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Korea YAVs share highlights from their year of service

Compassion and kindness help bridge the language gap

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

Young Adult Volunteer Susannah Stubbs (left) joins students in prayer before beginning their third day of a four-day hike to the highest point of Jirisan National Park in South Korea. (Photo courtesy of Susannah Stubbs)

Living in intentional Christian community looks different this year for Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs) in South Korea. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s two Korea YAVs — Susannah Stubbs and Amanda Kirkscey — are living in a school dormitory and a church guest house instead of the previous site model where they lived together, next door to the YAV site coordinator.

“Korea YAVs are exploring intentional Christian community alongside the Korean partners with whom they are living and working this year,” said Hyeyoung Lee, YAV site coordinator in South Korea. “This way, YAVs will rely upon their partners as guides and teachers from whom they will learn about life in Korea.”

Lee said the YAVs will learn much from their partners through community immersion, from simple things such as where to buy city-approved trash bags to understanding what it means to live in one of two countries divided in 1945.

The new form of intentional Christian community means YAVs will need to be more proactive in asking questions of their Korean partners, Lee said, and learning from their newly adopted community. Ministry partners are also becoming more active partners with the YAV program in Korea as a result of this new housing model.

Young Adult Volunteer Susannah Stubbs earned her bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. Stubbs, who is also a singer-songwriter, sees writing as a tool to help people claim their own stories and develop understanding and compassion for the stories of others. Read more on her YAV blog.

Stubbs teaches conversational English classes at Late Spring Moon Ik-hwan School near Gangjin in South Jeolla Province, and takes part in farming activities, tea ceremonies, yoga, cooking, weaving and pungmul, traditional Korean drumming.

“Pungmul class with the first-year students has been one of my favorite activities,” Stubbs said. “It’s incredibly loud and electrifying and fun, and a great way to practice listening and working as a team.” She has enjoyed playing guitar and singing with the other students during a monthly talent show, “Monday Live.” Seeing the students use their gifts through pungmul routines, choreographed dances and songs — and some seriously impressive rapping — have been a few of the highlights of her year of service in South Korea, Stubbs said.

Recently Stubbs joined some of the third-year students at Late Spring School on their end-of-year journey to climb the highest peak at Jirisan National Park in South Korea. The teacher, 11 students and Stubbs had all completed shorter hikes to prepare for this four-day trek of more than 23 miles.

Student sbegin a four-day trek to the top of the first national park in South Korea. (Photo courtesy of Susannah Stubbs)

In order to advance to the next grade after winter break, the students were required to complete the entire Jirisan course, as well as additional reflections and a presentation. Despite anxiety, upset stomach and the huge physical challenge before them, the 13 adventurers communicated in a mixture of Korean and English as they bonded over the shared aches in their legs. The language barrier causes Stubbs to pay closer attention to the intricacies of personalities and mannerisms in a way she had not done before, she said.

When the team cooked dinner, they made Stubbs rice porridge, kind of like oatmeal, to settle her stomach. A couple of the students taught her a new card game.

“We always climb in a single-file line,” Stubbs said. If anyone lags behind, hikers ahead stop and wait, or apply gentle pressure to the lagging hiker’s backpack. Although somewhat humiliating, Stubbs said she can’t deny the extra push made her feel lighter and go a little faster. Fellow hikers from other groups also showed kindness to the students, giving each a chocolate bar at one point.

Susannah Stubbs (center) and the third-year students and teacher from Late Spring Moon Ik-hwan School were excited to finally reach the tallest peak at Jirisan National Park. Despite the cold temperatures and wind at the top, the view was worth it, they said. (Photo courtesy of Susannah Stubbs)

“Getting to be part of the community at Late Spring School has been great,” Stubbs said. “The nature is beautiful, and the community is beautiful, too — it’s founded on the ideas of the Rev. Moon Ik-Hwan, who fought long and hard for the reunification of Korea.”

Stubbs cares deeply about social justice and learning how to make the world a more sustainable, peaceful and accepting place.

“One of the most impactful and difficult experiences was visiting a museum dedicated to telling the story of the women (sometimes called ‘comfort women’) who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military before and during World War II,” Stubbs said. The YAVs attended a demonstration in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. These demonstrations, held every Wednesday since sometime in 1992, demand that the Japanese government formally acknowledge and make reparations for military sexual slavery.

“It was so powerful,” Stubbs said. “After hearing such devastating stories and seeing so much heartbreaking evidence, to be welcomed in to sit with people of all ages and join them in calling for justice” was appreciated.

Amanda Kirkscey, a YAV in South Korea (2019–20), helps serve lunch to about 100 elderly people in the community each day. (Photo courtesy of Amanda Kirkscey)

Amanda Kirkscey, a graduate of Texas A&M University with a degree in marketing, previously served two years as a Global Mission Fellow in Frankfurt, Germany prior to her YAV year of service in South Korea. Her mantra for the past several years has been “Love God. Love People. Serve the World.” She is passionate about human rights and spreading the love of God through relationships.

The Korean-English language differences are a challenge, yet Kirkscey is learning ways to communicate with others at Jumin Church and in her work placement at the Welfare Center. Each day the meal team provides small, generous, compassionate acts of service, like serving lunch to about 100 elderly people in the community.

“Part of the YAV program is ‘Embracing the Ambiguity,’” Kirkscey recently wrote in her blog, “At first, I thought this meant not having a set schedule, not being told where you’re going when you get in a car, not understanding instructions.”

More importantly, she wrote, it also means “being open and engaging. Trying. Allowing your actions to speak for themselves and trusting that other people have good intentions behind their actions as well.”

Some days, she says she feels somewhat like a toddler. “You know how when you are eating with a toddler, and you just kind of take their plate, cut up their food and hand it back to them without comment? Maybe you don’t even break your conversation with the rest of the table. It’s just a habit, part of the meal process when a 3-year-old is present,” Kirkscey said.

During a churchwide retreat, YAV Amanda Kirkscey (center) enjoys small group time with other young adults from Jumin Church in South Korea. (Photo courtesy of Amanda Kirkscey)

Thus far in the YAV journey, not being in control of the narrative is one takeaway, she writes. “So, I might feel like a toddler some days, but I have to trust that people around me are trying their best, and that they know I am too.”

Give to the Pentecost Offering to continue the valuable work of the Young Adult Volunteer Program.

A year of service for a lifetime of change

If you know young people (ages 19-30) discerning next steps, tell them about the ecumenical, faith-based Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program.

YAV application deadlines
January 1 —  All sites available (early placement)

March 1 —  Most sites available (final date to apply for international sites)

June 1 —  National sites only (limited spots available)

Visit to learn more and apply. Consider making  a gift to support the YAV program through the churchwide Pentecost Offering or online at

Hyeyoung Lee serves as the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) site coordinator in Korea. Her goal is to help the YAVs have a clear sense of their call to promote social justice, reconciliation and evangelism as people of faith and to prepare them to lead the church in working for God’s shalom throughout the global community. As YAVs, young adults live in community with Korean partners working to dismantle poverty through ministries of education, peacemaking and justice-seeking. Hyeyoung’s husband, the Rev. Kurt Esslinger, works with the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK) and their Reconciliation and Unification Department. The NCCK maintains a relationship with the Korean Christian Federation (KCF) — the PC(USA)’s partner in North Korea — while advocating for reconciliation among the ideological conflicts on the Korean peninsula and around the world.



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