Growing up in Korea some years after the Korea War, I was so proud of my father who studied in America. I remember how in grade school teachers customarily asked survey questions like, “Anyone has a family member with a college degree?” In a classroom packed with kids, I was the only one who raised a hand to that question and it was a real point of pride. We lived in the northern Seoul suburb of Uijeongbu, which formed the defense line against North Korea and housed U.S. military base camps. Townspeople who worked with the U.S. army were well-off. But the town was also home to many hooligans whose work of choice was stealing from all sorts of sources – whether it be from three-quarter-ton trucks heading towards military PX stores, street market vendors, or even from the so-called “bar girls” and “hostesses” who made a living by the sex trade. Growing up in that environment, I held on to the fact that I belonged to a somewhat different world: Uijeongbu Central Methodist Church, which I believed to be the best church in the whole world, and to my father – a rare college grad who studied abroad. That unique sense of belonging was my defense shield, so to speak.
My father majored in English Literature and he used to make literary magazines. He would say English loanwords in his conversations. Being a rural boy attending an agricultural middle school, I looked up to my dad as a role model. While father was far away in America, my mother ran a pharmacy business in town. She was basically doing the simple trade with her sister’s pharmacist license. On some days, young women came by the pharmacy for penicillin shots. They were local women who sold sex to make ends meet. After receiving their usual injections, the women wept as if to release all the accumulated bitterness and sorrow, and my mother wept with them. On other days, the police summoned my mother. Pharmacies sold rat poisons over the counter, and not on rare occasions, people ingested it to take their own lives. All in all, I remember mom being one of those matron figures in town; and she looked after young women who had been pushed to live in the margins.
To my young eyes, my mother seemed less cultured, less sophisticated than my father. The years spent with my dad were short and his words were brief, but they were like jewels to last a lifetime. My mom, in contrast, was the one who did all the shouting and chasing around after us children. A lot of words were spoken but only a few to quote. For example, “Be good to your own mother,” she said whenever I sat down to prepare Mother’s Day sermon. “Just don’t be a free-rider,” is another memorable phrase she gave on the day of my ordination. Mother showed some symptoms of dementia in her later years. But when she heard that her eldest granddaughter is getting married to an Ivy Leaguer and such-and-such, she simply said, “Good character is good enough.”
As I grew older, I came to see that our household was sustained thanks to my mother’s resilience. She wasn’t as well-read, but she single-handedly raised her three boys after my father’s untimely passing. Father preached and put his ideal thoughts into writing, but mom embraced the weeping local women with her heart and tears. Whenever my aunt showed hostility to her new stepsons, mom always stood on the side of the children: “You call yourself a Christian? Don’t you fear God? These kids are precious to Him.” Then my aunt, the top-notched Seoul National University grad, would cry out loud and say, “I know, but I can’t help myself!” Then mother would hug her and cry with her. There were such days. Later after her husband’s passing, my aunt equally shared the inheritance between her own children and stepchildren.
Mother was caring and she was strong. Over the years I’ve recognized that same sustaining strength in a congregation’s tender love for the church and each other. And I saw it again during the coronavirus crisis. Whereas I stood by the church with my thoughts and prayers and through my talking and writing, our church members and ministry staff did all the hands-on practical work. A standing church is like a tip of the iceberg, with so much that needs to be addressed and resolved beneath the surface. Our ministry office has been putting in a lot of hard work and effort, even more so since the outbreak of the pandemic. And our church members have also been contributing in the best ways they can despite all the difficulties. I’m thankful that everyone is doing their best to keep their faith and spirits high.
It’s tough because the end of this coronavirus tunnel seems so far out of reach. But the past experience of life at the bottom seems to has given me the eyes to see the brighter side of every situation. You know it’s time to lean unto God when all you can do is to bow your head, say a prayer, and weather the storm.
Looking back, life was tough. But in those moments, mother was even tougher.