There is a cartoon paper that you can pick up at several church buildings that is written in English, and it goes something like this: The American Missionary gets off the boat and says to the Korean man standing on the dock, “There is one God who created Heavens and Earth.” The Korean responds, “I know.” The truth is, Koreans knew about God when they came to the Korean Peninsula.
I read a diary written by a sailor named Hamel back in the days that Korea was closed off from the rest of the world. In those days, Korea tried to hide from the world. If anyone came to Korea from the outside, they were not allowed to leave. Koreans didn’t want anyone to know where they were. A European ship bound for Japan got caught in a storm and ended up in a shipwreck on Jeju Island, the island the furthest south of Korea. Hamel was not allowed to leave Korea for many years. The people traveled north through Korea with him to Seoul where the capital of Korea has always been. In one of the villages, he encountered a holy man who was telling the story of the Tower of Babel, but there were no Bibles in Korea, and no one had heard of Christ. They have known about God for a long, long time. (After many, many years, Hamel was allowed to go home, and his original diary is in a museum in Europe.)
Some of the biggest hospitals and universities in Korea were begun by Christian missionaries. Christianity has a long history in Korea, but there was still persecution. I visited a place called Haemi where they used to bring Catholic Christians in many years ago and spank them with big paddles. Christianity struggled for many years, but something very unique happened. When the American military came to Korea during the Korean war, those American Military Christian guys caused Christianity to grow more than at any other time in Korea. I happen to attend church in a buiilding every Sunday that was built by American military Christians in the 1950’s. It is the oldest church of Christ building in Korea.
Now a days, a Korean speaking church and an English speaking church both share this building. It looks like an American church of Christ building. When I first began going to church there, we sat in old timey pews, but now a days, the Korean church decided to replace the pews with comfortable chairs with padding on the chairs and a small desk on the back of each chair. The Korean speaking church meets there in the morning, and the English speaking church meets there in the afternoons. I am American, so I attend the English speaking church because English is my first language, but all our members are not American.
In the beginning, they were calling the English speaking part of the church the Yongsan church because many of the members were from the Yongsan military base, but that base is going to close in about a month. We have lost a lot of members lately because all the military are either being sent to another base in Korea or back to America. However, our membership is not just American military, so the church will survive.
When I first began attending there, I met the daughter of the ambassador from Gana whose dad had recently gone back to Gana. We have also had American embassy personnel there who have since gone home. We get so many foreigners who rotate in and rotate out, but some of us just stay and stay and stay. We get lots of Filipinos who come to Korea to work, then go home. We have a guy who was born in Germany, but is now a naturalized American citizen who worked D. O. D. He retired, went back to the States, then turned right around and came back because he wanted to be here so badly. We had a girl from Switzerland for a while. We have a Romanian, and we had a guy from Bangladesh and another from India. We had a girl from Singapore for a while. We get lots of university students. Right now, we have several Korean university students and one from Gana. Sometimes we get Nigerians. We always have lots of English teachers because the Koreans love to hire what they call “native speakers” of English to teach English here. We also have several Korean members who speak English, and some who don’t, but just want to be with the foreigners. It is a very unusual church. As I said, people are always rotating in and rotating out. The need for an English speaking church truly exists.
According to how much traffic there is on a given day, it takes an hour give or take a few minutes for us to drive over to Hyochang Park for Bible class and worship. Distances are long in Seoul, and people expect to travel distances like that everyday. Bible class begins at 3:00 in the afternoon, then we have worship services at 4:00, and after worship, a group usually goes out to eat together. When we had military members, the military members signed us onto the American military base, and we went to the food court there, but we no longer have those members. Now, a group of us has been going to the food court over at Home Plus after worship. After we eat, we often also play games. We enjoy being together and enjoy getting to know one another.
We had a translator for the first several years I attended there because sometimes we get Korean people who don’t speak English, and the preacher usually preaches in English. However, our favorite translator has cancer, and he only translates on special occassions now. We have a missionary who works with this church and with another one. His name is Malcom Parsely. He was one of those American military guys in the 1950’s. He loved Korea so much that when he got out of the military, he came back as a missionary and has been here ever since. He is now in his 80’s. He doesn’t preach every Sunday, but he considers it his job to develop leadership among the members. He preaches sometimes, and sometimes others preach. He supervises everything that happens. Lately, he has been teaching the Sunday Bible class, but he hasn’t always. There have been some really good teachers from the States here teaching our Bible classes, but they rotate in and rotate out.
We had children’s Bible classes for a while, but the students were from American military families, and we only have one American military family left, and they will be gone in another month. They have Bible classes taught in Korean for the Korean kids, but no more in English.
As for what part I have played here, it is evangelistic. I was a professor at a university here, and I offered private Bible classes in my office for the students. Several became Christians, and they wanted to attend an English speaking church, but they were Koreans, so several of them also rotated in and rotate out. They are enthusiastic about worshiping God in English, but it gets hard because English is their second language, so many of them end up rotating out to Korean speaking churches. Some of them begin going to the Korean speaking portion of the Hyochang Park church, and others to other Korean speaking churches. A couple of them have become preachers. Some speak English well enough that they stay.
I tried to open my house for church parties, times of singing, etc., but only the Koreans could find my house. As I said, I live an hour away from the building. The military personnel or embassy personnel all had trouble either getting lost or having car trouble or some other crazy thing when they ventured that far from the Hyochang Park area, so I ended up giving up that idea. However, from time to time, we have had members who live close who have opened their homes for fellowship times. The most important thing I can do for them now like this is to offer my car after church to give them rides to the food court where we can all eat together after church.
Recently, we had a baptism. The work is still going on. The church was overjoyed as usual. We had a problem with the baptistery, and it was leaking everywhere. I tried to help them clean the mess up, but we have some very zealous members who are hard to compete with, so I backed off and let them handle it. I have no worries. I know these guys will see to it that the baptistery is fixed.
This article is just about one of the many churches in Seoul. There are others, and I plan on introducing some of them to you in other articles. Did you know the biggest church in the world is in Seoul? It is a Pentecostal church over in Youido. I recently learned the biggest church of Christ in Korea is just a few blocks from my house, and I wondered why no one ever mentioned to me that they were even there, and I have learned it. There is a place close to my house where they send Bible correspondence courses all over Korea call BCC. My daughter and I have seen a Catholic church behind our apartment building, and we have talked about just poking our head in one day to look at it because she has never even seen a Catholic church. The largest force of Christianity in Korea happens to be the Presbyterian Church. They are even in high places up in the government. There are several Christian television and radio stations. My daughter teaches at a Christian school located at a Christian television station. When I write about the other churches, perhaps you will have a chance to learn about one that you prefer. There is a church building on almost every street corner here, and I will introduce you to some of them that I know about. Christianity not only has been in Korea for a long time, but it is also thriving.