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When Foreign Becomes Gift: A Tale of Two Cemeteries

July 3, 2015
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Saint Kim Tae-gon, first Korean Catholic priest

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Methodist Homer Hulbert gravestone

“He was accused of upsetting the social order by attempting, against the government’s orders, to introduce western thinking into Korea”   Marker at statue of Saint Kim Tae-gon, first Korean Catholic priest, executed in Seoul at age 26

“I would rather be buried in Korea than in Westminster Abbey”  Gravestone of Homer Hulbert, Methodist American missionary to Korea 

This week I visited two sites in Seoul which honor Christianity’s roots in Korea: the Foreigners Cemetery, and the Catholic Jeoldusan Martyrs Shrine. It was a moving experience for this son of Presbyterian missionaries who served 16 years in Korea. The two parks sit side by side on the Han River. Both are beautiful and inspiring. Yet on the surface, they tell different stories.

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Martyrs Shrine sculpture

The Marytrs Shrine story is of Christianity coming to Korea via Koreans (the first Catholic Korean was converted in Beijing). In contrast, the Foreigners Cemetery (almost all graves are of Protestants) tells a story of Christianity coming to Koreans via foreign missionaries. Marytrs Shrine tells a story of the first Christians seen as traitors to Korea, leading to mass killings (last year 124 were beatified by Pope Francis in Seoul). But in the Protestant story, the first Christians were embraced as friends of Korea.  The foreigners cemetery gravestones tell of those who founded major institutions to serve society (such as Yonsei and Ewha Universities and Severance Hospital), and those who promoted Korean independence (one missionary, Hubert Hulbert, was even sent by the Korean king on an unsuccessful mission in 1906 to persuade U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt to protect Korea from Japanese occupation).

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“If I had a thousand lives to give Korea should have all of them”

Sadly, however, the street between the two parks is like a dividing wall. Korean colleagues tell me that the Protestants do not claim the Catholic story, and vice versa.  Yet not only is each story true, but both stories share powerful truth as well. For both tell a story of Christianity coming to Korea via people viewed as strange and “foreign,” and via great sacrifice and suffering:  The first Catholic Koreans were viewed as a “western” threat by the government which hunted them down and tortured and killed them. The first Protestant missionaries exchanged privilege for great risk (one cemetery section is dedicated to children who died in their first two years of life). My parents tell of the difficulty many of their Korean friends faced in becoming Christian in the 1960s and early 1970s; to be Christian then was a costly departure from family and cultural traditions.

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First Methodist missionary to Korea, who died in Korea trying to save a drowning girl

Church history scholar Dr. Andrew Walls has said that faithful Christianity must be always, at once, both “indigenizing” and “pilgrim”—both hospitable to local culture and tradition, and challenging it where necessary, by creating a people whose ultimate identity is not determined by nation, race, or ethnic group, but centered in Christ and in loving strangers and enemies.

According to many analysts of the church here in South Korea, the suffering and sacrifice in the DNA of Christian beginnings here has been infected by a virus of prosperity, success, and even scandal. It would be an error to romanticize these first Christians as pure heroes. Yet at their best, perhaps it is their foreign-ness and pilgrim-ness (both Catholic and Protestant, both Korean and foreign) and their willingness to trade success for sacrifice which is precisely what needs to be recovered today. Historically, the true nature and origins of Christianity are neither Protestant or Catholic. In this divide, too, the pilgrim identity is of greater importance.

Dr. Chris Rice is Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia at Duke Divinity School, U.S., and Northeast Asia Representative for the Mennonite Central Committee. Chris and his wife live in Chuncheon, South Korea.

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