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Kurt Esslinger and Hyeyoung Lee


Mission co-workers in South Korea since 2013
Serving at the invitation of the Presbyterian Church of Korea

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Blog: Hyeyoung and Kurt’s Korean Adventure

Kurt and Hyeyoung return to the USA each March/April. Email them to extend an invitation to your congregation or organization.

About Kurt Esslinger’s and Hyeyoung Lee’s ministries

Kurt Esslinger and Hyeyoung Lee each have two roles as mission co-workers in South Korea. First, they both serve as Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) site coordinators for the Daejeon, Korea, site. The YAV site in South Korea is hosted on the campus of Presbyterian-related Hannam University. YAVs live in Daejeon for a year at a time and work with agencies such as children’s centers and soup kitchens to support the struggle against poverty, hunger and homelessness. They share a YAV house, carefully and deliberately considering what it means to live in an intentional community and in the midst of another culture. They reflect on who God calls us to be as we engage the world around us.

Hyeyoung’s other role is working with Hannam University’s Global Multicultural Leadership Program, which connects Hannam students as well as the YAVs with agencies working with immigrant populations in Daejeon. Kurt also works with the National Council of Churches in Korea and their Reconciliation and Unification Department, which maintains a relationship with the Korean Christian Federation of North Korea and advocates for the respectful and peaceful reconciliation of the ongoing Korean conflict.

Country context

The Korean peninsula was controlled by Japan from 1910 to 1945. After the defeat of Japan in World War II, the peninsula was divided into two zones. A democratic–based government was established in the southern region and a communist-style government was installed in the north. In recent decades, South Korea has become the 13th largest economy in the world and is home to large corporations such as Samsung and Hyundai. Christianity is the largest faith group in South Korea, with almost 32 percent of the population identifying as Protestant or Catholic. Presbyterianism is the largest Protestant tradition. Buddhism is the religious preference of nearly a quarter of the population, and just over 43 percent of South Koreans claim no religious affiliation. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) began working in Korea more than a century ago, and the PC(USA) has strong partnerships with the Presbyterian Church of Korea and the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea.

About Kurt Esslinger and Hyeyoung Lee

Kurt and Hyeyoung see their mission service as a way to empower marginalized people in South Korea, nurture young people toward a more profound faith experience, and contribute to the future of the PC(USA).

“We strive to mentor PC(USA) young adults through their experience of living and volunteering in Korea, so that they have a clear sense of their call to promote social justice, reconciliation and evangelism as people of faith,” Kurt says. “As they reflect on their experiences through our guidance, we want them to return to the U.S.A. prepared to lead the church in working for God’s shalom throughout the global community.”

Preparing young people for service in the PC(USA) is a hallmark of the YAV program. Approximately one-third of YAV alums go to seminary to prepare for church-related vocations. Many others serve the church as deacons, elders, youth leaders, and church school teachers.

YAVs who serve with Hyeyoung and Kurt benefit from the perspectives the couple bring to the program. As a onetime YAV, Kurt knows firsthand the formative influence YAV service can have on young people. Hyeyoung, a South Korea native, interprets Korean society to the YAVs and helps them bridge the cultural divide.

For Hyeyoung and Kurt, the call to a church vocation came early in life. Hyeyoung was a college sophomore serving as a missionary intern in the Philippines when she sensed God calling her to ministry. In the Philippines, she saw missionaries serving poor and oppressed people “with humble attitudes and loving hearts to let them know that they are children of God.” Such actions, she says, are consistent with the ministry of Jesus, an example she seeks to imitate. “I want to follow the path of Jesus Christ, who is my Savior,” she says. “To come closer to God, I believe serving the oppressed and vulnerable populations is my calling and will broaden my eyes and heart to see the Kingdom of God in this world.”

Kurt’s call to ministry came when he was a 15-year-old member of a church youth group that modeled unconditional acceptance of diverse people and regarded differences as “gifts from God.” He explains, “I realized I wanted to be that kind of nurturing presence for others who are outcasts, or who are different from me, showing them that they belong and are valued for their differences.” That desire to bear witness to God’s generous welcome guided him to pursue study in other countries and helped him hear God’s call to enter mission service first as a YAV and now as a mission co-worker.

After his YAV experience, Kurt entered McCormick Theological Seminary’s Master of Divinity program to prepare for vocational ministry. In addition to his degree from McCormick, he holds an undergraduate degree from Austin College in Sherman, Texas.

Before his appointment as a mission co-worker, Kurt was director and campus minister of Agape House Campus Ministry at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a member of the Chicago Presbytery.

Hyeyoung holds a Master of Divinity from McCormick as well as a Master of Social Work from the University of Chicago. She received an undergraduate degree from Youngnam Theological College and Seminary in South Korea.
Prior to entering mission service, Hyeyoung was director of programs for Korean American Women in Need in Chicago and an adjunct professor at Northeastern Illinois University, where she taught social welfare policy.

Hyeyoung is a member of Lake View Presbyterian Church in Chicago, a congregation that Kurt served as a parish associate.

Micah 6:8 serves as a guiding passage for Kurt’s and Hyeyoung’s ministries. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”