Cross Cultural Trip to the World Council of Churches in Busan, South Korea

The Demilitarized Zone
The Demilitarized Zone

Reflections by Angella Son, Associate Professor of Psychology and Religion

Twenty-seven Drewids attended the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Busan, South Korea this fall as part of a cross cultural trip from Drew Theological School (DTSCC).  The former Dean Jeffrey Kuan requested in 2011 that I run this trip. It is particularly meaningful that the WCC was held in South Korea since Korean Christianity in general thought that the WCC’s ecumenical effort was unchristian.  Three distinguished Christian leaders in South Korea made it possible for the WCC to be held in South Korea:  Reverend Dr. Sam Whan Kim, the senior pastor of Myung Sung Presbyterian Church and the father of Reverend Dr. Hana Kim, a Drew alumnus;  Bishop In Hwan Kim, the senior pastor of Seong Eun Methodist Church and an alumnus of Drew;  and Dr. Sang Chang, a former president of Ewha University who was elected at the 10th Assembly as one of eight presidents of the WCC.  As a result, many Christians in Korea were able to accept the WCC although peaceful protests against this WCC Assembly were held every day by a small number of people.  The DTSCC traveled for two weeks from October 27 to November 9, 2013. The group consisted of people from various backgrounds including African Americans, Euro Americans, Latin Americans, Korean Americans, and Koreans.  Normally Koreans are not allowed to take a cross cultural trip to South Korea but they were allowed this time since the cross cultural trip was to attend the WCC.  It was incredibly meaningful for Koreans and Korean Americans to attend the WCC held in South Korea.

At the World Council of Churches
At the World Council of Churches

The WCC is the “broadest and most inclusive among the many organized expressions of the modern ecumenical movement, a movement whose goal is Christian unity” and it is represented by over 500 million Christians from 345 member churches/denominations in more than 110 countries and territories ( The theme of the 10th Assembly was, “God of life, Lead us to justice and peace.”  There were many aspects to the WCC including the opening prayer (worship), plenary sessions, ecumenical conversations, Bible studies, workshops, Madang activities and exhibits, and business meetings (which were not available to DTSCC).  All of the students were very impressed with being a part of a gathering of various traditions of world Christians and being in the midst of church leaders from all over the world.  Many appreciated the opportunity to hear a message from His Holiness Karekin II of Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians. Many described this trip as informative, inspirational, and life-changing.

Suhang Presbyterian Church
Suhang Presbyterian Church

Several students noted how Drew’s education prepared them well for participating in the discussions at various venues at the WCC.  James Lee noted how DTSCC members were active participants in Ecumenical Conversations:  “It was during these other sessions that I felt our Drew education shined; many students from our group … had great stories and insights to share to add to the complex conversation.”  Carol Bloom, who was profoundly affected by the speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury at a plenary session, learned that “I am a theologian.  Professors at Drew have been telling us for years that we are theologians and that we should participate in the theological conversation.  I never really believed that until this trip.”  To some, this trip was the ideal time for an identity search.  Karina Feliz explained, “This trip has helped me to get to know myself better but also my call in life. … This learning has empowered me to speak for the voices that are being kept in silence…. And my prayer is God of life, lead us to justice and peace.”  Jacob Eun was able to reflect on his identity as a 1.5 generation Korean American immigrant during the trip and found the trip to be indispensable in his continuous search for his identity as a 1.5 generation immigrant.”

Many also appreciated the specific and detailed discussions about big issues in the world.  For instance, Yoomi Yi appreciated the detailed information about “a mineral extraction robbing and destroying Sami’s cultural heritage land and resources;  Burma’s army’s brutality against the Kachin and other ethnic groups because of the differences in religion.”  In addition, Sejin Cha realized how ecological problems ares “not the future issue but urgent …and life and death issue for people living in the Pacific Islands because their land has been sinking due to global warming.”  Many were moved by rituals.  Chang Hwan Kim, who learned a great deal about world poverty, was most impressed by the opening prayer.  He stated:  “I almost cried at singing Senzenina right after hearing the cries from horrible situations all over the world.  By singing Senzenina (‘What have we done?’ in the language of Zulu), I confessed my contribution to the tragedies of the world by doing or not doing—mainly not doing.  After returning to the States, I found out that ‘Senzenina’ … could [also mean] the protest of the innocent victims which probably is the original meaning … such as ‘Senzenina?  Sono sethu, ubumnyama?’ (What have we done?  Our sin is that we are black?)”

War and Women's Human Rights Museum
War and Women’s Human Rights Museum

Everyone was deeply touched by the visit to the War & Women’s Human Rights Museum built in May 2012 for comfort women who were abused as sex slaves by Japanese military during the Second World War.  Hyoungkyu Park said:

When I entered into the Museum, I had a heavy heart.  I saw many messages on the wall.  Those were to pay tribute to the spirit of victims during the war because of the weakness and lack of power of our country.  Then, as I expected, I was shocked while I was looking around the inside of the Museum.  This place tells us our historical tragedy, and why justice and peace is necessary in this world….  A new task is given to me from the cross cultural trip to WCC in Korea.  It is how to realize justice and peace in my current life, and what kind of life I live to make a beautiful history because justice delayed is justice denied.

Yonghwan Shin shared his personal story about his grandmother who, like many young girls then, avoided being a comfort woman by getting married at a very early age:

When [my grandmother] was fifteen years old, her father suggested that she be married to my grandfather.  …  She told me about them when I was little.  It was a real and a sad history.  Therefore, this protest movement [a weekly protest in front of Japanese Embassy since January 8, 1992] is not only for the Japanese government, but rather this movement should keep fighting for women’s rights.  If we do not protest these tragedies, this silence will become other violence.

WCC provided an excursion trip to DMZ and everyone from the group was deeply affected by the realness of the division of Korea between North and South Korea.  Bruce Hartman states:

The visit to the border was indescribable.  I have related it to people since I have been home, but have found it impossible to convey the sadness of this division. … I walked up to the fence surrounding the site we visited and thought, “I can’t go any farther.”  This was the first time in my life I had no freedom.

Pamela Ringold found the trip to be “a humbling experience, one that helped to shape my understanding of others who come to the United States and have to learn the culture and how to speak the language.”  Likewise, Amanda Cosnett shared how the trip helped her reflect both experientially and theologically on what it means to be an ethnic minority or a “stranger in a strange land.”  Yoseeb Jeon found the trip to be a wonderful opportunity to understand the true meaning of diversity through the ethnic, cultural, economic, and socio-political differences among the members.  He stated:  “Once I was able to understand Drew friends [in light of their unique backgrounds], I started to cherish each of them more deeply.  Especially worshipping and singing together in two Korean churches and … Craig chapel brought all of us to the place of joy from being as one.”

Fernandon Linhares pointed out how group members reacted to the pressure of being in an unknown and anxiety-provoking environment, sometimes behaving unreasonably.  He said that this reaction demonstrates a parallel experience to those of migrant communities.  He stated:

As an internal reflection on the cross-cultural component, it is important to reflect on how ‘displacement’ or a change in living conditions contributes to anxieties, even abrasiveness among ‘seminary folk’ (including myself).  Therefore, there needs to be more empathy with migrant communities, living with constant uncertainties and instabilities within densely populated areas, and enduring oppressive living and exploitative working conditions.  Further, in such ‘foreign’ communities, understandably some migrants rely on alcohol as a cheap and readily available substance to alleviate their anxieties, and this can easily manifest destructively, ultimately as incarceration or detention.

Janeide Chillis was awed by the early morning prayer of her homestay family:  “So what they showed me was discipline, the ability to cope and live a life pleasing to God.”  Yoochang Jung and Taejong Kim were most impressed by the poem, “God of Life, Lead Us to Act” by Bishop Reuel Norman O. Marigza of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines.  Heeyoung Jung was struggling with fundamental theology of some Christian communities in South Korea and recommitted herself to helping Asian and Korean women.  Janine Carambot was very impressed with the South Korean health care system in that “[Korean] life expectancy was higher than the United States, and their health spending per capita was way lower than the United States.”  Daniel Lincoln was reminded of Psalm 121 as he was climbing up to the Bulkuk Temple in Gyeongju and said, “We read in Isaiah of the Temple of the Lord being on the hill; Psalm 121 tells us about how the worshippers lift up their eyes on the hill. There is a transcendence of power that flows from the hill and touches all who below it.”  Regina Chamberlain was challenged by the visit of the Global Sarang Immigrant Community Center in Seoul which provides education, social services, medical aid, etc. to migrant workers and multicultural families in South Korea and committed herself to supporting it with continuous prayers and other means.  J. T. Park was preoccupied with capturing all of the memorable moments of the trip. Like many others, Mongones Juleau missed his home and his family.

at Myung Sung Presbyterian Church
At Myung Sung Presbyterian Church

While the students appreciated the WCC experience greatly, they also raised some concerns and questions:  (1) There seemed to be political agenda pushed by some speakers;  (2) Open and free dialogue did not exist to the level that Drew students usually experience;  (3) How do we draw the line between generous hospitality and extravagant use of resources?;  (4) There was a lot of talk but no formal discussions on strategies to address or solve those problems;  (5) More discussion of theological issues is needed for the goal of church unity;  and (6) The wide inclusivity and diversity came at the expense of a lack of direction of the assembly.

Most of all, everyone in the group was impressed by the generous hospitality offered by Korean people, especially the hospitality of the host families from Myung Sung Presbyterian Church.  They were very grateful to their host families and Myung Sung Presbyterian Church for providing food, a home for one night, a trip to DMZ, and beautiful and fascinating performances of Korean music and dance.  They also realized how they need to live a life of hospitality to others as a witness to Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God.