By Jack Haberer, Presbyterian Outlook editor
“Sixty years,” he whispered as he tried to blink back his tears. “Sixty years,” he whispered again.
We’d just walked outside from sitting in the audience at the Mount Dora Observatory on the southern edge of the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas. During the presentation we had heard the proud marching-style music of a military band. We’d listened to a haunting ode sung to the out-of-view Mt. GumGang, which is considered the most beautiful mountain the whole of Korea. We’d taken in the greetings from both the military base’s chaplain and the commander, which were then followed by a thorough explanation of the border-lining river, the once-in-a-while connecting bridges, and the North Korean’s buildings, flag poles and statues – including a few mocking insults of their technological backwardness – by a private who serves as the base’s Korean-to-English translator. Through the huge picture window we studied the third largest city of North Korea, Kaesong, whose industrial complex was shut down last April 8 due to increased political tensions before reopening in August.
For most of the approximately 300 delegates, ecumenical advocates, and observers, this field trip of 250 miles via high speed rail from the 10th general assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan was offering a quick glimpse of the most militarized zone in the world (an odd reality, considering its label as a DMZ).
But for Syngman Rhee, this was a journey measured not in miles but decades. In 1950, after his pastor-father was executed by the northern regime, his mother directed him (age 19) to flee with his brother (17), knowing that they would be the next to lose their lives. They left behind not just mom, but four younger sisters (12, 10, 8 and 6 months).
As refugees, the only way for the two boys to survive was through enlisting in the South Korean Marines. After the Armistice agreement was signed in 1953, Syngman was sent to Quantico to study at the U.S. Marines Officers Training School and then returned to Korea to complete his service. The following year, with the sponsorship of Lt. Gunner Hanson a Christian he met at Quantico, he came back to the U.S. to earn an undergraduate degree from Davis and Elkins College, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (M.Div.) and Yale Divinity School (Th.M.) and finally the University of Chicago Divinity School (Doctor of Religion).
What also followed was a distinguished career as a pastor, a campus minister, 25 years as General Assembly staff leadership for global mission, and then upon retirement, service for 15 more years as professor of mission and evangelism and the director of Asian-American Ministry Center at Union Presbyterian Seminary. And during that time he was elected to serve as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2000-01 – making him a national hero back in South Korea. He also served as president of the National Council of Churches (1992-93).
But through the first 28 years of that journey he carried the gut wrenching pain of wondering, wondering. “Whatever has happened to my mother and sisters?”
From the day of his escape till 1978 he had no contact with, nor information about those five immediate relatives. Finally the day came when his relentless attempts to reach them bore fruit. He was allowed to travel back to Pyongyang in the north. And he enjoyed a wondrous reunion with the four sisters and came to know their families.
He also discovered that his mother had died eight years prior to his return.
Syngman has returned to the north a few times since, but the ache still persists and will continue to turn inside just as long as this, the only divided country in the world, is led by two governments who keep a wedge between what is at heart one people that yearns to one in fact as well as in their dreams.
The ecumenists’ field trip to Mt. Dora provided this pastor-editor an unanticipated, heart-rending two days of being schooled in the world of Korean Christianity by my friend, my board-member, and hero, Syngman Rhee. I hope and pray that the assembly of the World Council will in some ways help bring into worldwide realization the thematic prayer, “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.” I will be praying all the more for its realization specifically among the Christians, indeed for all the people who call themselves Korean and are, with Syngman whispering, “Sixty years. Sixty years.”