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Korean Travel Study Seminar worships with Seoul congregations, visits partners

Dialog with PROK, NCCK and PCK officers highlights international connections

by Gregg Brekke | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Traditional Korean music, played here on a kayagum, is a unique feature of worship at Hyanglin Church, PROK. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

SEOUL — Participants in the 2018 Presbyterian Peacemaking Travel Study Seminar in Korea received warm welcomes at two local congregations Nov. 11.

Churches from Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) partner denominations in Korea — Hyanglin Church, a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK) and Nahjeun Yesu Maeul (Humble Jesus Village) Church, a congregation of the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PCK) — hosted group members during Sunday morning worship.

Hyanglin Church is known for its use of traditional Korean instruments and music in worship. A sermon highlighting the justice needs of workers, made all the more pertinent in light of a recent tenement fire that killed seven garment workers, and special prayers and music were offered seeking justice for laborers who work in unjust conditions for substandard pay.

The congregation recognized visitors including Carl E. Horton, coordinator for mission with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, and mission co-worker Kurt Esslinger.

“It was beautiful music — engaging music,” said Horton. “I’m not that great with Korean language, so it was harder to engage with the sermon as a proclaimed word, but the word in song was beautiful. And we were welcomed with great hospitality. It was a great morning and the worship continued at a bridge with an outdoor worship service to commemorate a worker, and celebrate this individual, who moved Korea toward workers’ rights.”

Kirk Perucca, pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Missouri, visited Nahjeun Yesu Maeul Church along with mission co-worker Hyeyoung Lee. He called the experience “remarkable” in how Presbyterian it felt.

“I felt very much at home and it felt like a traditional Presbyterian service,” he said. “Even though the liturgy was in Korean, the congregation was really helpful in translating to English and made us feel very much at home. So I felt the congregation could have been a church in the U.S. except for the language. And clearly the warmth of the welcome was really beautiful.”

On Monday, Study Seminar participants had conversations with representatives from the national offices of the PROK and PCK as well as the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK.)

The Rev. Sungkook Park, Executive Secretary for the Partnership and Ecumenical Relations at the PROK, spoke to the group about the denomination’s focus on justice concerns on the peninsula, finding solidarity with the people of Jeju Island, worker justice and other marginalized groups. He also expressed solidarity with the PC(USA) as the Korean church — once a region with explosive church growth — also finds itself struggling to attract young people.

In conversation with the PCK, the Rev. Kyong Gyun Han, Ecumenical Officer for the denomination, said many of the older generation of Koreans haven’t overcome the “red complex” promulgated during the Civil War, what Americans call the Korean War.

In also addressing the need to attract new members with a new message, Han, who was present at the 2018 General Assembly of the PC(USA), lamented, “The younger generation has a place to voice its views. But this generation finds that shut down by older people in the church.”

Rather than retreat, Han believes this realization is “an opportunity to reflect on what the true gospel is — something is critical here, and I wonder if it’s an opportunity for us.”

A dialog with the Rev. Hey-min Roh of the NCCK explored the ecumenical group’s work in Korean social justice concerns and in efforts at creating dialog around the issue of reunification of the Korean peninsula. Delving into the complexity of sentiment by Korean Christians, Roh explained the hurt and resistance many people feel toward reunification — having experienced expulsion or persecution when the country went to war in 1950.

Still, others within the Christian community are eager to explore reunification and welcome a united Korea. And progress has been made in the form of a joint prayer statement between the World Council of Churches, the NCCK and the Korean Christian Federation of North Korea, which has been issued every year the week prior to August 15 since 1985.

“It was fascinating to have deep conversations with the leaders of the PCK, PROK and NCCK,” said Perucca. “What I really appreciated was that they all talked about the importance of moving toward reunification and how it needs to be taken in steps. So the first step is to ratify the peace process, and I thought that was really helpful to understand. After that is signed, they say they can talk about ways the country can be in federation and work together toward other goals.”

The Presbyterian Peacemaking 2018 Travel Study Seminar continues through Nov. 16. In the coming days participants will visit the Boarder Peace School and the DMZ, learn about the Peace Treaty Campaign, learn about the massacre at No Gun Ri and continue meeting with representatives of partner churches in the region.

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