Both my grandfather and father were pastors, and I am a cradle Christian, but it was at the seminary that I came to understand what it really means to believe in Jesus Christ. As a kid, church was my playground and during tender teenage years, it was really the central stage of my life. After immigrating to the states, church became a refuge and comfort in a world that constantly made me feel inadequate. One person that played a key role during those formative years was my youth group pastor Dr. Ko Jaesik, who later became the president of Hanshin University. He taught us to see the world through the eyes of Jesus and to be the salt and light of the world. He helped us to understand society through the lens of the Bible and to place ourselves in the shoes of the weak and powerless.
I met with Dr. Ko after my father’s passing. Back then I was preparing for a Reformed Presbyterian Westminster Theological Seminary as per the recommendation of my late father’s friend Rev. Im Taekgwon, who later served as the president of Asian United Theological University. Dr. Ko instead wrote me a recommendation letter for Boston University School of Theology saying “You should follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr.” That’s how my life began in Boston where I met Rev. Hong Keunsoo and later, Rev. Kwak Nosoon, who were seminary classmates with Dr. Ko. All three pastors hoped that I would continue to study. One time Dr. Ko visited me in Chicago on his way for a sabbatical leave in Argentina, where he planned to do research with Professor Jose Miguez Bonino. He said, “I would like you to keep studying. Come to spend a year in Argentina with me.” But I couldn’t take the offer as I had just planted a church.
Reflecting on how Jesus hands-on taught his disciples and how he returned for them to Galilee after his resurrection, I thought about my mentors who gave their best to expand my horizons. With big heart they helped a vulnerable young man that I was to find a way in the world.
Jesus gave his heart to his disciples and gave them faith through very personal encounters. Oh, how I want to see my ministry be more reflective of what Jesus did. The way Rev. Hong taught me was through mutual sharing of our encounters with Christ. Every Monday he made me share a reflection from his Sunday sermon, and he would likewise give an evaluation of my preaching once a month. Rev. Kwak was similar in that regard. While I was with him, I was busy leading Bible studies at six different campuses. He handed me a book one day and said, “You still got so much to learn. Why are you so eager to teach others? Starting next week, we will have a weekly reflection of what you read.” And that’s what we did together every Monday. But back in those days, I was too eager to go out and change the world. Rev. Kwak and I ended up parting ways upon his command. Later when I complained about Rev. Kwak to Rev. Hong and Dr. Ko, they both laughed and said, “It’s not your place to judge Kwak Nosoon.”
The way I trained for ministry was not about finding a one-size-fits-all solution from the Bible. Rather, it subjected me to responsibly grapple with life questions that people live with in everyday contexts. The hermeneutical approaches that I learned for preaching placed me within Boston’s most dangerous neighborhoods to question the root causes behind the cycle of poverty and crime, and how to effectively bear witness to Jesus there. The sort of questions that I and my cohorts wrestled were why Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam’s communist revolutionary who later became the country’s president, never came to believe in Jesus although he was exposed to a Christian environment, cleaning a local church for living as a student at Boston University. Such were the questions that shaped the early days of my ministry.
Looking back, while mentors helped to shape my theology, church members taught me ministry. There were church members in Boston who patiently helped me grow and become a pastor. There were church members in Chicago who gave their trust and dreamt with me as their pastor, despite my overconfidence and lack of wisdom. Again in Atlanta and now in Flushing, church members helped me see what it means to be a pastor and what pastoral ministry is really about. I always seem to learn a little too late, but still, the grace that you all shared with me has always prevailed. So thank you for that.