Author: linkofler

Counting Blessings

Counting Blessings

You know, I like my life.

I like Sundays like today, when I don’t have to rush to church and sneak in the back, hoping no one will notice. I liked this whole week, waking up at 7 or 8am to go swimming with my housemate Emily, or go running on the wooden path downtown while the sun is still low enough to glow warm and make everything look friendly.

I like walking directionless around campus with my housemate Will, hearing his patient insight about dealing with frustrating relationships. I’m grateful to feel comfortable enough to say what’s on my mind, and more grateful that he feels comfortable enough to call me out when I make vague blanket statements, or can’t see past my own perspective. He’s patient, and talks me through things until I begin to see a different way, which is all but necessary when living in intentional community with four others in our program. I’m struggling. I’m frustrated. I’m confused why loving others is so hard sometimes. But, I digress. I like being part of a challenging, intentional relationship that might teach me valuable things about loving others. I like when Will unexpectedly hugs me in the woods, engulfing me into him in a goofy, playful way that lets me know we’re ok, and we’re on the same page.

I like going to the school cafeteria after church and having Korean people to wave at, chat with, and eat with. Oh what a far way things have come since I was that middle school girl with a torn lunchbox and nowhere to go.

I like my when my Korean friend 한별(Hanbeol) comes over in workout clothes, excited and ready for whatever workout I throw at us. I’m grateful for the familiarity of teaching fitness again, even if it’s just us outside on the track. It’s nice to be doing burpees, mountain climbers, and jumping jacks next to someone who’s really giving it her all, as tired or more tired than I am, but still gritting her teeth and scrunching her face in determination. It’s nice to have a workout buddy, to guide and explain and encourage. Lately I’ve felt pretty dumb, useless, and slow, forgetting my co-workers Korean names, failing to control or teach a class of elementary school kids, or overhearing others talk in hushed Korean about that foreigner who “really doesn’t know a lot of Korean, does she?”. But tonight, I was in my element, all of me on board. I like collapsing into the grass after the last of 3 sets of mountain climbers, or burpees, and hear 한별(Hanbeol) collapse, gasping beside me, knowing we’re in this together.

But what I like the most is laying supine on the cold, short turf, exhausted, satisfied, and staring at the impossibly large cloudless sky above us. The deafening vastness fills my mind till I can’t think or feel anything else. Only a couple of stars can just barely be seen.

And He brings out the starry hosts by number; He calls them by name.”

I love it when scripture pops into my head, giving me hope that something within me is right. I like being aware of our God, not through my own mental effort of bringing Him to mind, squeezing Him into my full, busy head, but being empty, and having the knowledge of God effortlessly fill the empty space with grand vastness and holy understanding. I like praying in the comforting free-ness of a God who hears me, listening also to 한별(Hanbeol) echo the prayer in Korean, on the grass beside me, praying to our God, perhaps up there in that impossibly large sky. I like naming out things that are perfect to us in the moment – the weather, the workout, the time of day right when day meets night, our friendship. All gifts from God, whose love seems so real, and so close to us in that moment.

 

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When an American living abroad goes back to America

I’d heard about culture shock – you know, getting used to eating rice at every meal, the community-style eating habits, and the special reverence of those older than you – but what I hadn’t heard of before was reverse culture shock. As in, the shock of coming back to the culture you lived in after being abroad for some time. I recently went home for my sister’s wedding, after spending about 8 months in Daejeon, Korea. And I realized nothing wakes you up to how much you’ve changed like going back to the place you came from.

1) Airports

Airports. I’ve been through dozens of airports in my life, and the most dramatic thing that’s ever happened is that I’ve had to take off my belt as the metal beeped through the big detector machine. But this time, in the Detroit airport, I noticed something different. I always thought some American airports pushed people through security like cattle going through the gates; the prodding, the questioning, the mass generally shouted instructions.

It’s not a pleasant experience for anyone, quite frankly. But now I realized how much more of an unpleasant experience it would be for someone who’s first language isn’t English. In fact, it could be downright daunting to go through the mess of people shouting “laptops go in a separate bin, people!” and “have your passports ready!” who are already annoyed from having to facilitate hoards of people all day.

I heard a security guard question an Asian man in front of me “I find it very suspicious that you’re traveling by yourself..”. I came along, and promptly offered “I’m traveling by myself”, which was met with a polite “have a good time”.

My Korean friend Jihae told me she was once taken to a back room to be questioned about why she was traveling to the US. Although fluent in English now, she was still learning it at the time, and found it incredibly difficult to answer tough, fast-paced questions under the pressure of being alone in a private with multiple US security guards. She missed her flight, had her luggage searched, and now has a fear of going through airports, despite being one of the bravest, strongest women I know.

 

2) The bible belt/South

I don’t consider myself southern. I don’t have an accent or any kind of southern drawl, and I didn’t know what grits were till high school. But the truth is, I live smack dab in the middle of the bible belt, despite having grown up in a German culture and educated at a hippie liberal arts college. My state recently passed a controversial law stating that if you’re born with physical female reproductive parts, you must use the female restroom, and some goes for those born with male parts. I’m sure you can think of many ways this can be problematic, not to mention completely gender binary.

I was outraged and ashamed to be from the state that passed a law that completely disregarded and endangered folks who didn’t fit into this stiff gender binary. I knew as many people who supported that law as Trump fans, which was zero. Until I went back home and heard the following:

“Sure I’d bake a gay couple a cake… but I’d charge them extra for it.”

The woman who said this has loved me faithfully my whole life. I know her like I know my mom, and she loves the Lord.

“Private business owners should be allowed to refuse business to anyone they want. That’s freedom.”

“Gay rights protesters shouldn’t be making laws. If they don’t like a business or something, they should just boycott it. Or leave.”

The thing that shocked me the most about this is that these weren’t homophobic strangers. These were people I knew. This was my best friend’s family. These were people who’ve made me meals, prayed with me, quilted blankets for me, and took me to second-hand stores. It’s easy to say “those homophobic republicans” as if they’re one big, messy, bad group of smelly old men, but it’s a different reality altogether when these remarks come from people you love, who love you.

And after 24 years, nothing woke me up more to the fact that I was in a starkly republican-minded state than that.

 

3) The Doctor’s Office

Same problem as the airport. Language. When I mentioned to the nice receptionist how difficult it’s been learning Korean, and the prevalence of English being used in Korea, she responded with her own interactions with foreigners.

“Sometimes we get a lot of Mexicans here. You know, it’s really hard to understand them. I’m like ‘uno?’. I try to be patient, you know, and they even have translators sometimes.”

I shudder, thinking about the multiple times a day in Korea where friends and strangers alike meet me more than half way to communicate with me through rough English/Korean. I thought about the time I had a free personal translator at both the dentist office and the doctor’s office so I could communicate to the doctors. Time and time again, it’s more common to expect Koreans to know basic English than to expect foreigners to know basic Korean. In America, it’s flip-flopped. If you don’t know English, you’re in for a world of difficulties. And I guess I never realized that before.

4) Freakin’ Supermarkets

They’re HUGE. I mean, really? We need how many different types of cereal? How many kinds of pop tarts? Does each local supermarket really have to go on as far as the eye can see? I like choices as much as the next girl, but maybe this is fringing on extremism.

5)  Media

I picked up a magazine at my house. The cover was of a very pretty white girl. Flipping through, I realized most of the pictures were of very pretty white girls. A couple African Americans were in the mix, and only a single Asian was featured on all of its pages. I viewed a movie on the flight back to Korea, and realized all of the characters were white, with a single exception. One of the bad guy’s friends was African American. But that’s it. It was an end-of-the-world movie, but I guess the director wanted more of an end-of-white-suburban-America feel. I’ve watched a lot of movies in my life. But I guess I’ve never realized the racial make up of the cast, or have even been aware of it, until now. I blame Korea for waking me up to all of this, and hope my eyes stay open as I go back to America when this program ends.

Jeju is alive

Jeju Island is alive.

The first thing I notice when we land from the mainland peninsula to the island is the air. It’s rich, fuller, and my nose and lungs are instantly satisfied. Its warmer here than on the mainland, and I instantly can see why the island is so popular with Korean newlyweds.

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A couple hours of taking in tall mountains, the sea pounding upon rocks, and the feeling of sand beneath our shoes, and we get right to work at our first historical museum.

It’s a peace park telling the story of Jeju Island and its role with the US and S. Korean military. After independence from Japan, the US put troops in S. Korea to help establish a government (including putting a lot of the same leaders in place who were there during Japanese colonization). Since Jeju is off the main Korean peninsula, this help rebuilding

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didn’t come until a couple years later… after Jeju island had already begun to make a self-sufficient government. By this time, Korea was being ripped into a North and a South, into a territory the US deemed friendly and territory the US deemed as enemy lines. Jeju didn’t agree with separate elections being held for South and North, believing in a unified Korea, so their boycott tagged them as ‘communist enemies’. Civilian massacres and bloodshed ensued, which has years later, been etched into plaques, graves, and hopes that such violence will not repeat itself.

Jeju is still alive.

We learn about Haenyeo, the women free divers who brave the rocks and waves to gather sellable goodies from the ocean floor. (cool NYTimes article about them here http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/30/world/asia/hardy-divers-in-korea-strait-sea-women-are-dwindling.html?_r=1) These women dive from age 7 till 70, while their husbands fish on boats, reversing the traditional gender roll of men as breadwinners that’s so prominent in mainland Korea. 20160304_113940The Haenyeo’s dangerous and physical lifestyle created a unique tight-knit sisterhood involving safety rules like ‘no diver dives alone’ and raising daughters to come alongside mothers on swims. P1060261

Now, there are few Haenyeo left, as daughters would rather work in the tourist industry than under the cold sea, but I still saw a dozen Haenyeo swimming out to sea in their wetsuits as I watched from the museum window.

Jeju is still alive.

Then we visited Gangjeong village, where a new highly-controversial Navy Base is being constructed amidst the natural soft coral reefs and UNSECO world heritage convention protected site on Gureombi rock, which is sacred and of utmost importance to the villagers. We hold hands with, dance, and sing with Korean and American protestors in front of the gates to the Navel Base, who later explain that most villagers understand the ecological destruction and fear future cultural destruction the base will bring, but were unable to vote against it. Catholic mass is held in front of the gates. Flowers are painted on windows in town, and trees are adorned with crochet to both combat the militarization of the island and highlight the existing culture of peace and art in Gangjeong.

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P1060367P1060354P1060420The introduction of navy base soldiers will triple the population on the village, and it’s hard to see how this village of life, peace and culture will fare. We spoke with a pastor Sunday who told us that the navy base will defend peace on the island, but my head is full of questions as to who the defense is for. In theory, such a missile on Jeju could reach China, Japan, and North Korea. Whoever the system is put in place for, I’m wondering if the US’s new foreign policy to move military strategy away from the Middle East and shift it to Asian-Pacific countries, particularly China has something to do with it. I wonder how militarization can promote peace, not only in Gangjeong, but in bases around the world. How can the ability to park nuclear powered and possibly nuclear armed aircraft carriers in Jeju help bring peace to the island? I wonder what the activists marching anti-base signs are hoping for, now that the base construction is finished. I wonder if the trees will get to keep their crochet outfits, and windows will keep wearing flowers. As we ate lunch together in a make-shift kitchen close to the base, I looked up to realize the curious group of activists, Koreans, Americans, professors, artists, and volunteers I was sharing a meal with. Most of them realized the Navy Base was here to stay. But there they all were, peacefully protesting and making art and discussing the possibility of a building a peace school in their village.P1060384P1060383

In a town on an island that has already seen too much violence, they now are focusing on further developing their village of culture, peace, and art. They’re the peace promoters. They’re the mainlanders who have decided to build a life in Gangjeong to promote peace long-term, whatever that may look like. They’re the prayer warriors who thank God for creation, and attempt to protect it. They’re the artists who paint Gangjeon with life and flowers. They’re the ones full of life and hope in peaceful world.20160304_102612

Jeju is still alive.

 

http://savejejunow.org/

Protesting with Nuns, visiting the DMZ, and other things we did in Seoul

Protesting with Nuns, visiting the DMZ, and other things we did in Seoul

Our first official visit to Seoul held many firsts for me. First and foremost, we were in P1040975there to learn more about the history of Korea. But before we dipped our feet into that, we had a bunch of fun playing in the first snowfall of the year! Even though we were on retreat with other very professional missionaries in the area, you better believe we had a couple snowball fights (‘noon-saum’ in Korean) between our official business. P1040998

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Lesson number 1 : Koreans take Kimchi (김치: fermented cabbage, super-food of Korea) very seriously. We were at the end of the holiday week in which Koreans make the kimchi they’ll eat for the entire year. It’s a very labor-intensive process and there were mounds of cabbage like this one all around.

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We also visited a war memorial that was close to a Buddhist temple. These colorful guys were seen inside.

 

 

 

 

Korea is a very vibrant and modern country, but as a small country surrounded by superpowers (China, Japan) its had a bloody past of colonization. While occupied by the Japanese, numerous war crimes were committed, including Japanese soldiers using Korean (and other) women as sex slaves. They called these women “comfort women” and to this day the Japanese government still refuses to acknowledge they committed a crime and have only offered half-apologies, despite international pressure from the UN. The survivors, lovingly called “할머니(Halmonies)” or “Grandmothers” in Korean have been incredibly active to bring justice to this issue, including creating statues like the one below. The statues commemorate the survivor’s innocence and freedom as girls, before both were taken away by war.

Paper butterflies (나비) are shown outside a museum dedicated to the Grandmothers that display encouraging notes in different languages. The notes write about solidarity, the hope for peace, and the yearning for justice. With notes in Korean, English,  Japanese, and more, it seemed like the whole world was grieving through these butterflies.

Later that day we took part in a protest, the same protest that has occurred every Wednesday since 1992. Every single Wednesday in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, these Grandmothers are out there with megaphones, telling and re-telling their personal stories, as well as making their demands for reparation and apology from the Japanese government known. In the freezing rain, we stood by grandmothers, daughters, wives, nuns, and cameramen to sing and show solidarity for the Grandmothers. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing when I’m an old lady, but I hope it’s as vibrant and inspiring as these Grandmother’s fight for justice.

P1050101P1050166 We hear stories about this all the time in Korea : how a couple strong-willed people completely stood their ground against title waves of apathy from disbelievers, then finally have the injustice they’ve suffered made known to the entire world, to appear in history books and have memorials built. I’ve come to believe there’s nothing stronger than the human spirit. It may be winners who write the textbooks, but it’s those who’ve suffered injustice who will cry out until they’re heard.

P1050247These are pictures taken from the DMZ – the de-militerized zone between North and South Korea. The blue buildings above act as meeting rooms for peace talks, built directly between the N/S boarder. After hearing so much about the history and heartbreak of the civil war, (and America’s involvement in it) it was mind-numbing to actually visit the physical place of so much tension, fear, and propaganda. What did I know about North Korea while I lived in America?

North Korea’s emphasis on military is renowned. But before coming to the Korean peninsula, I never stopped to ask why. Why were I not told about the events that led North Korea to take such desperate actions? What was I taught to believe? Was I told the whole story or was something hidden from me? Was I taught the dangers of a single story?

I saw documentaries with scary titles like “inside the horror of North Korea”, and knew only that North Koreans were brainwashed and their leader was a dictator. As I challenged to ask myself hard questions, I realized I’d seen North Koreans as the “other”, as people to be pitied. What do you think when you think of North Korea? What information have you been exposed to? … All the information I’d received led me to think of North Korea as the “other”, to be feared, to be pitied. Was this the right mindset? What if all of America thought of N.Korea as such? P1050260As I touched the silky ribbons tied to a wall between the North and South, adorned with the names of classes mates and schools crying out for peace, I wondered if the way I was taught to look at the North was hindering the peace so many voices cry out for. I’d never tried to think of North Korea as anything else. Not as a country who’s seen terrible war crimes. Not as a country who’s been threatened by air raids by the US. Not as a country who’s people are dearly loved by God. Historically, the act of “othering” only puts us farther away from our enemy, not closer. The distance makes us unwilling to talk to settle disputes, unwilling to respect the other.

My site director Kurt had some words of wisdom for me as we bounced along the bumpy tour bus “We want to encourage peace talks. When people and their countries are talking to each other, and respecting each other as human beings, they are less likely to bomb each other.”P1050165

Christmas: The love, the Lord, and the lie

P1050013Merry Christmas!

I hope you and those you love are filled with warmth and joy. I hope that Jesus’ outrageous love melts the walls in your heart, and that love overflows to those around you. I hope you don’t feel the intimidation and burden of creating the ‘perfect American Christmas’, but rather enjoy time spent with others, as we all practice loving each other.

This year will be so different. My family, who I’ve spent Christmas with every year of my life, will be about seven thousand miles away, along with everyone else I know and love. Sometimes I think about that fact, and it makes me more sad than I want it to. Every year at home, we haul a huge fir tree into the living room, and our cat gains a new jungle gym. Presents are put under it one by one until Christmas Eve (which is present-opening time, for us Germans) comes. My Dad will encourage us all to sing Christmas carols together, while my sisters complain. And then, of course, the present opening begins, and we all go to bed full of chocolate and perhaps in our new socks. And Christmas has been that way for as long as I can remember.

This year, our tree is tiny, and fake. No cat. Since I’m living with Americans, there will be (for the first time ever) a Christmas morning. We’ll go to church on Sunday morning, with the rest of South Korea. There will be no Dad to inspire half-hearted Christmas carols, and no mom and sisters to begrudgingly sing along. No family to open presents beside. It’s almost a sad thing. It almost doesn’t feel like Christmas at all.

Until I remind myself (in a tone that sounds a lot like those cheesy Christmas movies) that Christmas isn’t about that. As much as I hate to admit it, I’ve bought the Christmas lie. We’ve heard over and over that “it’s not about the tree, the presents, or the snow. It’s about celebrating Jesus.” Of course. Everyone would agree to that in a heartbeat. But… in all reality, family and traditions are such a staple of my Christmas experience, I wonder what I actually believe. Since Christmas isn’t about those added things, why does it feel so alien when those things are removed? And what will this strange Christmas consist of this year? Where will God show up, in this holiday celebrating his son’s birth?

Turns out, God shows up a lot, if you ask Him to.

Not in the Christmas tree, family traditions, or the comfort of my sisters, but in small displays of big love from God’s children.

Every year I ask God to show me what Christmas is about, with the hope that I’ll inch closer to understanding this great mystery. I’ve got all its parts: a savior, the humble birth, the bravery of Mary, celebratory Angles and the world being forever changed; but I desire to grasp the meaning of the story in its entirety.

I walk to and from work every day, which is about 3 miles, so I have a lot of time to think about these things. And here’s what I’ve come up with:

Since God is love, all love is a reflection of God. James says “every good and perfect gift is from above…” Christmas is about God loving us so much that he gave us His son, to live a human life, to be an appropriate sacrifice for our failings. So Christmas is about the love of God, right? Hmm… then maybe I’ve haven’t been missing out on Christmas at all. Love has shown himself to me in a great many ways this season.

Like when I found out that the molasses used in the cookies my mom and I bake every year would be impossible to come by, a stranger from the internet (who owns a bakery and buys online) meets me on the other end of town, and places a jar of the stuff, some powdered sugar, and a card retelling the wonderful news about Jesus Christ in my hand, waving away my attempts at paying her back with “Ah, don’t worry about it. It’s Christmas”.

Or when my friend 한별(Hanbeol) and I stayed up until 4am, staring at the snow and sharing the crazy love story about how Jesus made himself known to us. “I grew up being expected to go to church, so when I went to college, I stopped. But instead of feeling free, I felt guilty, and empty in a way I couldn’t understand.” She later came to know Jesus on her own at a retreat, her eyes wide as she told me how Jesus Himself came to her that day, and she then knew who He was.

Or when a relational breakthrough was made with one of the kids I work with at a community center. Older than the rest, he’s always “too cool for school”, and my games and lesson plans are boring for him. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to connect with him for 3 months, and last week, we finally gained ground while kicking around a dirty soccer ball outside together. He talked to me, even though it meant he had to use English to do it. Later that day he even helped me solve a conflict between the younger kids.

All these circumstances show love in different forms: the hospitality of sharing food with a perfect stranger, the intimacy and friendship of late night testimony sharing, and the joy that comes from forging a new cross-cultural relationship. All of these situations show God – because every one of these good gifts is from above, a grand display of the hospitality, intimacy, joy, kinship, and love that comes from our Father, and His son, who came to earth to live, laugh, get frustrated, and share stories with us.

And that’s a lot better than a real tree any day.

The massacre I didn’t learn about in History class: No Gun Ri Peace Park

P1040814   I’m not a history person. I stopped paying attention to that class some time in High School, and never really learned the basics of how our current world came to be. Because the word “history” was synonymous in my mind to thick textbooks and dates I had to memorize, I’m kind of embarrassed at how little I now know as an adult.

But last weekend my housemates and I made a trip to a place called No Gun Ri, or노근리 Peace park, in Hwanggan-myeon, South Korea. On the way inside, I was confronted by a sculpture of a protestor holding a sign that read “The US must apologize and compensate”. I know the list of America’s sins is long, but I was intrigued as to what stories this museum had in store for us. Further inside was another sign that caught my interest “The restoration of human right is the fruit of sweat and sacrifice of so many people. Peace is given to those who strive to cherish it”. 

Did I believe that? Was peace only given to those who strive for it? What does that mean in regards to an all-just sovereign God who oversees human injustices like wars and hate crimes? Is peace then not granted to those who don’t take it upon themselves to strive for it?

We sat down to watch a short film that fleshed out some of these questions about the No Gun Ri massacre.

In July 1950 (less than a lifetime away from today, so people who were alive then are still alive today) a bloody massacre took place where my friends and I were standing. American troops (allies with S.Korea, but at odds with N.Korea) stationed in Korea early during the Korean war went into a village in South Korea, and advised the entire community to pack up and leave to somewhere safe. So, hundreds of people packed up their kids, food, bare necessities and left home and fields to follow the American allies. The next morning, the now-refugees woke up to find their American guides gone, with other American soldiers telling them to take a railroad path, after searching them and their belongings.

While resting on the tracks, a military aircraft began to bomb them. Soldiers shot’s mixed with plane fire

"All civilians seen in this area are to be considered as enemy and action taken accordingly."
“All civilians seen in this area are to be considered as enemy and action taken accordingly.”

A plaque on the wall of the museum displayed a laminated copy of the orders from military captain: “No refugee to cross the front line. Fire everyone trying to cross lines. Use discretion in case of women and children.” Another read “All civilians seen in the area are to be considered as enemy and action taken accordingly.”

I didn’t know what to think after hearing such a story. My mind was numb trying to imagine myself in such a situation, then realizing I didn’t want to.

One of the few who survived the massacre, Chung Eun-yong, spent his life trying to tell the world about the injustices that happened that summer. His efforts are why we know about it today. His children were both killed that day, as he and some other young men left the tunnel early so the remaining crowd (women and children) would less threatening. It didn’t work.

My housemates and I walked outside in the rain toward the tunnels, where hundreds of remaining bullet holes were circled with bold white paint. I traced a jagged hole with my finger, barely able to grasp what it meant. The tunnels were completely stone, heavy with history. Later we learned that most of the bullet holes were covered up by a thick layer of concrete curtsey of the South Korean goveP1040823rnment, in an effort to keep as positive a relationship with their US allies as possible.

But this is not entirely about the finger pointing. Though justice is important, and I believe God has the last and final say as sovereign judge; countless countries have comP1040827mitted evil acts during wartime. When war is the only option left, both sides have already lost.

In the long car ride back home, amidst the whir of unanswerable questions in my mind, one in particular bobbed to the surface. “Why didn’t I learn about this in school?” “Why do only a couple versions Korean textbooks mention it either?”

Currently in Korea, the government has decided to create a monopoly on textbooks by eliminating the 6 different history textbooks schools can choose from at the moment (published by 6 different companies) and replacing them with just one Ministry of Education-endorsed textbook. It’s not certain yet that the No Gun Ri massacre will make it in these new government-issued textbooks, which means a whole generation of high school students will have to learn about this outside their classrooms (an average school day is 16hrs) or not at all.

Before coming to Korea, I remember good friend of mine, James, turned to me once and said “History isn’t factual. It’s all opinion. Every war, every battle, every description of a person is more or less someone else’s observation. Winners write the textbooks.”

What a terrifying thought.

Where God shows up – seeing the Lord of the nations moving in South Korea

Where’s God?

Everywhere.

But specifically? Well, let me tell you about the trees outside our house.

Now, I’ve lived and worked in the city before (summer internship in Queens/Manhattan, NYC) but I’m a mountain girl through and through who’s more at home sleeping in the the woods than on a flashy, busy street. Hiking, biking, trail running, and backpacking defined my life. Before coming to this site, the fact that I was moving to a city was actually a sore spot to me. God is with us all the time, everywhere, but IP1040513 can most clearly see this when I’m admiring the sun shining through a leaf in a tree, or analyzing the way a caterpillar walks. Admiring the beauty of the Creator is how I most comfortably admire my Creator, and nestled in the mountains of North Carolina, these moments were literally right outside my door.

But… what would happen when I was taken away from all that? When concrete replaced grass and city air replaced mountain air? Where would I seeP1040133 God then? Would I see God then?

The day I left my life in Asheville, NC, members of my bible study group offered me up in prayer. It was a bittersweet moment, one rich in goodbyes and love, each member requesting blessing from the King of Kings on my behalf for the journey. One prayer in specific, from a sweet friend of mine, stuck out. She prayed that God would be so kind as to give me some green things in the midst of wherever I would be living in the city. Knowing my relationship with creation, she specifically prayed for some nature right outside my front yard. I’d lived in NYC before, so my initial thought to this request was “Yeah right. God is powerful, but putting trees in a strange city halfway across the world is a pretty audacious request.”

The night we arrived here was hectic at best. Jet-lagged, arms sore from luggage, and brains working overtime to cope with the sensory overload, we stumbled into our strange new home and fell asleep. So the next morning when I opened the door to our front yard, you can image my feelings when I was met with a line of trees – gorgeous, big, and strong trees standing protectively in a line directly outside our front door. They greet me every day when I leave for school and work. In their shade I memorized my first of many sets of Korean/English flash-cards. Call me completely crazy, buP1040524t these trees represent to me a God who’s present and detail-oriented. A God who hears prayers and understands hearts. A God who knows me and seemed to say “yeah, I heard.”

I live in the city, to be sure, but I’ve got a special reminder of home outside my front door, because of a God who loves me so sweetly.

Toodles from South Korea.

Keep on the lookout for more stories like this one under the title “Where God shows up”. I’ve got a ton.

The meat and potatoes of my YAV year: working at Saenaru Gong Dong Che

Every YAV is placed with a work site such as a community center, a women’s shelter, or a school, as our main way to serve in our countries. The site I work with is a community center called Saenaru Gong Dong Che, which functions as a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, and afterschool safe-place for the kids of primarily low-income families in the area.

The area of town is known as a crime hot-spot and a red-light district. Many homeless, senior citizens, and single-parent households live here because the rent is cheaper. The local train underpass is known as a crime hot-spot which could be harmful for children and youth, which is a concern for the community center. Saenaru provides basic meals and delivers free meals to the homeless and senior citizens who live alone in the area. For children and youth, the center provides afterschool programs and a safe space to spend the afternoon until the night to reduce child neglect while their parents work.P1040605

I teach after school English classes here, and my class is compiled of wild, wonderful, stubborn, loud, and sweet kids who live in the neighborhood. A Hannam University student also co-teaches class with me most days, helping to reign in wild kids, and bridge some of the language gap. I’ve never been an English teacher before, so everything is new.

The first day was trying to say the least – I’d brought with me my guitar, a loose lesson plan, and the excitement that comes with being thrown into something completely new. To make a long story short, I felt like everything went wrong. As I stepped in the door, I heard a sharp bang! behind me, to realize a child behind me had let off a mini-firework and was grinning ear to ear at my reaction. The rest of my time that day was spent trying to balance teaching and keeping control of the class. It ended with a injury due to a brother stabbing his sister with a pencil, and the use of a first-aid kit. A teacher took me aside and kindly explained to me that most of the kids in my class come from challenging family situations, some with parents recently released from incarceration. Some of them face neglect and abuse every day at home.

When it was time to go home, I felt completely exhausted and wondered how I would ever learn to be a good, effective, and loving teacher every day for the rest of the year. I couldn’t even keep control of a small classroom for one afternoon – how was I supposed to do this for a year and survive?! I had zero training in the classroom, with my BS in Health and Fitness, and was given very few guidelines as to how to run an effective English class. I was set up against an impossible task, with out-of-control kids, vaguely wondering if this was really God’s plan for me, or if something just went terribly wrong.

I’m about a month in, and we’ve had our ups and downs. I’ve learned a lot more than I knew on that first day, and every day I think I’m learning a bit more. There have been a couple dramatic moments (the terror of realizing you’ve lost a kid who’s chosen to run away and are tasked to run up and down 3 flights of stairs trying to find them) , a couple breakthrough moments (like singing “Let it Go” together while washing dishes), and hours thinking about and researching lesson plans.

I have a lot of freedom in the class, and on good days we go outside to the local playground to play games disguised as action verb review. On bad days there’s pulling of hair, yelling, and the first-aid kit is needed. On good days the sweet girls take the hair scrunchies off my wrist and put my hair into careful ponytails, smiling and saying “Yepuda! Yepuda!” (pretty! pretty!). On bad days there’s bullying, and we run ourselves ragged trying to create a functional classroom environment. On good days the kids run up to me yelling “Linda Sonsangnim, gitar odi-eyo?” (“Teacher Linda, where’s your guitar?”) and take turns strumming and asking me to sing while I make chords on the fret board for them. I have learned to deal the English curse words tossed around by the kids as another avenue for them to practice English pronunciation. If they can pronounce “stupid-head” correctly, then I know they’ll have no trouble with “walk, run, bike”. Most days are a mix of both good and bad, but in the short time I’ve been here, I’ve started on the dynamic path of loving them, and hope to learn to love them better as time goes on.

 

My Life in Korea 101 – First blog post!

Greetings from Daejeon, South Korea!

(And a special greeting to you guys who are copying and pasting that in Google Maps to find out exactly where that is… haha)

So I’ve been in Korea about a month, and it’s been a whirlwind of new languages, new people, different cultures, public buses, pantomimed conversations, and lots and lots of rice. Since there’s no possible way I could explain every colorful, lovely, confusing God-filled moment, I’ll just give an overview now and hopefully post some specific stories later. Feel free to ask me questions in the comment section, or shoot me a message. 🙂

Where am I?P1040579

As I write this, I’m sitting on on our couch in the living room of our beautiful house on Hannam University, a Christian University in Daejeon that’s affiliated with the YAV program. It’s quite the city life here – there’s the hustle and bustle of students running to and fro, and an endless supply of inexpensive ‘college budget’ restaurants super close to our house. Concrete replaces grass in most places, and the lights in the city let me know there’s always something open for business.

The Fam12140929_10200276389489515_3125612786129275305_o(1)

I live with four other American YAV’s, and we have quickly become one weird, quirky, eclectic family. We met each other for the first time about a week before moving to Korea for a year, and are all practicing the idea of the beloved community every day. From left to right in the picture, we’re Alexis, Emily, our friend Hanbyeol, Me, Alyson, and Will. Alexis and Emily are both Floridians, Will is from Arkansas, Alyson is Asian-American, and I’m first generation German-American. And yeah, sometimes this beloved community isn’t as smooth as I just made it sound. Believe me. But sometimes I come home and there are freshly baked scones on the table P1040066up for grabs, or I find my laundry hung up. Sometimes we can’t agree on anything, and our personality differences/communication styles make things tricky. We go on night runs on the nearby track and trade turns crying on each others shoulders when things get overwhelming. This community is definitely one of the hardest and most rewarding aspects of this new life so far.

What do I do here?

I wear many hats. I’m a teacher, a student, a friend, a YAV family member, a band member in our local church, and a co-teacher for Sunday School. Every weekday we all have Korean language class (taught entirely in Korean, by the way) for four hours. The class itself is wild – there are students from all over, including Mongolia, China, Vietnam, The Philippines, and Indonesia. Our common language is body language and pictures, and sometimes the ever helpful but frequently wrong ‘Google translate’ app. Since coming here I regret ever complaining about any language classes taught in the states, where the teacher speaks and understands the same language I understand. It’s pretty beautiful – about 5 different nationalities, languages, and cultures unite to all tackle speaking, writing, and reading in Korean! And yes, we all help each other out when someone (mostly me) doesn’t understand.

After 4 hours, we walk back home for lunch and then go to our respective work sites in the city. I’m an English teacher at Saenaru Gong Dong Che, a soup kitchen and homeless shelter that also acts as a children’s center for low-income families. This community center is my main focus for my year in South Korea, so I’ve dedicated a separate blog post for details about my work here. It’s worth the read, if I do say so myself.

What are the hard parts?

Blessed will be the day when I learn to love others perfectly, the way love has been shown to me. But, until that day, I fail and get upset and frustrated. I want to love my housemates better, I want to love my kids at Saenaru Gong Dong Che better, and I want to fall asleep on my Korean class textbook to let osmosis do its work. I struggle with living a live closely embedded with Jesus’s life, as a beloved daughter who’s Father is the creator of everything. Plainly said, I want to love God more, and love the new people my life has put me in community with better. So, if you’re reading, and you feel inclined to pray, please know your prayers are important and downright necessary. This is an opportunity to take part in what God’s doing in South Korea, so jump on board, friend.

What are the good parts?

Meeting new people and striking up thought-provoking conversations! I adore strangers, so every change to engage with someone new and interesting always gives me energy. Thankfully, I’ve had many encounters with strangers here, on trains, on walks, friends of friends, classmates, and curious individuals who approach me while I’m playing guitar to ask about my music.

God has shown himself to me as faithful, present, and councilor. He brings sweet memories to my mind and shows Himself through swaying trees and random acts oP1040409f kindness through kids at my site. He uncomfortably pokes my heart when I’m straying into selfish or judgmental thoughts, letting me know He loves me too much to sit back and watch me walk in these ways.

(For more stories on what God is specifically doing here in Daejeon, be on the lookout for a separate link on the side, leading to a page with individual stories of this nature. If I’m not careful, I’ll fill up an entire blog post with nothing else, so they get their own space.)

Toodles from South Korea.

PREPARING FOR THE ADVENTURE: glimmers of the beloved community

Tonight was a celebration. I can still hear the sounds of reckless laughter and cupid shuffle echoing off the walls of the room where we’d spent hours and hours training this week. We’d had a long week here in Stoney Point Conference Center in New York, learning about community and conflict, privilege and poverty, sharing our fears and anticipations for the coming year. We were tired, emotionally, and physically. But when the music poured through the speakers of our little room, we danced anyway. Because maybe, amidst the grinning faces and fabulous footwork, we realized this would be one of the last nights we’d spend together as a YAV family before heading off in vastly different directions. I myself would be going to Korea, others around me were going to Little Rock, some Scotland, some Peru. Some of us came from far away; Africa, San Antonio, Korea, and some of us were locals. None of us looked the same, none of us danced the same, and English wasn’t everyone’s first language. Looking around at our group doing now the wobble, I noticed we couldn’t be more different.

But there we were, all the same, all shaking our butts and laughing at ourselves in the process. All signed up to do this crazy year of service in far off places with strange cultures; none of us quite knowing what we got ourselves into, but knowing it would be ok because of one foundational truth, and one core ideal.

We are YAV, the new generation of Young adult Volunteers. The ideal we hold is one of the beloved community, of a family comprised of individuals from different cultures, celebrating differences and learning to handle conflict together, through love. (Sounds impossible? I’ve seen it work…) The truth we hold on to is that we can achieve this, through the power of the Holy Spirit, with strength from God our Father, and Jesus, our brother. What we know is that we are loved beyond belief by the one who sent us, and what we hold on to is that He will never leave us. It is one God we worship, through many ways in many different languages, from vastly different backgrounds.

It was a neat sight, seeing all of us unified under one dance, laughing at ourselves and each other. Maybe this is our first glimpses into the beloved community. We might not all speak the same, look the same, or come from the same places, but tonight we did do a mighty impressive wobble.