Sabbatical 6


"So just as our bodies are clothed in our garments, our flesh enclosed by our skin, our bones wrapped in our flesh, our hearts centred in our bodies, so are we, spirit and flesh, clothed in the goodness of God”  (Lady Julian of Norwich, ~1395AD).

As we neared the end of our second week in Korea, we flew back from Jeju Island to Gimpo, a domestic airport on the edge of Seoul, Friday, April 17. On the flight, I was so moved to clearly see the city of Jeonju from the air, the city where so many of our homestay students had come from, and where the agency that connected us to them was based. This was our next stop.
We flew into Gimpo just after noon, and, again, with help from our “angel,” (Kyung Jin), we made our bus connection for a three hour ride to Jeonju. For the first time, we were able to see the Korean countryside on the mainland. Driving along the Han River, it seemed like it took us forever to get through Seoul. Just after leaving the city, we were soon driving south through yet another city, Suwon, an ancient place of learning under the Choson dynasty, and even now, it is still a university town. Two of our homestay daughters, Eunsoo (Sue) and Hyun Jin (Jini) were attending there. No sooner had we left Suwon, we were then driving through Cheonan, the city where Jini grew up.

For over two hours we saw much of the Korean countryside, punctuated by frequent stark and surprising urban interruptions. Korea is such a beautiful little country, full of enchanting green forested mountains alternating with valleys rich in agriculture with an abundance of rice paddies and other produce growing fields. Frequently however, seemingly out of nowhere, a complex of 10 to 15, residential high-rises, 20 stories and higher, would spring up in the middle of the country along the side of the freeway, seemingly unconnected to any municipality. There seemed to be no shops, recreational complexes, or community centres in proximity to them. They were just there, on their own, surrounded by the rural landscape. Each high-rise had a large identifying number on it. Korea has a small land mass, twice the size of Vancouver Island, where a population of over 50 million resides, compared to 35 million for all of Canada. Population density is a huge issue, with people constantly struggling for livable solutions that can provide housing access for everyone. The “No Tower” signs we are seeing in Commercial drive today would be a strange sight to Koreans indeed!

We arrived in Jeonju at around 5:30pm. To our great joy, Sohee was waiting for us! We had such a joyful reunion! Sohee, as many at VEV will remember, accompanied us on our last visit to Lower Post in July 2014, where she quickly became very popular with the First Nations children and youth. We enjoyed a wonderful meal together with her at a traditional Korean restaurant, where we sat cross-legged on the floor, eating at a table that was only inches off the floor. She then accompanied us to our cute little “Hanok Village” guest house. “Hanok” is a Korean term meaning “traditional house” – its architecture the way it was before the arrival of the modern age. Jeonju is home to a large Hanok style village, which features lots of traditional guest houses and café’s along with other tourist attractions. There is also a large Roman Catholic Cathedral there with gothic architecture, very striking in the midst of the traditional Korean village. Our guest house was in the heart of this village, with no western style bed, just a simple Korean style mattress on the floor. We found out that the place was actually owned by a Christian family. One of the owners, a university professor in Jeonju, when he found out we were pastors, invited us to come back and stay for free on weeknights! Wow!

The next day, another one of our homestays, Boem (Chloe) Lee, who had stayed with us during the fall of 2013, was celebrating her birthday. Her parents were retired and living in a mountain village, one hour outside of Jeonju so her father came and picked us up and took us to their mountain home where we were treated to delicious, homemade bibimbab, a world famous rice dish consisting of vegetables and various meats, again with all the varied Korean side dishes. Her father, Joengsu, played a rendition on a traditional Korean flute, the Dansu, followed by a special forest walk tour surrounding their home. We felt like we were on sacred ground.

Boem (or “Chloe”), like our other students, was such a delight to get to know when she stayed with us. She arrived as an avowed atheist, but she carried such a passion for human rights, social justice, and true democracy in Korea, and everywhere. She was true to the spirit and reputation of Jolla-Do, the province in which Jeonju resides. It has a fierce, independent spirit, with a long history of student democratic movements that have shaped the story of Korea. The Gwangju Massacre, like the “Tiananmen Square massacre” in Beijing, left hundreds of students dead at a University town near Jeonju, in May, 1980. It resulted in the loss of support for the South Korean dictatorship at the time, and opened the door to a much more democratic system by the early 1990s. One night, back in Vancouver, while Chloe was living with us, we hosted the late Freddie Hasselberg, an elder from Lower Post, and his daughter, Freda. I was struck by how much Chloe connected so naturally with them, in spite of the obvious language and cultural differences. I asked her later as to why this was so, and she replied, “Because we have a common story, and we feel that connection!” Indeed, Koreans know what it is like to be invaded and colonized, as from 1910-1945, they were colonized by Japan in similar ways to First Nations in Canada. They, too, were not allowed to wear their regalia or speak their language. They were separated from their families and regarded as second class citizens. Korea became one large residential school for 35 years, so Chloe could feel the solidarity with First Nations in Canada!

I recalled that Chloe’s departure at YVR was one of the most moving I had ever experienced. I’ll never forget her looking into my tear-filled eyes as she prepared to clear security saying, "Papa, I’m not yet a follower, but He’s now my friend.”  There was no describing the emotion I felt at hearing this statement, so full of her characteristic honesty. Now, in Jeonju, there was no describing the joy we felt at seeing her again, this time with her family in their home.

Then, on Sunday, we connected with another one of our wonderful homestays, Ara, and her family, who again treated us to a five-star meal followed by an exquisite dessert at a coffee place in Jeonju, overlooking the valley and mountains. Ara stayed with us during the spring of 2014.  I particularly remember Ara’s immense help when she became my personal assistant in helping me prepare a professionally made video tribute in celebration of David Johnson’s life at his memorial service. She linked the slide show to Brian Doerksen’s song, “Father, Father Me,” which was a blessing to David’s family.

Our visit with Ara and family in Jeonju was a particularly tender time for them, as Ara was preparing to return to Vancouver for five years to go to Capilano University at the same time her brother had just gone into the army. As Korea is still officially at war, every young Korean man is required to enlist for two years of highly rigorous military training and service. This is very interruptive to their schooling and extremely stressful on their families as there is limited contact while they’re away. To have both children leaving at the same time was so hard on these beautiful parents, so we offered the best comfort that we could to them. We assured them that we would be waiting for Ara in Vancouver when she arrived in Canada. She is now living in Vancouver and has been to VEV already a few times!

Monday came, and it was again time to say another tearful farewell to our friends in Jeonju.  The joy of seeing them again was now accompanied by the sadness of having to say goodbye so soon. It had been such a rich weekend, packed full of memories that we would cherish forever. The rainy and misty bus ride through the beautiful mountain countryside to Busan reflected our mood.  Through the tears, we knew we were incredibly wealthy. The circle of love and friendship continued, and we were completely clothed in the goodness of God.
Wade Pallister