Reflections on My Spiritual Pilgrimage in South Korea
The trip I was gifted by United Methodist Discipleship Ministries to take to South Korea this past April, 2018 has impacted my life and faith in so many lasting ways. Upon returning home and being thrust back into life and ministry, I was so overwhelmed by all I had seen, learned, and experienced I needed some time to process it all and pray about what God was leading me to do with this blessing for myself, my church, people in my community, and maybe even beyond. I believe I am now ready to share some of my thoughts.
I must confess, before one of my clergy colleagues, Rev. Thomas Kim (who now works at United Methodist Communications), encouraged me to explore going on this pilgrimage, I had no real desire to visit South Korea. Although I love to travel and have made many wonderful friendships with Korean colleagues (along with learning about their culture), visiting this country was not high on my “bucket list.” But as I explored it and shared about it with my church’s Lay Leader, I began to get an “inner nudge” to go. I knew this had to be God’s will.
I appreciated learning some of the background about South Korea’s history and the movement of Christianity and the Methodist Church there through the article “A Brief History of the Korean Methodism” supplied by Discipleship Ministries. It helped me get a better understanding of Korea’s history and all its people have been through for at least half of this country to now have political, religious, and economic freedom. The comparison of Korean Christians to Jewish people and Babylon was a good comparison. I am amazed at how many of these people have held on to the hope they have in God through Jesus Christ.
What Christian missionaries and foreign countries have done to bring about justice, change, and new life to South Korea and its people is amazing. So many of the people we met and even some we encountered or passed on the streets while there are still so appreciative. I was humbled time and time again by their deep gratitude.
I began to get a better sense of this upon returning home. A friend loaned me a book she had acquired somewhere (but had not read), but thought I might be interested in reading after hearing some of the talks my Lay Leader (Virginia Sheets) and I shared after our trip. The book, Without You, There Is No Us, written by Suki Kim, is about an undercover reporter who posed as a teacher and was accepted to teach English to male teenage boys from elite families in North Korea. As I read this heart-wrenching account of her stay there, I pondered what a difference it would make for the whole country of Korea and the new friends I had made if the northern way of life was what the whole country (or even ours) had to live.
After re-reading the brief history article again and thinking about the book, I wondered how many of these North Koreans who once lived and worshipped as, or were descendants of, Christians (possibly even as Methodists) if they still held on to the hope that God still loves them and is with them; that in Christ, salvation and the freedom of at least eternal life still waits for them. Do they still pray to God? Do they sense the Holy Spirit is with them? And I praised God that at least 2/3’s of the Korean people are living in peace, but still longing and praying for the whole nation to be free. I pray that no nation would have to have this dilemma.
What Christian missionaries and foreign countries have done to bring about justice, change, and new life to South Korea and its people is amazing.
One of the pilgrims on our trip was a Korean-American who once had the opportunity to be allowed in North Korea to visit some family she has been separated from since the war. Although this visit happened many years ago, it was still too painful for her to share much with us. When we visited the Unification Observatory Center, it was a very emotional time for not just us, but especially for her as she looked to the north and so longed for peace and reconnection with loved ones again. Although we had many opportunities to pray on this trip, I believe when we gathered on that platform encircled in prayer, it had to be the most powerful prayer I have ever experienced. Jesus was embracing that whole circle, especially my new special friend.
Although I really like history, I don’t remember learning much about Korea or the Korean War while in school. Now I pastor several veterans from that war in my church, but still not much has been shared. I believe I learned more about the war and what its outcome have meant to this people and country just in the week we were there. I thank you for this! And I thanked those veterans I know when I returned home. As I walked through the Memorial Hall for the Incheon Landing Operation and viewed the displays and pictures, I found myself looking for faces I might recognize. I prayed for the people who had made the sacrifices they did. And I not only praised God for life and freedoms restored but for the blessings I have to live in a country where people have fought for my freedom. I prayed we might find a more peaceful way to work out our differences as nations than through war. And once again, I prayed a prayer of hope that the upcoming meeting later that week might bring about some sort of peaceful resolution that could lead to Korea becoming one again.
I also appreciated learning about the early Christian missionary movement in Korea through the article, what Pastor Hong and others shared, and from visiting the cemetery and Missions Memorial museum. Such courage these people had! Would I be so bold? It truly had to be the work of the Holy Spirit for them to move on God’s calling and for the people to be open to their ministry. God is still at work in Korea!
And then there were the church tours, worship, and prayer services! (I really appreciated getting to tour a Grace UM church!) Words cannot begin to do justice to what I’d like to attempt to say here! My spirit and I were so impressed! How I long to return to be fed like this some more! The prayer service style was so unique and different to what most of us in the US and the UMC here are accustomed to! Yes, it was a bit uncomfortable and challenging at first, but I grew to love it and sensed the Holy Spirit with me during those times. I find my devotion and prayer times since returning home are more varied and unique as well!
Before and during my trip, I was contemplating an appointment change. Since returning home, even though I believe the new ministry would’ve been a good fit, I sensed God calling me to stay and see what Virginia and I might try to bring about some new life and commitment to Christ in the congregation where I currently serve. I was so impressed how prayer has been the essential gift of God that has turned Christianity and the Methodist Church around in South Korea. I sensed a commitment and excitement to God and the church and discipleship that is lacking not only in most mainline churches here in the US, but sadly also in the church I am blessed to be the pastor of. How I long for that fire to be in us here again!
So Virginia and I have talked about what we sense God leading us to do from the sparks kindled in us on this pilgrimage. We have prayed about it, we have done some reading, we have visited a colleague’s church (who has been on a previous pilgrimage) to experience one of the prayer services he has started. We are certain 5:00am for an hour probably won’t work here and noisy prayer probably won’t either, but we are ready to embark on our own venture, by the grace of God, later this month. Please hold us in prayer!
In closing (I know I’ve already gone past the page limit!), I just want to thank Discipleship Ministries and the Bupyeong Methodist Church for this wonderful opportunity. To experience this beautiful people with their beautiful spirits in their beautiful country (and great food, too!) was amazing! I want to go again to learn and grow more, to ask new questions, to see and experience more, and to have my spirit refreshed and renewed once again. Yes, it is well with my soul. God bless you and your ministry!
Rev. Marilyn Nolan
Grace United Methodist Church