Thursday, November 28, 2013

The DMZ

 Hello all,

When I was back home in the U.S. preparing to come to Korea, I was told over and over not to go anywhere near the DMZ. I nodded my head in agreement, thinking, “duh of course I won’t go and they wouldn’t let me anyways”, not really having any idea what the DMZ was like.

About a month ago, I visited the DMZ. I have to say, it was nothing at all like what I was expecting. When I pictured it, it had this 1950s war movie feel to it, a sparse, bombed out track of land with barbed wire fences and North Korea right on the other side. Here are some things you might not know. First of all, it’s huge. The DMZ stretches the width of the peninsula and is about 160 miles long. And North Korea isn't as  close as I expected; the DMZ is a little over 2.5 miles wide. Second, about the whole barbed wire thing, yes, there are indeed parts of the Southern Limit Line (where the DMZ starts) that are cut off with chain link fence and barbed wire. But there is also a large portion of the SLL that is made of gullies and hills topped with what looks like black trash bags. Finally, for it being a bombed out waste land, well it turns out that when you have a strip of land 160X2.5 miles that has been left almost completely alone since 1953, you end up with a beautiful, if accidental, nature preserve. Far from being bombed out, it is really a stunning landscape.
 
The black line on the hill just beyond the telephone poles is where the DMZ starts.





But, I was far more shocked by the way the DMZ felt, the atmosphere of the place and the attitudes of the people visiting. My visit to the DMZ was to work a peace conference of international religious leaders. We arrived at our hotel in Cheorwon, a border city, late at night after a three-hour bus ride from Seoul. Walking into the hotel, I was struck first by the display in the lobby. I was of two fake endangered cranes standing around barbed wire and signs about land mines. In front of the display was a rack of pamphlets about nature preserves, history museums, DMZ day trips, and other destination locations of the border area. “Oh Ok”, I thought, “this is a kind of tourist destination”. Meanwhile I thought of a photo of my best friend and I on vacation at the Rodin museum doing our best “The Thinker” pose and tried to reconcile this with the desolate landscape I imagined of the DMZ. I have to admit I was puzzled. What does the DMZ represent if not pain and suffer, loss and separation? What in the world could make people want to come here for the “family tour” that I saw advertised? Why would people be so drawn to seeing such a terrible place?


This of course led me to a bit of self-reflection. I have to admit, I really wanted to visit the DMZ. I was curious. So, I asked myself, what did I want with visiting this place? For me, I think I just wanted a reality check. I wanted to know that this place was real. Over the last couple of months, North Korea has become more and more real to me, a part of my everyday life. Far from the news stories about the silly-backwards-Communist country I had heard state side. But, even living in Seoul, about 35 miles from the DMZ, it was hard for me to accept that it was a real place. Doing so would mean having to accept the people on the other side were real too. I would have to believe the stories of the people who were on the other side of the line, the people, just 35 miles away, that don’t ride the new metro to work every morning on their Samsung smart phones.

The next afternoon, after spending the morning putting together what felt like a million booklets for the conference, I got on a bus and headed to visit the DMZ observatory. Before we you hit the Southern Limit Line of the DMZ, you have to pass into the Civilian Controlled Zone, an area that is controlled by the South Korean government. They allow only citizens who live in the area and special tour groups to pass through. This means I experienced my first ever, armed military checkpoint. This too was different from my expectation. The checkpoint was a small cinderblock building spray painted to look camouflage. To my surprise, it also sported a smiling cartoon tiger in military fatigues that is the mascot of the army unit assigned to the border. He seemed a touch too cheerful. I was nervous. I felt like I was going to see something sacred and dangerous that I had no right to. A soldier with an automatic rifle boarded our bus. He did a quick headcount and left. Then another soldier came on and counted us. I gave him a kind of shy smile, which he returned. “Good God”, I thought, “He looks so young and a little goofy, and about as nervous as me.” Then the dots connected, I hadn’t met a single man my age since I moved to Korea and Korea has compulsory 2 year military service. This is where all the men my age are. Out in the middle of nowhere away from their families with automatic weapons, training for the day when North Korea decides to try something. I thought of all the sweet, silly boys I had so recently been in college with. I tried to imagine them, every last one of them as soldiers.

These three soldiers after giggling and looking at me for a while came up and asked me if I would be in a picture with them. I agreed. They seemed disappointed when two other members of the group rushed over and insisted on being in the picture too. I'm trying hard not to laugh.

We passed through the checkpoint and arrived at the DMZ observatory, a nice new building complete with museum, theatre, lookout, and gift shop. Again, I felt weird about being a war tourist. The people around were giddy with excitement and pulling out their cameras to take photos, it felt like a summer trip to see the statue of liberty minus the foam hats. We were shepherded to the theatre where we were shown a brief propaganda film about the history of the DMZ and a map of the area of North Korea we would be able to see through the telescopes. Then we were taken out to the observation deck where a group of Korean tourists were having a small picnic. Of all the history in the film, one fact in particular stood out to me. Just out of sight behind the mountain, about 6 miles from where I was standing was a city of 200,000 people, about the population of my hometown. 6 miles away, but living a completely different life. I thought about the people of Cheorwon, the town where we were staying. They were originally on the Northern side of the border, but during the Korean War, the border was pushed up just enough for them to be on the Southern side today with their farms and hotels and spas.


International religious leaders in front of the observatory.

Me with North Korea in the background.

South Korean Soldier looking into North Korea.

“There, but for the grace of God, go I.” was all that I could think. Then another thing became real for me. No, no, no, not for the grace of God. The 38th parallel was actually determined as the border between North and South by Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel of the U.S. State Department War Navy Coordinating Committee.  Now, I don’t begin to blame these men, or even the United States for all the continued division and unrest of the Korean Peninsula. There were and are still many complicated international and political forces at work here. The United States, however, is partially responsible in the division of the peninsula and is still incredibly active here in South Korea. I realized that as an American, I do have an immediate connection to this conflict. And it hurt to realize this. I am no longer able to keep the peace and reconciliation projects I’m working on at arms length. I can no longer say this is not my problem and I could no longer pretend that the people in the town, the size of my own, just six miles away, didn’t exist.

And now, I’m not sure how to move forward with this issue. I don’t believe that everyone in the U.S. should get involved. Though if some of this blog comes as a shock to you, I would seriously suggest reopening this chapter of your history book. But I suddenly feel afraid to move. I see now that my actions and my lifestyle have very real global implication, as the Korean situation became real to me, I could not help but extend that realization to the rest of the world as well. It was like 7 billion people all at once emerged from the ground and began going about their daily lives all around me.  I feel guilty, and sad, and I want to do something about it all.

That was what struck me hardest about the DMZ, a feeling of paralysis. I wanted to do something, scream, or cry or feed people, or find a way for peace. But then the whole world, completely interconnected comes flashing before my eyes, like a time-lapse video of a city street. I felt so tiny that I was unable to do anything, even cry. This is the open-ended question that rules my life right now. When I feel like I am just tossed along in this huge movement through history, what can I possibly do to change it? At the bottom of my soul, in my heart, I believe that there is something I can do and I want to live my life doing that. And I work everyday to do so; I just wish I had a better idea of how.  
 
A soldier watching as local children and their families play at an abandoned train station inside the civilian controlled zone. It was nice to see that life goes one.

Long Conversations about how to build peace networks. Still very confusing to me, but makes me believe that something can be done.

Part of the AMAZING and hardworking Korean team that hosted the conference.


A banner the Japanese representatives were making. We were all invited to add our prayers for peace. I added the following prayer. It's the motto of The Order of the Daughters of the King.

“I am but one, but I am one.
I cannot do everything, but I can do something.
What I can do, I ought to do.
What I ought to do, by the grace of God I will do.
Lord, what will you have me do?”

Saturday, November 16, 2013

God of Life Lead Us to Justice and Peace: Reflections from the WCC

Hello all,

These past two weeks I have been in Busan for the World Council of Churches 10th general assembly. So first a little background. The WCC is an ecumenical dedicated to pursuing “a worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service”. They represent Christians in 110 countries and 345 denominations. Every 7 years they get together in a smorgasbord of meetings, workshops, and cultural exchanges. This is what I have just been a part of. So very much happened in the last two weeks so instead of writing one gigantic post where I try to tie everything together, I’m writing one gigantic post of the individual episodes that stuck out to me.

Protesters

Though there are a large number of churches involved in the WCC, by no means do all Christians think this kind of movement is a good idea. The assembly was attended at all times and in huge number, a couple thousand one day, by Christians protesting the work we were doing. The root of this seemed to be this church making an absolute claim on the Truth of Christ. Since they had finally discovered the way that God wanted the Christian church to behave, they found it not only useless but also blasphemous for different denominations to work together. Instead, they claimed that our time together should have been used for evangelism to the “One Way”. I think this posed a unique challenge for the members attending the assembly. Here is a group of people who doesn’t want to work together. And furthermore, they did a good job of pointing out some of the seemingly irreconcilable differences between the denominations. They showed us our differences and emphasized the question of the conference, how do groups of people as different as ourselves manage to work together? Two things stood out to me in answer to this question. While there, I was involved in English Bible study. English meaning English speaking. This meant an amazing diversity of English speaking people. It became clearer to me that ever the extent to which every person truly reads and interprets the Bible from their own cultural context. And that this is the only way it is possible. But, I want to highlight the way the WCC members responded to a group of people deadest against Christian community and ecumenical conversation. They responded with love, across the board. I think that it can be very easy for progressive Christians to blow off these more conservative and fundamental groups, to simply roll our eyes and say things like, “well, they’re not ‘real’ Christians”. Not realizing that this puts us in a position of making absolute truth claims of our own. But throughout the week, I saw, almost every time I walked outside, religious leaders engaging in true conversation with the protesters. Not just telling them that they were wrong, but really listening to what they had to say. In fact, I cannot count the times I saw an encounter begin with someone being called “devil satan” and end, after some time, with the WCC member and the protester hugging one another. Even though it is a far cry from sitting around the table with one another and discussing budgeting and programs, through love and genuine listening, these wise leaders were able to engage in ecumenical conversation with a group that was there to protest ecumenical conversation. I was very proud to see a group of Christians practicing the tolerance we so often preach but so rarely practice.



Breaking my Arm

So one of the not exactly planned events of the WCC was the afternoon I decided that I might be capable of flight. I was killing time before a workshop on women in interfaith dialogue by walking at a nearby park. Not to go into the full details of my stupidity, but all of a sudden I was about six feet lower facedown on concrete trying to remember how exactly I had gotten there. I then got to spend 7 hours the next day at a Korean hospital getting X-rays and ultimately a full arm cast for my fractured elbow. Though overall this experience kind of sucked, nothing has assured me that I am part of a community like the support I received. Especially when someone, upon seeing me for the first time, instead of being excessively kind, hit me on the forehead and called me stupid. That’s what friendship looks like.
After the Fall but Before the Cast. That Thumbs Up is the Biggest Lie Ever.


Anglican Gathering

I had been hearing about the Anglican Communion for many years now, but never quite understood its reality. During the conference I got a first hand glance at this communion during the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Anglicans from all over the world gathered together for All Saints Day Eucharist and dinner. Though I have heard the Nicene Creed about a million times by now, I had never heard it so beautifully as when it was spoken all together by Anglicans from all around the world. This profession of our faith is not just what we believe, it is the shared and common ground that allows us to come and work together. We have our differences, yet there we were all gathered under this commonality. The Archbishop of Canterbury reminded us of the importance of this in his sermon saying that as long as we all professed the same faith, as long as we identified ourselves with the Anglican Church, we were stuck with one another, all the way to the end. By the profession of faith we made, we had not just claimed a belief, we had laid claim on one another and on a community. At this dinner, 160 delegates from 50 different countries laid claim to community and reaffirmed our duty to strive for the bettering of our world.
The Archbishop of Canterbury giving the Sermon

A Whole Bunch of Anglicans Getting Communion


Busan
O.K. enough words for a minute. Time for a photo break. I should say that Busan is an absolutely beautiful city by the sea. Here are some of my favorite shots.




Young Folks

It bears mentioning that this assembly was incredibly well attended by young people. I had the privilege of meeting a number of young men in women in leadership positions in a number of churches. This makes me think about something I have heard over and over again as a young participant in the church. “The youth are the future of the church. We have to care for them, they’re the future”. Well here is the news, the youth aren’t the future, we’re here now! I topic of conversation that I heard over and over again while talking to younger folks was how to increase communication and fellowship with the older generations in the church. As you may or may not know, there is a huge gap between the oldest generation and the fairly large group of young leaders. Many of the youth worry about how they will be able to minister to people who are so much older than themselves. Overall we clearly recognize the need to maintain and support the older generation while finding a way to move forward with the new. I know this is difficult, but the fact that I heard more young people interested in not just pursuing youth ministry, but pursuing a route that encourages intergenerational unity in the church makes me optimistic, even if this will be a huge challenge for the church in the near future.
Meeting on the Beach for some Late Night Conversations and Fellowship


LGBTs at the Assembly

For the first time ever at a WCC assembly, they allowed a group to openly advocate for the support of LGBT rights and involvement in the church. This consisted in a small booth in the hall of exhibits manned the entire conference by people who were willing to have a very difficult conversation with religious leaders. I saw them at all times treating others with respect and receiving respect from people who disagreed with their position. Though this group was not officially given the chance to have workshops and discussions, they were able to host several fellowship dinners and other events. Most interestingly was a lunchtime discussion with outspoken anti-gay leaders from the African Anglican church. This was part of the groups campaign to “create safe space” where conversations could take place in an appropriate and respectful manner, regardless of the opinions involved. The conversation lasted about an hour. It was a bit tense and nobody seemed to change their mind. But just seven years ago at the last WCC assembly, this conversation would never have taken place. Finally, at the closing ceremony of the assembly Fr. Michael Lapsley, am Anglican priest from South Africa made this honest and beautiful statement, “In the last few years many of our faith communities, not least my own, have torn ourselves apart over issues of sexuality and in particular in relation to same gender loving persons, not to mention the gamut of other sexual minorities. Some would say this is a sideshow in the face of war and poverty. That is true if we focus on sex and blind ourselves to the elephants in the room. But if this is a matter that affects, according to the most conservative estimates a minimum of 1% if not 4 or 5% of people living on the planet, can it really be a side show? Today I want to say as a Christian, as a priest, to all the LGBTI community, I am deeply sorry for our part as religious people, in the pain you have experienced across the ages. I have a dream that in my lifetime, I will hear all the leaders of all our great faith traditions making the same apology.”

Women at the Assembly

Holy Mackerel were there a lot of women at this assembly! I was proud to see these women many of whom within their own life times were not allowed to be ordained or hold other roles of leadership with in their churches. Being of the younger generation, I know that I have certainly taken this for granted within my own church. It was nice to be reminded that this struggle is not yet behind us. There is much work yet to be done. I also enjoyed what an amazing support network these women leaders were building. In particular I would like to point out the work of The International Association of Women Ministers, an organization that works to promote the understanding that many social justice issues have a particularly strong impact on women. During the conference they led a campaign called Thursdays in Black. They encouraged everyone wear black on Thursday to commemorate women who have been the victims of rape and violence in an attempt to bring these issues to the attention of the wider assembly. Great work from some inspirational ladies!



Cultural Experiences

Despite the fact that this was a multi cultural and multi national event, much attention was paid to the Korean context in which we gathered. This included traditional food, music, performances, and the chance to travel to local churches to see what worship looks like in Korea. My Sunday trip took me to the Anglican cathedral in Busan where we worshipped with the local congregation. It was interesting to see the simultaneous combination of comfort in the tradition and discomfort or confusion with local customs that many people experienced. It helped remind us of the importance of incorporating local music and values into the global church in order to reach the people and satisfy their needs. 
Traditional Korean Drum and Dance Performance
Assembly Participant as Busan Cathedral

Left to right Anglican Bishops of South Africa, Sri Lanka, Ireland, Korea, and Bangladesh

Lunch with Korean Congregation

Lots of Anglicans and Lots of Food


Ecumenism

I had never experienced an ecumenical event before. All of my experience with the church has been limited to the Episcopal or Anglican Church. I didn’t know what to expect or even really what the word meant. In my nerdy habit, I looked up the word that comes from the Greek word oikumene. This word was originally used to express the inhabited world and would come to mean the kingdom of Christ on earth. This is helpful in terms of the modern day understanding. We, at the assembly, are a group of people who self identify as members of God’s earthly kingdom. This, however, gives very little sign or guide of how we ought to treat one another or what it really means to live together in community. In super liberal arts major fashion, I’ll take it another step back. The root of the word oikumene is oikos, meaning house, home or family dwelling. It is helpful to me to think of this ecumenical conference in terms of family. When I think about my family and what it is that makes us family, I think about shared pain and shared suffering. So much of what makes my family a family is the difficult things we have endured together, the fact that we share in one another’s pain. So much of what happened at the WCC assembly was the voluntary sharing in the pain of other people. We heard time and time again about the unjust and wretched things that were happening in the communities where our brothers and sisters lived. So many things I had seen in the news but had only really, as Paul said, “seen dimly as in a mirror”. It was only in meeting face to face people who were living with this injustice that I felt for the first time that I actually have a stake in this world and that the church as a whole has a stake in these global and local issues. The opening worship for the assembly began with laments. We heard tragic sad songs from people all over the world, and as the weeks progressed began to understand the roots of these songs as though they were our own. We also, to my surprise, admitted the role of the Christian Church in causing pain to many, many people. We shared in the responsibility for the distress and injustice that we have caused. And throughout the week people worked tirelessly so we could share in the other thing that makes a family a family, joy, hope, and peace. There were many resolutions passed and programs implemented working for the correction of injustice, whether caused by others or us. We shared in this joy only by being brought together to share in pain as well. I hope to continue to share in this pain and joy in the work I will do and in the relationships I formed at this amazing event.

Finally, if you are from just about any Christian tradition I would recommend you take a look at the various different resolutions that were passed during this time. It is a good list of what the church will be working for in the next 7 years.

I leave you all with the prayer that was the theme of the conference:

God of life lead us to justice and peace. 
 
The Big Fancy Meeting Hall

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Out to Dinner at Raw Seafood Tent on the Beach

Worship Hall

Episcopal Delegates from the U.S.  and the Cast in Fully Glory

Outside the Convention Center