Thursday, November 4, 2010

Venturing abroad (more than usual)

This past weekend I had the opportunity to go to Seoul with Simon, Haejung, Katie, and Jenny. We definitely did some touristy stuff, including our visits to Insadong (where they sell traditional Korean crafts to appeal to visitors and foreigners), the South Gate market, and Gyeongb0kgung. This last was the main palace of the Joseon dynasty, which ruled from 1392 to 1897 in Korea. After they moved the capital to Seoul, they had this palace built (I believe in 1396). We arrived just in time to see the changing of the guard, where soldiers in period dress march out to the beating of drums, carrying their banners proudly. It was an extremely colorful display! Afterwards, we toured the most important parts of the palace, starting with the throne room and eventually reaching the king's private chambers.

The term "palace" is misleading, because it is not really one building, but many enclosed within a single compound. And the accommodations are surprisingly small and simple for royalty. Oh, there's definitely decoration and ceremonial stuff (see the many, many photographs I took), but compared to the lavish palaces concocted by European royalty in their heydays, this seemed very minimalist. The grounds were exceedingly beautiful, offering neatly trimmed lawns, quiet ponds, pagodas, and fine mountain views.

We also went to Sungnyemun (aka Namdaemun), Korea's No. 1 national treasure. It is the Great South Gate, one of eight which were built in the ancient walls that surrounded the city. The Great South Gate was the main one for entrance into the capital. Ceremonies and public executions would be held in the courtyard in front of it. Two years ago, an arsonist burned it down, leaving really only the stone foundations of the gate. The loss inspired the Korean people to spring into action to rebuild their nation's pride. And as much as possible, they are using traditional methods and materials in the construction, so that the process is in and of itself a monument to past days.

The real highlight of the trip, however, was meeting our fellow Presbyterians! The PC(USA) has three couples who are mission co-workers in Korea: our own Simon and Haejung Park, Sookhee and K.J. Bae, and Art and Sue Kinsler. We had already met the Baes briefly at Stony Point, but this time around we got to hang out more. K.J., who currently works in the mission office of the PCK, gave us a tour of PCK headquarters, where were staying for the night (on mats on the lovely heated floors -- seriously, why don't Americans heat their floors??). He also gave us an overview of the PC(USA)'s mission work in Korea, which dates back to the 1880s. One of the very important things that mission projects in Korea have done is to promote education, especially for those who are at a social disadvantage. The PC(USA) was a pioneer in terms of Korean women's education at a time when women were expected to be concerned only with raising children.

Especially exciting, we went to Sookhee's organization, the Woman Ministers' Association (WMA). The PCK is very male-dominated, even more so than in the church in the U.S., and they only started ordaining women in 1996. Before that, women who wanted to be ministers were simply not allowed, and often they were ridiculed and driven from their home congregations. Even now, women are still underrepresented and facing many struggles against discrimination and double standards. It can be really difficult for women to find a church, because so many congregations want the traditional male pastor.

So, Sookhee opened her center to support and empower women, both generally and in ministry. The WMA encompasses two shelters: one for runaway young women, and another for domestic violence survivors and their children. Both are designed to be safe places where women are protected and loved by their sisters as they learn to stand on their feet again. And Rev. Han and Rev Nam, who run the shelters, are amazingly devoted to their work, and really take these women to heart as their adopted family. Both spoke warmly of how rewarding it is to see troubled people reclaim their lives, bit by bit. Sookhee's group also opened two retirement homes for women ministers, who, because of their unordained, outcast status, often don't have spouses and children who can take care of them. And in the basement of the center, there is the Yeji Church, which is a memorial church for women's ordination. I was so impressed and moved by all of Sookhee's work (read more here), as were Katie and Jenny. All three of us are very, very interested in participating in such a ministry, either with Sookhee, or with other women's shelters closer to home (Daejeon).

That evening, we had dinner with our mission co-workers and bonded with them over galguksu (handmade noodles, which were cooked at our table in a broth containing a multitude of mushrooms, and served alongside enormous dumplings). At this point, we were introduced to the Kinslers, and got to hear extensively about Sue's work, which is very exciting stuff. She has been working towards reunification with North Korea, which she believes to be near, and towards helping the suffering people there. She makes regular trips across the border to help provide for orphans and the differently abled. (Read more details about what she does here.)

On Monday, I was invited to travel to Muju with the Chief (who is in charge of my center) and her daughter, Myung-ju onni. Muju is their hometown, about an hour away from Daejeon, and the weather is noticeable colder there, because it is in the middle of the mountains. In fact, when we got to the top of the mountain, there was actually snow there! If you're wondering what the purpose of our trip was, it was danpung nori -- a trip to enjoy the fall foliage. We drove partway up the mountain, around and around it winding roads, and then we took a cable car further up. Unfortunately, the leaves nearer the base of the mountain hadn't changed color much yet, and the trees on top of the mountain had lost all their leaves already! So in that sense, the trip wasn't terribly successful, but it was such great fun hanging out with Chief and Myung-ju onni. Their smiles kept me warm even when the mountain winds were blowing.

On the way back, the Chief and Myung-ju onni stopped to show me some points of historical interest. Long ago (read: time of Jesus), Korea was divided into three kingdoms: Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla. Muju is actually quite close to the border dividing two of these three kingdoms, Baekje and Silla, and there is still a gate of sorts there -- not a free-standing structure like Seoul's Great South Gate, but a simple tunnel carved through the rock. It was really awe-inspiring to be in the presence of something made so long ago.

The nearby town is named Seolcheol, which means "Snow Stream". There is a very interesting story behind that name, it turns out. Long ago, on top of the mountain, there was a very large Buddhist temple, large enough, in fact, to house 9,000 monks. And every morning, 9,000 monks would emerge from the temple to wash rice for their breakfast in the mountain stream. The people of the town below called the stream "Snow Stream" because it was turned white from all that rice-washing.

As always, continue to stay tuned! And please enjoy looking at my photos for these trips, which can be found here (coming soon, probably tomorrow):



  1. Sounds like you had some interesting and fun outings. I look forward to seeing more of your pictures. I really liked the one with you and the Chief. Nice smiles!


  2. Thank you for helping us all to learn much about an area that is new to most of us. I did some work with the KPA and representatives of the PCK and was struck by the general attitudes towards women, particularly when it came to serving the church. Too bad (or is it?) that your Seoul trip didn't coincide with the Obamas' visit. You must already be almost a different person from the one who graduated from Smith in May!

  3. What amazing experiences you are having! Thank you for sharing them with us. It's great to see you looking so happy.

  4. The pictures are great - what sights you saw! Hope it is not too chilly in Daejeon these days, as autumn passes . . .

  5. Becky,
    I'm Toosie Margolies, the Chair of the Board of Local and World Mission in Fall River, Massachusetts. Thanks so much for doing this for us! I've just discovered your blog and sharing the site in Cross Currents, our monthly news letter.

  6. Your photos are really great and help all of us understand what you are seeing and doing on behalf of the PCUSA. You are on the prayer list in Barre, VT, each week and your blog address is in our weekly e-newsletter. Please know you are particularly in our thoughts during the escalated strife between North and South Korea.