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Connecting Korea’s past and present for the future of mission

‘Korean-English Dictionary of Presbyterian Missionaries in Korea 1884-2020’ highlights the contributions of 1,000 mission workers

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

Yen Hee and Choon Lim (center)  traveled to the Presbyterian Historical Society to do research for a new book on Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission work in Korea. Here they’re pictured with friends they met there.  (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Bridging the division in Korea through reunification is a dream of many. Another dream has been to compile the history of mission workers of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and partner churches in Korea from 1884 to the present. This connection of past and present mission workers in Korea by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and partner churches in Korea has become reality in the publication of the first “Korean-English Dictionary of Presbyterian Missionaries in Korea 1884-2020,” published March 27 in Korean.

In Korean, the title is 미국장로교 내한 선교사 총람 1884–2020.

This book chronicles who came to Korea and what they did as Presbyterian missionaries in Korea over the past 136 years. It highlights about 1,000 Presbyterian missionaries, beginning with Dr. Horace Newton Allen and Frances Ann Allen, who arrived in 1884 as Korea’s first Protestant missionaries. It continues through the decades to mission co-workers Kurt Esslinger and Hyeyoung Lee, who are serving today.

There are two main sections in the book. The first lists missionaries’ names alphabetically, along with brief biographical information. The second lists the missionaries according to the year they arrived in Korea.

The idea to produce a historic compilation of mission workers in Korea had been on the mind and heart of the Rev. Choon Lim, World Mission’s regional liaison for East Asia, since he and his wife, Yen Hee Lim, began their third mission appointment in 2012, serving in Seoul, South Korea.

Since their appointment as PC(USA) mission co-workers in 1991, Choon has been the chief relational bridge connecting global partners in South Korea, North Korea, Hong Kong, China, Japan and Taiwan with the PC(USA), while Yen Hee is engaged in ministry through the home.

Prior to their appointment, Choon was a respiratory therapist at Indiana University Hospital for seven years before becoming a minister, and Yen Hee, a graduate of Seoul Nursing College, has worked at hospitals in the U.S. and Korea. In their first mission appointment, the Lims served for six years aboard the medical ship “Salvation” off the coast of South Korea at the invitation of the Presbyterian Church of Korea’s Island Medical Mission. In 1997, their second mission appointment took them to Taiwan to develop a ministry among aboriginal college students in Hualien, alongside the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan.

Over the years, many Korean Presbyterians have wanted to learn more about their Christian ancestors, often asking the Lims about the life and work of missionaries in relation to their own congregations, institutions and organizations. Until now there was no such official guidebook in Korea.

Choon Lim’s now complete yearlong book project began several years ago with the idea to compile a historic account of mission work in Korea. Lim will retire at the end of the year after 30 years of mission service. (Contributed photo)

“The major problem we confronted in completing this project was deciding who to include in this book,” Choon recently wrote in a letter to mission supporters. “Many Presbyterians came to Korea as missionaries. They were sent by local churches or institutions for different reasons. We decided to include only those who were sent by the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly.”

The merger of northern and southern branches of the church to create the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1983 also made it challenging to find out who belonged to which denomination, Choon said.

The Lims asked Young-gun Choi, a professor at Hannam University, to travel to the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia to assist with the necessary research. He spent one week gathering information, but he was unable to complete the task in that amount of time. Finally, the Lims spent a full week at the Presbyterian Historical Society last August to complete the research.

“Before our visit, we emailed them about our purpose for coming. When we arrived and started to read the wealth of stories of former missionaries, our hearts were touched. We saw their dedication and hard work to spread the Good News to Chinese and Korean people by word and deed. Reading these moving stories gave us the energy to continue our research for seven days, beginning at 9 a.m. and staying on until the building closed. Each evening when we left, our eyes were red and our bodies exhausted — yet the next morning we couldn’t wait to read more stories of mission work,” Yen Hee said.

Yen Hee and Choon Lim celebrate completion of the first “Korean-English Dictionary of Presbyterian Missionaries in Korea,” covering 136 years of mission in Korea from 1884 to 2020. (Contributed photo)

Many times while gathering information about the former missionaries, Choon couldn’t stop crying, Yen Hee said, “Those who came to Korea in the early years sacrificed their lives to spread the gospels’ Good News to the Korean people, as the living conditions in Korea at that time were very poor,” she said. “They had to face all kinds of diseases and had to learn the difficult Korean language.”

Choon Lim founded the Korean Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis, Ind., which began in the Lims’ home. Choon became a deacon, elder, pastor and a mission co-worker of PC(USA) to Korea and Taiwan. After serving World Mission for 30 years, he will retire at the end of 2020.

The timing of the publication of the book, during the COVID-19 pandemic, is a reminder of the importance of staying connected, the Lims said. Remembering how you became a Christian is essential in the Christian faith and in life. Often, they said, finding your Christian roots can give you strong faith to persevere during the difficult times of life.

While completing research at the Presbyterian Historical Society, the Lims found many fascinating and inspiring stories of mission, but one particular story touched them most. It was the journey of the Rev. Dr. Reuben Archer Torrey Jr. of Minneapolis, Minn., who served with his wife Janet Slade Mallary Torrey for 45 years in China and Korea, retiring in 1958. The Lims discovered that their decades of fruitful service for Christ could be divided into three major periods:

The first period: 1913–1941, until the Torreys and their youngest son were interned by the Japanese during World War II. During this period, the richness of his gifts became increasingly evident as he gave himself unsparingly to the spiritual and physical needs of the Chinese people whom he loved so deeply. In addition to constant itineration to the villages, sound Bible instruction, the organization of new churches and the training of pastors and lay evangelists, Torrey looked for ways to revive the poor and uplift the destitute. Improvements in agriculture, economic uplift and effective famine relief programs were conceived, organized and administered by God’s servant.

The second period: From World War II until missionaries were forced to evacuate China because of the communist conquest of the country in 1949: “This time was marked by the years of his increasing administrative labors. Repatriated to the U.S. after Japanese internment, Rev. Torrey returned to China to serve as a liaison officer between the Chinese and U.S. military forces. During that time, an army truck in which he was riding had an accident and his right arm was crushed. His companions drove him eight miles to an aid station and then flew him 400 miles to a hospital. There, doctors amputated his right arm. This great personal loss and the suffering which he experienced proved to be the seed which was to bear glorious fruit. He said, “I knew I’d face life maimed, but I knew the Lord still had work for me to do.”

The third period: 1952 to 1958, the closing years of The Torreys’ ministry in Korea, marked the climax of Rev. Torrey’s missionary career. At age 65, he responded to the call to do something in the name of Christ for the thousands of destitute Koreans who were maimed during the Korean War. The Torreys went to Korea, where he organized and directed the Taejon Amputee Rehabilitation Project. During these six years, over 4,500 Korean amputees were rehabilitated, not only physically and economically, but in a large majority of cases, spiritually.

Choon said, “The Church of Christ in Korea is richer and stronger today because one day in the far west of China, God’s servant, viewing his mangled arm, looked up in an agony of suffering and said to God, ‘All things do work together for good to those who love the Lord (Romans 8:28).’”

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