” added student Leif McLellan, who’s pursuing a Master of Divinity. “In Korean culture, it’s polite to bow to your superiors. I wanted to prostrate myself to her. I finally got it—she deserves so much honor.”
Amy Tompkins, a local pastor who’s also pursuing a Master of Divinity, joined the trip due to her interest in feminism and Korean culture and was particularly inspired by Kang.
“She made you want to continue to keep bringing the story of comfort women to others, to continue to bring their voices to others long after they can do it for themselves,” said Tompkins.
There’s a community of advocates in South Korea that give voice to comfort women in the world, as students saw for themselves at one of the weekly protests held in Seoul.
Every Wednesday, hundreds of protestors gather at the “Statue of Peace” in front of the Japanese embassy. Although entitled to financial reparations, the women and their network of advocates want just one thing: an official apology—which the Japanese government has yet to issue.
This acknowledgement of the truth of their experience is seen as the missing link in their healing. Until that day comes, protestors—sometimes as many as 400 at once—continue to bear witness at the embassy.
In response, embassy officials built a wall to try to block out the statue, which depicts a young woman next to an empty chair—a symbolic invitation to those who would listen, empathize and advocate for the comfort women. “They just wanted to deny that it even existed. To shut out the voice,” said Tompkins. “It’s very powerful. But they can’t shut her down. She persists.”
Powerful moments like meeting Kang and witnessing the protests reinvigorated the students.
For Marsh, a survivor of sexual abuse and the founder of the Women of Virtue Universal Ministry, which focuses on advocating for victims of sexual violence, the trip refocused her career goals and commitment. “This trip was the number one influence on me wanting to next pursue a master’s in public administration with a concentration in nonprofit management, so that I can be a voice for women on a larger platform on a larger scale—not just in my community, but the community at large,” Marsh said. “That revelation came to me when I was in Korea. I just knew there was more that I could do personally.”
For McLellan, the experience affirmed his approach to ministry, one in which he has an important and powerful role to play in promoting healthy sexuality and violence-free relationships and creating a safe place for victims to share. “A pastor can help facilitate the sharing of stories, which is one of the first, most important parts of the healing process,” he said.
For Tompkins, the trip clarified her dedication to social justice work with a feminist postcolonial lens—either as a public theologian or minister. “It gives you hope and strength to keep fighting for all who are oppressed, always,” she said.
The Theological School has required cross-cultural travel immersion experiences as a part of ministerial training for more than 15 years, ensuring that graduates expand and challenge their own understandings of ministry by learning about the struggles and theological vision of people in diverse cultural contexts. Son earned funding from Yale for her work on joy and will return to South Korea with students in March to continue work on a related digital humanities project that’s supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.