Last month, synod NextGen youth visited South Korea for a contextual learning trip. Tim Lam, who accompanied the group, reports on their journey.
A house divided
The seemingly tranquil surrounds of the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) mask a dark history of death, separation and anguish.
For the past 65 years, this deserted buffer zone has served as a symbol of a nation divided.
The DMZ was the first destination on the NextGen youth’s 12-day contextual learning trip.
As the young people made their way to the DMZ, they spotted signs of a country ready for war at a moment’s notice.
Anti-tank barricades, ready to be collapsed onto the road with dynamite, lined the sides of the highway between Seoul and the DMZ.
NextGen member Kezia Gitareja, who was a first-time visitor to Korea, said the DMZ offered a harrowing glimpse into the human cost of the Korean conflict.
“The stories of parents and children, brothers and sisters being separated – you feel so sad for them because they can’t grow up and live with their loved ones,” Kezia said.
“You yearn for reunification because you empathise with them.”
As one of the last places in Korea largely free of human development, the DMZ has developed into an unlikely nature reserve, home to a thriving biodiversity.
But beneath the lush green forests lies a sense of imminent danger. The DMZ is one of the most heavily fortified places in the world.
“Entering the DMZ required really serious procedures,” Kezia said.
“There was a sense of fear that something might happen to you if you do something wrong.”
Visitors can only enter the DMZ via a military escort. At the heart of the DMZ is the Joint Security Area (JSA), where North and South Korean soldiers stand face-to-face.
On this particular visit, no North Korean soldiers were visible. According to one United Nations Command (UNC) soldier, North Korean soldiers have maintained a light presence in the JSA following recent peace talks between North and South Korea.
Inside the DMZ, UNC soldiers enforce a strict ban on photography. There are only two photographic opportunities and all photos must face the North Korean side.
During the visit, the NextGen youth stepped onto North Korean soil by crossing the military demarcation line inside the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) house.
For the past six decades, this invisible line has divided the MAC building – and the entire Korean peninsula – into two nations.
Anna Harrison, from Living Faith Church in Greensborough, said it is important to embrace all Koreans as part of the global human family.
“The conflict is not something that’s happened to a bunch of people who are far away from us; this is a part of the human family that’s really hurting,” Anna said.
“It’s really different hearing a story from afar to being in a place. You get a real sense of the emotional trauma and how real and deep this goes for people.”
For Grace Jung, a NextGen youth of Korean descent, the visit was an opportunity to witness the stories she heard so much about as a child.
“I’ve learnt about Korean history through documentaries, but even that’s still quite distant,” Grace said.
“But if you actually immerse yourself and physically see the DMZ, it becomes your anecdote too.
“I see people in North Korea as my blood-related family. So we can personally get involved with our family business, which is why I think reunification is really important.”
Although Grace has visited South Korea before, she is still surprised that most Koreans have normalised the state of threat on the peninsula.
“Compared to how the media portrays how dangerous Korea is, people were just fine,” she said.
“They are used to the tension. They are immune to it, which I find really sad.”
The long road to reunification
During their trip, the NextGen youth visited the regional city of Suncheon in the southern part of the peninsula.
Best known for its scenic parks and quiet wetlands, Suncheon seems a world away from the bustling metropolitan capital of Seoul.
Suncheon Central Church minister Rev Dr In-Sik Hong, who spent his high school and university years in Paraguay, speaks with a noticeable Spanish accent.
He served as a missionary in Argentina, Costa Rico, Mexico and Chile and also has a PhD in Latin American liberation theology.
“Reunification of the Korean peninsula is a fundamental and basic task that God has given to the Korean church,” Dr Hong said.
“But until now, the Korean church hasn’t realised that task.”
Throughout South Korea, there is a renewed optimism that recent peace talks between North Korean President Kim Jong-Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In will marshal in a new era of peace.
For Dr Hong, reunification carries personal significance.
“My family comes from North Korea, so I want to visit my father’s homeland in Pyongyang,” he said.
“But I don’t know who my relatives in North Korea are because I have lost contact with them. My father and mother didn’t pass on any information about them to me before they died.”
As well as providing support services for North Korean defectors, the South Korean church has actively campaigned for peace and reunification on the peninsula.
Since 2010, the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK) has spearheaded a movement to replace the 1953 Armistice Agreement with a permanent Peace Treaty.
Their advocacy efforts are bearing fruit, with Kim Jong-Un and Moon Jae-In set to finalise a peace treaty by the end of the year.
But Dr Hong believes many political obstacles will need to be overcome before the two countries can be reunified.
“Reunification is possible but not in the near future. Maybe after my death,” he said.
“But I hope it is sooner because I want to visit my homeland.”
Over the past 50 years, the Korean church has experienced rapid growth. Nearly 30 percent of South Koreans are Christians and Seoul is home to more mega-churches than any other city in the world.
But Dr Hong believes that as the Korean church grew in size, it gradually lost touch with the needs of society.
“The Korean church considers itself a strong institution,” Dr Hong said.
“However, during the past 40 years, Korean church was separating itself from society.
“We are now in a ghetto, a very closed community. We don’t care about what happens in society. Our focus is salvation of the soul – to save souls.
“The first challenge is that our church has to be one with society.”
Friction between conservative and liberal branches have caused numerous schisms within the Korean Protestant church since 1953.
While the majority of Korean churches have conservative leanings, some – like the PROK – are considered more progressive.
The PROK was the first denomination in Korea to ordain women elders (1956), and later women ministers (1974).
Anna, who recently undertook postgraduate studies at Pilgrim Theological College, was surprised by the theological diversity within the Korean church.
“Prior to the trip, my only real idea of Christianity in Korea is that it was really prevalent,” she said.
“I thought that theologically it would be a bit more homogenous.
“So I was really surprised hearing stories from the young adults and ministers of how the church in Korea has its own diversity and its own issues that it’s working through.
“Some of the young adults are struggling with the same things we are.”
The NextGen youth also learnt about the history of Australian missionaries in Korea, who first set foot in Busan in 1889. Their legacy can be seen in the numerous hospitals and schools they have established throughout Korea.
Many Korean churches, like the Busanjin Presbyterian Church, now send young people overseas on mission trips.
According to Korea World Missions Association, South Korea sent out 27,436 missionaries last year, second only behind the United States.
“The first missionaries were the people who planted the seeds of the gospel in Korea,” Grace said.
“So it’s our turn to help and make sure the seeds are rooted well and blossom.”
Talking about youth
During the contextual learning trip, the NextGen youth met young adults from Gwacheon Presbyterian Church in Seoul and Busanjin Presbyterian Church in Busan.
Like Australia, the Korean church is grappling with the challenge of engaging young people who are growing increasingly distant from the church.
“We’ve failed to reinterpret Christian language to teach or communicate to young people in a changing context,” Dr Hong said.
“For example, in relation to homosexuality the context has completely changed. We do not know how to respond to the changing context.”
Dr Hong said that for some Korean churches, just having a conversation about LGBTI topics is considered taboo.
“If you talk about LGBTI with a little positive thinking, you can be expelled from the church, especially if you are a pastor,” Dr Hong said.
“Even our PCK constitution says that anybody who speaks about LGBTI ‘positively’ cannot be employed as a church official.
“I believe every LGBTI person is a human being and we have to consider the starting point from there. We have to be informed before taking a definitive decision.”
Lessons from Korea
Before she embarked on the contextual learning trip, Kezia had a different understanding of Korean history and culture.
“I was only focused on the bright and happy side of Korea back home,” she said.
“So I wasn’t really focusing on the political conflicts happening in Korea.
“I’ve also learnt to be more understanding and accepting of other people’s culture. In Australia we call our elders by their first names but in Korea, we have to use honorifics to address them.”
Kezia wants her congregation to embrace a social enterprise concept she encountered at a church in Seoul.
The Presbyterian Church of Korea runs a café that hires and trains North Korean refugees to help them acquire long-term employment skills.
“I like that you get coffee for yourself and at the same time you’re helping others,” Kezia said.
“I want to bring this to my congregation and adopt this concept because I think it’s really amazing.”
Culturally And Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities are home to some of the largest youth populations in the Uniting Church.
But many of these young people seldom have opportunities to connect with UCA youth outside their own congregations.
“The highlight of the trip for me was definitely being with people from different backgrounds,” Grace said.
“It’s very unlikely for me because I’m from a Korean church, so it’s hard to actually go on a trip with people from different cultures and congregations in the UCA.”
For Anna, the trip revealed new ways of doing intercultural ministry that she wants to share with the rest of the church.
“Sometimes in our church in Australia we think doing stuff together is enough,” she said.
“We need to learn to allow people to bring their stories and culture and actually value, treasure and participate in it.
“That’s a really important way of loving someone.”
To view a short video of the NextGen visit to Korea, visit the Uniting Church Victoria and Tasmania Facebook page: www.facebook.com/pg/ucavictas/videos