I am sitting in a café in Seoul, South Korea, which looks about as different from Southern Maryland as one can possibly imagine. A stream runs between the two streets before me, crowded by people and vehicles, surrounded by small shops and sleek, modern skyscrapers that crowd out the few traditional Korean buildings left from ancient dynasties. This seems an odd place for me to write my first reflection to you. But this particular time and place may provide an opportunity to reflect a bit on culture and new beginnings with each other.
You may or may not know that I am in South Korea at the moment because I am engaged to someone who currently lives here. Her name is Hee, short for Kyunghee. We met as fellow volunteers at a religious community in England last year, where we both realized a call to living a different sort of life than we had in the past, and a call to be with each other. She has already visited Maryland to get to know my family, so I am here on the other side of the ocean getting to know hers.
As a foreigner during the season of the coronavirus, I was required to spend two weeks in quarantine at a government designated facility. As an American, I felt both unsettled and pleasantly surprised by what seems to be a uniquely Korean combination of intrusion and surveillance by the government on the one hand, and protection and politeness on the other. People in full medical protective gear cheerfully greeted me with food and took my temperature, and I received the COVID-19 test twice (negative both times). Protesters lined up outside the hotel every day, playing music and speeches through loudspeakers to protest against the disruption caused by bringing potential virus-carriers to their town. They expressed their anger at not taking part in this decision by the government. I am told that protests and democratic movements form a strong part of Korean history and identity, and that identity frequently manifests itself through loudspeakers.
It was a surreal and somewhat maddening two weeks to stay in a comfortable hotel room with plenty of food and a view of the mountains, but unable to leave the room to see my fiancé who lives in the same city. It felt equally surreal to leave the facility at midnight on July 26th, again escorted by cheerful and polite Koreans in medical gear, and then to be in the car with the person whom I had been longing to see for over three months. Since then, I have spent my time getting to know her family and her culture. I speak very little Korean, so Hee translates most of the conversations with her family. Koreans hold the Confucian sense of respect for elders and social hierarchy, so I am trying to learn the different titles for everyone in the family: mother, father, father’s older brother, mother’s sister, etc. But mostly, it seems, I am eating. They feed me, they tell me I am not eating enough, so I drink and eat more, I manage to sleep, and then they feed me again. It seems to constitute my primary duty as a future son-in-law.
A teacher once told me to count on two things in life: everybody is different, and everybody is the same. Spending time in another culture helps us to understand how true that is. The language is so different that direct translation seems impossible in many situations, the concept of scale and space are completely different, and concepts of etiquette are different. But mothers all over the world feed people. Citizens all over the world desire to take part in the decisions that govern their lives. Love all over the world keeps people together through great challenges and distances.
That may help us, as a church with a new rector, to face some of the opportunities and challenges before us. Everybody is different and everybody is the same. Some of my convictions and tendencies may look exactly the same as some of your previous rectors or other priests whom you have met. But sometimes, completely without my realizing it, I may say or do something that seems to you as if I am speaking a different language. Some of the things that the parish says or does will probably confuse me as well. Our opportunity is to communicate openly and honestly with each other about what feels familiar and what feels new, and to celebrate both and learn from each other. When Hee and I work through that in our relationship, we find that laughing at ourselves helps us.
This is part of what Christians call repentance: turning away from what keeps us turned in on ourselves, and opening up to God drawing us to Himself and others. That means a continual dying to self, letting go of what we thought we knew. I did not think that my year at Hilfield Friary would lead to South Korea, marriage, or back to Southern Maryland. But that is God for you. He has made me happier than I thought that I could be. Our ministry together as a parish will probably lead both you and I to unexpected places, and we can trust that they will be better than the ones that we could plan for ourselves.
Hee and I plan to spend another month here, and then to return to Maryland together to celebrate the Sacrament of Marriage at Trinity Church on August 27th. Limitations of the pandemic mean that we can only gather with a few of our family members. We have a few days after that to begin our life together before we officially begin our lives with you on September 1st. Because visas are difficult to obtain at the moment, Hee will need to return to South Korea in late September. Please pray for us as we travel and as we wait for the government’s response to our visa application.
Finally, I would like to leave you with a note of hope. The following verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans encouraged Hee and I during several painful months apart, and we heard it in church here on our first day together:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38)
The people of Korea understand the reality of separation all too painfully, and the United States is now experiencing it in its own ways. But as we wonder about our future- as a family, a parish, and a world- we can trust and take hope in the love of God. I will see you soon, by His grace.
Peace of Christ,