My Life Journey – Hyo-Won Park
My grandparents were the first generation of Korean Methodist Christians.
About 135 years ago when an American Methodist missionary came to Korea and proclaimed the Gospel, they received the gospel and became Methodists. They received the missionary’s education and graduated at the Christian college founded by the American missionary.
It was a sensation at that time and very adventurous and risky because Korea was a very conservative nation. So it was very natural that I became a Methodist Christian from my birth.
When I was in senior high school, I had a very sincere Sunday school teacher, who influenced me to devote myself to a Christian lifestyle. It was the turning point of my life when I decided to enter the Methodist Theological Seminary to prepare myself to be a pastor.
In 1980, after graduating from the Seminary, I started my ministry in a small Methodist Church in Seoul. The Church that I served was known for having members that are very involved in social issues.
They were very practical, pioneers and forerunners actively participating in resistance against the dictatorship and eager to change the corrupt Korean society and its politics. Their active participation in social issues challenged me to respond to the social problems and to make me realize my calling as a minister that we are responsible for the social issues wherever we minister.
I began an outreach ministry with friends on weekdays. We gathered boys and girls who had to work in factories under the miserable conditions and unable to go to a public school because they had to earn their daily bread. Every evening we taught them with all subjects that they should learn.
In 1982, when I was 26 years old, I entered the military service. It was right after I was ordained as a pastor. After a 4-month-training course I was commissioned as a first lieutenant chaplain and sent to one of the camps located in a mountain in DMZ (DeMilitarized Zone) where civilians were not permitted to live. There was a very high military tension between South and North Korea in the area.
During my chaplaincy, I encountered situations that I never experienced before. Officers and soldiers asked me for pastoral care even though they were not Christians and neither religious. The best that I could do for them was to be with them and give them comfort. On Sundays, I led the Worship Service at the Church in the mountain; weekdays I went up to the mountain and stayed with guard posts in DMZ and spent time with soldiers.
The place was lonesome and dangerous. Sometimes soldiers step on landmines that were hidden under the ground. Sometimes a soldier killed himself. I myself almost had several accidents in the minefields and on steep mountain roads.
Through these experiences, I learned that our Christian faith is being tested and molded in a real situation that we face every day.
In 1987, I went to Germany to study. Studying theology, I met several professors to be my advisors. They were asking why I was studying in Germany where the Churches were dying.
It was very sad for me to see that the Churches were weak in Germany where the Protestant movement had originated.
One day my friend visited me; I did not expect to see him in Germany. He was a missionary and came from St. Petersburg, Russia. He asked me an important and urgent favor. He said he established a private college there and needed someone to start a new department of Korean language and literature there. So I took a leave of absence from my university and went to St. Petersburg across the Baltic Sea in order to work with him only for 1 year.
When I arrived at Saint Petersburg, I was told that the unemployment rate rose up to over eighty percent. It was enough for me to experience what really happened in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
During the day, I taught Korean language and literature, and in the evening, I opened a Korean language class for people who wanted to learn practical Korean. The most number of students were Korean-Russians who lost their native language.
From them, I heard surprising news that I have never known before, that their parents and grandparents were forced to move out from the east coast of Russia, which is the northern part of Korea where they had lived, by the Stalin regime. This was done to prepare for war against Japan. Their homes were destroyed, and they were moved by freight trains to Central Asia.
This occurred in 1937 before the outbreak of World War II and the numbers of victims were about 180,000. This miserable operation lasted for 3 months in the fall. And in the process, half of those people who were forced to move lost their lives.
After hearing that, a new call sprang up to me. I decided to be a Missionary for them.
I rented a ruined 3-room apartment and repaired it for worship services and the private Korean language classes. The number in attendance at Sunday Worship Service was small while the number of Korean language students was bigger. They were afraid to attend the Protestant Churches because they were Russian Orthodox Christians. It took a long time to change the misperception that the Methodist Church was one of the heresies.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church was so bewildered and threatened by the influx of missionaries. Because of that, they pushed their governor to restrict the activities of the religious groups from other lands. They were very angry and uneasy about so-called proselytism which is an attempt to convert another denomination from their Orthodox faith.
In 1999, Bishop Sharon Radar and staffs of the Wisconsin Conference visited Russia to make a personal inspection of the Theological Seminary in Moscow and Churches in some places according to the sisterhood relationship with the Russian Mission Conference.
In the year 2000, Bishop Rader invited me to come to Wisconsin. My first ministry in Wisconsin began at the Churches of Princeton and Neshkoro. It was the first time that I felt uneasy with my English pronunciation when I started to live in U.S.A.
I still feel embarrassed whenever I find myself being misunderstood. But I am encouraged to recall my memories of church members who accepted and loved me as their pastor even when I speak mixing German, Russian and English.
And from 2002 to 2006, I served at the Madison Korean UMC; from 2006 to 2011, I served at the San Francisco Korean UMC. In 2011, I returned to Wisconsin and served at the Greenfield UMC.
In 2013, I applied for UMC Missionary status. Global Ministries sent me to the same place in Russia. When I arrived, I found that the Russian religious situation was completely changed. In every corner of the block, Orthodox Church buildings were built and they were continuing building.
And the religious visa no longer existed. So I got a 3-month visa from the Russian consulate in Seoul, and before the expiration date I would go out of Russia and reenter as a tourist for 60 days. So by doing that I was able to stay total of five months without renewing the visa status.
A new law has been passed that a foreigner cannot lead the Worship Service and have Bible studies in public or private places. Now official religious activities are prohibited and cannot be conducted. To proclaim the Gospel or to hand out a flyer or Christian book, all are strictly forbidden.
Under the strict Russian religious law, I continued to open the Korean language classes in order to meet Russians and invite them to our Worship Services. I have been teaching Korean every day even on Sundays.
During the past year, about 20 people gathered for Worship Services and had Holy Communion every Sunday. It was so hard to register a new Church in Russia, but we have already done so.
The first Church I founded was Stremlenie (Aspiration) UMC 25 years ago. And now a Russian Pastor is serving the congregation. The second Church was registered last year, and named Vera (Faith) UMC. This name was given by Church members.
This church is open to all Russians, but this church will be characterized mainly for the Korean-Russian Diasporas.
I have three sons. Two sons, I gained when I married my wife, and I have one son from my previous marriage. All of them are over 30 years old and living in the States of Illinois and Wisconsin.
My wife is also a Pastor of the Korean Methodist Church. Before coming to Russia, she served in Chicago area for Korean single women and single mothers in difficult situations. Her mission is to restore them and help them to settle down and to connect them to Methodist Churches nearby. When we return to Wisconsin, she wants to resume her Mission and Ministry.
Thanks for reading!