Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Sorrow, Lanterns, and Plants

As most people have probably heard by now, South Korea is currently in a state of mourning due to the sinking of the Sewol Ferry. 193 people are dead and 109 are still missing. And the fact is most of them are high school aged students. Most of them spent their last days on Earth studying for college entrance exams. Most of them will never even get to go. South Korea is weeping together. I don't wish to say more about the accident, but if you are the praying type, please remember the families in your prayer. And, if you are not the praying type, take a moment to join with the families in lament.

Yellow Ribbons have become the symbol of mourning, both online and offline.

Impromptu shrine to the Sewol victims at the Dong Du Chon Sharing House

The Children of the Dong Du Chon Sharing house offer their own prayers for their peers.

Another huge event took place this past Saturday. The annual lotus lantern parade. This is an event in celebration of the birth of Buddha. According to Buddhist beliefs, lanterns symbolize wisdom in that they bring light to the world. “Yeondeung,” which means lantern lighting, is an important ritual in Buddhism that pays respect to Buddha.The lanterns are lit and marched through the streets of downtown Seoul to the Jogyesa Temple. In the face of the Sewol disater, the event was more somber than usual and many lanters were adorned with yellow ribbons. Despite this, it was nice to see people gathering together to celebrate in such a beautiful manner.

One of the Four Heavenly Kings who watch over the cardinal directions, who began the parade.

Haechi, a mythical creature who discerns good from evil. He also happens to be the Seoul City mascot. 

The Korean Boy Scouts.

My personal favorite horse lantern.

A group dressed in Yellow for the Sewol Ferry disaster.

Matching Hanbok, the traditional Korean dress. 

 Recently, I have been working twice a week with an after school program for rural children in Dong Du Chon City, about 2 hours North of where I live in Seoul. Today, we worked on and planted the small garden area in the front of our center. We planted "very hot" and "not hot" peppers (we might have struggled with that translation), tomatoes, and lettuce. They all looked so small and fragile next to the big bare expanse of brown dirt they were planted in. It is not a solution, but after the two weeks of grief, it was nice to be planting. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Easter Promise: Peeps and Jesus

(Originally for the YASC Lenten reflection blog)
For the past week, everyday I arrive home at Sungkonghoe University, I get to feeling like I’m all of ten years old. Why? Well, the joy of the Easter promise of course. But not the whole Jesus-Easter-promise. No, no, no. My childlike anxiety is caused by the other Easter promise. The one of Peeps…glorious, fat, yellow, sugary peeps, thanks be to God. In other words, my mother has sent an Easter basket to Korea, and I am desperately awaiting its arrival.

But, in all seriousness, I’m 22 years old and have been living on my own for 5 years now, and my mom has never missed an Easter basket. I hope she knows how much that means. When I was a kid, Easter was my favorite holiday. There was a lot of pain and confusion growing up, and as any child of divorced parents knows, Christmas and like holidays can be complicated. I guess my family wasn’t religious enough for Easter to count as a complicated or sorrowful holiday.

And remember that fake, tacky, plastic Easter grass? I do. I remember one year experiencing an acute feeling of joy when I found the first piece inevitably embedded in the carpet during Holy Week. It meant mom had pulled down the basket and the peeps were on their final march to my belly.

No matter what the situation. No matter the stress, the loss, or the terrible fights that would pass between my mom and me. The Peeps would come, like a bright sprinkle covered ray of sunshine. More often than not, they would not arrive into a perfect household. The Peeps, throughout the years marched through death, divorce, depression, and now, thousands of miles. They never solved problems, but when the world feels like it has been pulled out from underneath you, the smallest consistency becomes very dear. And perhaps the best thing about Peeps is that they are always the same. They taste the exact same way now as they did when I was 9.
And the way I have come to love Peeps, is so much like the way I love the Jesus that is presented to us during Holy Week. The Readings for today come passion and during this time, Jesus and his disciples will be thrown into the midst of despair. In the period of just a few days they will experience the betrayal of a friend, the death of a teacher, persecution by the government, self-doubt, the death of a son, a complete change in their world order, and even in case of Jesus, his own death. And it is a painful death; one that even he is his wisdom is scared of.

Take a moment, as lent closes to remember the pain in your own life. Reflect on those moments when it felt like God had abandoned you. And then try reflecting on the last days of Jesus’ life. Jesus is not outside of or above human suffering. He experiences it all with us. When his friend dies, he weeps. And he does not offer any explanation. He does not step away and explain that it is a blessing in disguise. He does not believe that it will simply get better. Jesus manufactures no coping mechanism for his disciples.

But He remains with them. Constantly.

There is misery in life. We feel it. And we are reminded of some of it’s forms throughout Holy Week. But Jesus is there with us in our sufferings. Understanding what we feel. He does not magically remove our pain, or reveal God’s plan. But he walks with us.

And likewise, the Peeps will come. They are constant and assured. They do not cure anything but they are a part of it all. Every year. No matter what. Their round and empathetic presence reminding me of the promise of next year and the hardship overcome in past years.

Dear God, this year, when we gaze upon Peeps, a wonder of Your creation, help us to remember that there is constancy. Help us to feel the promise Jesus made to be with us in all things human. Open our hearts to You so You may share with us in the sorrows that bear no expression in words, but can only be felt in the human heart. Amen.

*Nota Bene
I wrote this reflection on the train to work this morning. When I arrived home this evening, I discovered the Peeps had successfully completed their journey to Asia.

Party Time

This past Wednesday was a special day at living together, the mentally handicapped ministry where I work twice a week. We took a well deserved break from our normal afternoon of work and had a PARTY! It was a birthday celebration for all the students who had birthdays during the past month. It was nice to take a moment to appreciate one another's company and celebrate the passing of another year. Speaking of which my year here in Korea is flying by. I can't believe it has been almost 8 months since I arrived here and only 4 more until I return home! I hope the passing of this year brings be as much joy as this birthday celebration.
Voting on the celebratory message.

Birthday Wishes

Singing Happy Birthday and watching the cake with great anticipation.

And what Korean party would be complete without a little (or a lot of) Karaoke?

Birthday Boys cutting their cake.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Lazarus and Blossoms

It is spring in Korea. Which means, first of all, there are cherry blossoms and other beautiful flowers everywhere. Second, that I am throwing off the dead rot of winter and feeling life again. It happens every year that I forget that spring will come. And this year in particular has been a real lonely and difficult winter. But Spring will always comes. I know it is a bit too early still for the Easter themed blog I would like to write. But the Gospel lesson this past Sunday was the story of Lazarus rising from the dead, so our minds are already on resurrection. I hope that this spring joy to you as it has already begun to do for me. To help you along, here are pictures of the flowers and pictures of my Sunday school students being toilet paper Lazarus. I say it's to help them remember the story, but really it's because I always opt for what will be the most fun for me.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


 Chogokbo is a traditional Korean art form. It is the creation of a piece of clothing or decoration by sewing together scraps of discarded material. Though it is similar to what we might think of as a patchwork quilt, there is a very different design principle. In patchwork, the clashing of the quilt is exalted. Though a pattern is formed, the quilt in no way tries to hide the fact that it is created from a wide variety of fabrics. But when a chogokbo is made, the idea is to really and truly gather the pieces into one, to create a continuous design. One seeks to remove the historical borders between various pieces of fabric. It is also said that a chogokbo is not merely a piece of cloth, but is also the life history of the woman who made it. Traditionally, working class women made the chogokbo by collecting scraps of fabric left over from their employers. Often times, it would take them many years to collect enough pieces to make a garment. By this time, their collection would show their own history, where they had been, who they had worked for, and what they had done, all indicated by the kinds of scraps collected. It is also extremely easy to date a chogokbo based on the fashion of the period. This chogokbo comes to represent an individual woman, as well as the historical context that made her. This story is considered to be the most beautiful part of the chogokbo.

Chogokbo is also the name of an organization that I work for here in Korea. They are a women’s group that began by providing material resources for refugees from North Korea. Here in South Korea, people from North Korea are able to gain citizenship and a number of government resources simply by coming into the country. This process, however, is much more complicated than it seems. These citizens are not legally allowed to leave North Korea. Many of them escape to China on a work visa and remain there illegally for many years until they can afford to safely travel to South Korea. This move also means coming to terms with the isolation. Once they have left the North, there will likely be no more contact with the people they leave behind.

Chogokbo started as a way to provide job training and financial support for such women. Slowly but surely, in addition to providing these resources, the headquarters began to resemble a clubhouse. This is when the director realized the need not just for financial resources, but for a place where people could get together and be themselves, cooking, eating, drinking, singing, joking, sharing life’s troubles, and their own personal stories and histories. Hence the organization took on life as chogokbo. The idea was no longer to simply provide material support, or scraps of fabric, but to create a complete picture of each woman, a chogokbo. Further, the organization has become a place for the Korean diasporas to join together in a chogokbo of their own.

The organization consists of women from North Korea, South Korea, and Korean Chinese, as well as Koreans living permanently overseas. Yet, the sense I get overwhelmingly from talking to these women is that no matter how different their upbringings were, they feel that their history is shared. They all want to know more about one another and about themselves.

An average meeting at chogokbo goes something like this. First of all, we eat. And boy do we eat. And it is loud, and funny. Everyone pitches in and brings something. Everyone does dishes but refuses to let anyone do their own dishes. Every Wednesday is like a big Thanksgiving family dinner. People laughing and telling stories. Gossiping. Lots of gossip. Finally things settle down a bit. And the dinner is put away and replaced with “snacks”, or in my view, second dinner to be eaten at more or less non stop for the next couple of hours. Then the talk begins. It starts generally with a short lecture. Or someone telling their own personal story. After this, there is a question period and a time for anyone else to share their own stories. These can be anything. I know at first I expected it to be week after week of sad serious stories and nothing else. And while the history that is pieced together here is true, and there are many sad parts to it, the women move from lightest jest to most serious discussion with ease. A debates on cultural differences was ended this week when a woman from the North told about men there not helping out women with heavy work and generally not being chivalrous. She told about how shocked she was when she got to the South and men pulled out chairs for her and carried their girlfriend’s bags. But she concluded, after a few weeks in Korea she realized how rare it was and decided that men everywhere were the same. An older woman piped up to say the only difference was South Korean men had taken up chivalry as a way to get women to bed. There was a great deal of laughter. Then the beer was passed around. And the conversation fell to Korean industrial workers in China and finally ended with the most important Korean discussion of who was getting married. These meetings find their finality when it gets a little late and the group gets jolly enough to start making music. One woman is particularly skilled at Korean folk music and is pestered to sing for us. She pretends to hate it. After the singalong, people hug and slowly make their ways home.

At first these meetings confused me. I loved them. I thought they were very important for the women and for the community. But one thing confused me. Chogokbo called themselves a peace organization. And while even after 6 months of doing “peace work”, what it means is still very vague to me, I never imagined it as a meeting of the chogokbo social club. So I asked the women, why they thought it was a peace organization. Their answer was simple and profound. They said that so much of the policy and reunification work that the government undertakes, specifically the South Korea side, is based on the idea that they know the North Koreans. But for years there has been so little contact and so much prejudice and propaganda. The idea of what North Korea is like and more importantly, how the people think is a much more complicated and beautiful story. So in policy meetings, misunderstandings abound, they say the government tends to forget that they have developed a separate culture over the last 60 years. They believe that in the policy suggested, it is clear that the government is assuming everyone is thinking the same way. They believe the best way to fix this problem, to develop peaceful policy has a simple root, getting to know one another. And the informal and loving environment that chogokbo offers is how you get to know someone. Hard debates and silly jokes, Northern and Southern, Young and Old, food, and music and stories, these are the scraps that are sown together to form a more complete whole. These women with the honest vulnerability of friends are seeking to make a great and peaceful chogokbo.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


 “It’s like Prison.
“No, it’s like family.”
“Ok, it’s like being in prison with your family.”

When I first arrived in Korea, this is the way the seminary community that I would be living in was described to me.

Well, time moves fast and a number of the wonderful folks who have supported me over the past six months are on their way to begin their ministry in the world. I hope they know that I am incredibly thankful for accepting me into their community. I wish them the best of luck and offer prayers that they work as much good in the world as their kindness as worked on me.

Here are photos of the graduation ceremony. 
First of all, there is this guy. I think he would rather be anywhere in the entire world than at this graduation ceremony. Luckily, his sister gave him a hearty slap to wake him up/encourage him. Also, pictured are the bouquets which are commonly given to the graduates, male and female. The streets from the Subway to the School were lined with people haggling over bouquets in true Korean fashion.

The seminarians who were graduating from behind during the large ceremony.

The priest from Myanmar who stayed with us during the semester to work on his dissertation receiving his P.h.D.  Or has he would say, "Finally", receiving his P.h.D.
This is a picture of the large graduation ceremony for everyone at the university. During this brief and simple ceremony one representative from each department goes on stage to collect the diplomas for the entire department. Later they distribute them at at smaller and more personal ceremony.
For the smaller ceremony, we naturally got the run of the University Chapel. Here the six graduates are actually receiving their diplomas.
Family was an important part of the ceremony. During the ceremony, all the teachers made speeches, the graduates made speeches, the families were introduced, and then the families said their congratulations.
The little gal in the front is the daughter of one of the graduates and simply had to be a part of the fun. Behind her are the graduates and department heads.
And then came the photos. Like a million photos. Group photos, individual photos, and every paring of two or three photos. Just happy to know that my inability to take an appropriate photo transcends cultural bounds.
Finally our graduates and the president of the seminary. Good luck guys!