Hope Despite a Pandemic

A Letter from Kurt Esslinger and Hyeyoung Lee, serving in Korea

November 2020

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Dear friends,

In early March of this year Susannah and Amanda, our two Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs), and I met in front of the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK) building discussing the ever-unfolding news of COVID-19 outbreaks in Korea and, at that time, the growing infections in the U.S. I remember being skeptical of the Korean insistence that everyone wears masks because I was reading several articles from friends in the U.S. to the effect, “masks are not proven to give full protection from airborne infections.” I wasn’t convinced it was medically necessary to wear a mask, but we three decided we would still wear them on busses in deference to our Korean hosts.

Soon after, coronavirus infections exploded in the U.S., the PC(USA) gave mission co-workers the option to return to the U.S. immediately or stay in their country of assignment indefinitely, and all YAVs were immediately to return home. Hyeyoung and I decided that it would be better to stay in Korea. Our YAVs, however, needed to pack up and find flights to their respective homes in the U.S. Most of their workplaces had already shut down anyway, so it made sense to finish their YAV year at home with their family. Still, it was tough for all of us to say an early un-planned goodbye. We spent a couple of days in grief packing up and saying farewell before they finally took their flight back home. We visited a café near Susannah’s placement which she frequented. The café owner who had become close to Susannah asked us, “Why is it that Korea has controlled its infection numbers, but the U.S. is still spiraling out of control? I think it is because so many of them refuse to wear masks.” At the time, I dismissed this and suggested other possible reasons, but now I have changed my mind. Then I saw so many Asian countries control the spread of the virus through universal mask-wearing while U.S. hospitalization rates continued to climb, and Korean news showed videos of anti-mask demonstrations throughout the U.S. I also began to read more scientific explanations of how “masks were not yet proven to give 100% protection, but they also weren’t sure how protective they could be because we simply hadn’t conducted enough tests to know one way or the other.” More tests have now been done, and more health authorities agree with our friend at the cafe here in Korea that if not enough people wear masks, the virus is more likely to spread.

Around the same time, the NCCK was also reassessing its plans to hold an ecumenical gathering in Washington D.C. in June 2020 that would include a memorial worship for victims and soldiers of the No Gun Ri massacre and a Korea Peace Treaty Campaign event. Trips to the U.S. continued to look less and less likely as March turned into April and April to May, with infection rates in the U.S. holding steady. We also began reconsidering an international convocation we hoped to host in Korea in July of this year that would declare a People’s Peace Treaty. Eventually, the U.S. trip was canceled, and our July convocation was converted into a Zoom convocation. We changed the language of declaring a peace treaty to declaring a peace agreement which wouldn’t need ratification by Congress.

The NCCK successfully held an online Convocation to Declare a People’s Peace Agreement on July 23rd, marking 67 years of waiting for the war to end since the signing of the Korean Armistice on July 27th, 1953. Over 80 participants from more than 40 countries worldwide joined the online convocation, including our PC(USA) representatives. Though socially distanced, we raised our voices together and renewed each other’s energy for hope that the war would end so that peace would have a chance to spring forth.

The NCCK is currently considering plans for the next year and how it might plan new online gatherings as the pandemic continues worldwide. We especially hope to gather ecumenical partners to help strategize what form advocacy for Korea’s peace process might take with the newly elected administration in the U.S.

The YAV program is also trying to discern what its program will look like moving forward. Last year’s YAVs were all returned home early. This year no YAVs traveled to their sites. Instead, the YAVs were asked to volunteer in their home community and connect with the program in online conference meetings. We are still waiting to see what the program might look like for the 2021-22 year as the PC(USA) has a travel ban for staff in place until June 2021.

In these times of uncertainty, we are ever more thankful for your support of our ongoing ministry. We apologize that we had gone radio silent for so long, as I think many of us are still searching for a foothold as the pandemic progresses. We are more sure of our daily routines now and confident of our ability to offer online sessions with any of your communities, whether it be a Skype call to a missions committee, joining your Zoom worship service for a Moment for Mission, or a recorded video message of greetings. Please ask us, we would love to make ourselves available!

So let’s batten down the hatches together, prepare to ride out the storm as a global community, wear our masks when we go outside, and hold firm to the faith that God is weathering this storm by our sides, empowering us to work for the peace, wellbeing, and healing of all our communities.

Amen.

Kurt and Hyeyoung


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