Thoughts from Korea – Part 1

I recently came back from my second trip to China and Korea in 3 years. It was interesting being back because of the different kinds of observations and thoughts I had. With 3 more years of life experience and perspective behind me, I was more able to process the things I saw from a wider perspective. For instance, having lived in a big city like New York for almost 2 years, I can better put the consumerism and excess of Seoul into perspective. Stay tuned for that post.

But first, a post on the most moving of my experiences in Korea.

I visited Yanghwajin Foreigners’ Cemetery during my time in Seoul, with my father and brother and one of my father’s old friends during his childhood in Korea. It was a deeply humbling and challenging experience.

It isn’t a big plot of land, but unlike most cemeteries, where it’s difficult to know the stories of the people buried there, there was plenty on the grave markers (not to mention metal museum plaques erected with further explanations) to tell the stories of the people buried there.

I read a pair of grave markers, one of Floyd Williams (1923-1974), a US Army Sergeant who fought in both WWII and the Korean War. On his grave marker was a quote from his wife, Kum Ok Williams: “Though he were dead, yet shall he live. ‘We love you.'” And beside it was the grave marker for his wife, who was laid to rest in 1995, whose marker was entirely in Korean. There was something about seeing both English and Korean markers, knowing that a man and a woman from two very different cultures, at a time when mixed marriages was uncommon, shared their lives in marriage in service not only to their respective countries, but to God (there were also crosses).

Another like this was a shared grave marker of another couple, this time a white woman and a Korean man. Agnes Davis Kim, born December 29, 1900 in Chillicothe, Ohio, USA, died December 29, 1980 in Seoul, Korea. David Chu-hwang Kim, born July 1, 1899 in Chongju, Korea, died March 16, 1986 in Seoul, Korea. Married October 2, 1934, with this quote underneath: “Companionship so rich that life is blessed.” I was humbled that this woman, who grew up in a cozy midwestern town in America, felt God’s call to go to a foreign land, which at the time was a poor, Third World country, and share her life with the Korean people, and even enjoy over 50 years of marriage with a Korean man. Equally as moving was the fact that she died and chose to be buried in Korea, where her heart was. There were many grave markers like this, of children with American last names born in Seoul or even Pyongyang (it’s crazy to think about how revival in Korea happened in Pyongyang before WWII), and who spent their whole lives in Korea and died in and were also buried in Korea. Like William Hamilton Shaw, who was born in “Pyeng Yang Korea” in 1922 and died in Seoul in 1950. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13” Just 28 years old.

Shaw and many others died young, like the first missionary nurse sent to Korea by the US Presbyterian Church, Anna Jacobsen, whose grave marker reads: “MISSIONARY / SEOUL / DIED JANY. 20TH 1897 / AGED 29 YEARS”. The plaque said this: “Jacobson worked to actively combat cholera which spread soon after she came to Korea. She served as a professor of nursing…and particularly loved Korean children. She is recorded as having said ‘I have now come to like all Korean children. I would be happy if the children would feel close to me and not think of me as someone to fear.'” She succumbed to dysentery. Just 29…

Most sobering was the plot at the corner of the cemetery with tiny tombstones for the infants. Markers that read simply “STARK / Baby Girl” or “Ladner . Infant / 63.2.9 – 63.2.9”. So many had birth and death dates that were the same day. It was heartbreaking.

And then there was the Underwood family. Horace Underwood was the first Protestant (and Presbyterian) missionary to Korea in the late 1800s. He founded Yonsei University, the Bible Society, the YMCA, and the Christian Literature Society, as well as a church. Four rows of grave markers rested in front of the prominent Underwood memorial plaque, standing for the four generations of Underwoods that loved Korea and served the Korean people. It was a huge challenge to all of us, especially considering the fact that Andrew and I are the third generation in our family to believe. It made me feel a burden to pray for the fourth generation, that God would mercifully preserve our children as He so mercifully showed grace to my grandparents, my parents, and finally, us. It was truly humbling to realize that if it wasn’t for Underwood and the many missionaries who faithfully endured hardship and suffering to bring God’s love to Korea, I wouldn’t be a Christian today. How much we owe to these faithful servants!

And to think that, in the world’s eyes, these lives don’t mean much. While Seoul’s sprawl continues its relentless expansion and its young urbanites indulge in materialism and revel in prosperity, these grave markers lie in silence. But how precious in God’s sight were these lives! How precious these people who laid down their very lives for the sake of the gospel.

Seeing the four generations of the Underwood family also made me think more about the decline of faith in Korea. The young generation in Korea today has departed far from the faith of the first believers. It really is in the span of 40-60 years, three generations or less, from the Korean War to today, that the fire of faith has fizzled out (more on this in a later post). There’s a saying that the first generation believes the gospel, the second generation assumes the gospel, and the third generation forgets the gospel. Very few of my second cousins, if any, are Christians, much less strong, faithful believers. I also see how this has played out in my “closer” extended family in America, my grandfather’s children and grandchildren. I thought all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins were Christians when I was a kid, seeing our family have full-on worship services during family gatherings on New Year’s Day. But as I grew older, I could begin to tell from people’s tired faces and impatient restlessness and lifeless (or nonexistent) mouthing of hymn lyrics that there was no faith. Just empty, once-a-year religious tradition. My grandparents have been so steadfast in the faith. But my father’s fervent faith is the exception among the second generation. The third generation doesn’t even go to church anymore. We have forgotten the gospel.

Why me? Why my family? It is only God’s grace that has kept us from going the way of our relatives. I pray and pray that the fourth generation, the generation my brother and I will bear as our responsibility, would receive the gospel with faith and would live out their lives in grateful service to the kingdom.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by David Choi on June 9, 2012 at 2:09 PM

    Awesome thoughful post, Sam. It reminds me of the song Legacy. “I want to leave a legacy. How will they remember me?” What sort of legacy will we and the future generations of our family leave? As you suggest, it has to be a prayer topic for all of us.

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