Praying in Mother’s Language
Why It’s Important to Worship God in Multiple Languages
by Samuel Son
The gospel song, 나의 반석이신 하나님 (naui banseogisin hananim/Ascribe Greatness to Our God), sung in the closing worship service of the National Caucus of Korean Presbyterian Churches (NCKPC) annual meeting excavated my soul, loosening memory and longing of a loving Mother-God who restores my childhood trust and ensuing joy.
Korean words reach places English words cannot, but it shames me to say that there was a time when I was ashamed of Korean gospel songs, Koreans singing them, and even the Korean language. When I was twelve, my grandfather came to live with us in Flushing, New York. He demanded we learn the Korean language and sent us off to Saturday Korean school. I came back with manga drawings. I didn’t like the sound of the Korean language. It sounded foreign to my English immersed ear.
No one taught me to dismiss the Korean language. But I heard it in racial slurs conflating all Asians to “Chinks with slanted eyes.” I caught it in my ESL class when my teacher tried to fix my tongue to distinguish the “r” from the “l.” Removing my Korean accent speedily, I understood, was to my advantage. I saw it even in the most cosmopolitan and progressive adults whose eyes would float to other things when my mother tried to explain her frustration by mixing some Korean into her broken English.
You internalize more than your mind can filter, especially a young mind. So I learned that anything in English is simply better. Philosophy in English is more profound. Science in English is more true. Poetry in English is more beautiful. Sermons in English are more the Word of God than the second-rate Korean preachings. Gospel songs in English are more spiritual.
I was prejudiced against my own culture. When my mother took me shopping at Macy’s as a child, I would wander few paces behind her because I didn’t want to be caught with her when she began haggling on price while butchering the English. Even now, when I see a Korean senior, it takes me a second to catch myself worrying about what they will say in public. Though older, with more tightly woven critical filters and knowing how power distorts cultural valuation, my default setting is firmly set against my own culture. I have to unlearn prejudices constantly, even the ones I unlearned just a day ago.
But during this NCKPC worship service, I was momentarily free of the prejudices. I realized how the Korean language, in which my mother sang her lullabies and hymns, have always been the bedrock of my identity. It was the language in which I said 엄마 (eomma/mom) and 아빠 (appa/dad), the first words that a child uses to identify the other as distinct from the self. These are the words that give the world to the child, and thus the child to him/herself. Perhaps I was freed of my prejudice because the people I saw for three days in the hotel were Koreans: people born in the same sea of culture, inheritors of a language that carried a people’s history and mode of being. In this conference, Koreans were the majority, I was not working out of “double consciousness.”
After the sermon, the gathered Korean pastors and elders prayed out loud in 통송기도/tongsonggido. They launched into prayer by calling out on the Lord three times: 주여! 주여! 주여! (juyeo/Lord)! I could never pray like that. It used to sound manipulative to me. Now, I hear it differently. It is liturgy: “Hear our prayers,” only louder. And like any liturgy, done badly it is inert and restricting. When done well it is freeing and uniting. That is what I hear as the sanctuary fills with the cascading yearning of my fathers and mothers, a yearning for more of God in the world, in the global church, in our denomination. And in their final prayer, they are imploring God to mend what was torn, to make two Koreas into one family again.
The wounds of being minoritized can become the beginning of prophetic sensitivity. One develops critical eyes to anyone claiming the center. One learns that there is no center. Like a circle created when people lock arms, a wobbly but workable balance can be created without any need for the center. But those who are of the majority culture, who never take time to sit in other cultures, to learn another language, can be blind. They can be blind too to their own culture — which is more tragic. Because they cannot see themselves they believe themselves to be center. Hubris is a symptom of blindness. If we only worship in a single culture and language, I’m afraid we would never know when we have usurped Christ with our culture. It would be useless as telling a fish you are in water.
A few years ago, I was driving up to New York from North Carolina to spend Christmas with my parents. I stopped by a gas station and began chatting with an elderly lady behind the counter. She was fragile with wispy white hair, but with fiery eyes. We small talked our way to learn we were both Christians. She told me about some missionary experiences. She told me her son married an Alaskan native girl and how happy she was for them. She doesn’t like whale meat, but hey, she tried. But what bothered her still was that “they” had totem poles in their homes even though they were Christians. And right in front of her, on the counter was Santa Claus bobble heads, smiling with their heads nodding eternally.
Samuel Son is a manger of diversity and reconciliation of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.