‘Since March 1, everything changed’A letter written long ago in Korea somehow made its way to the basement of a home in Baltimore, Maryland, where my mother found it not long ago.
The letter was not to her ― my mother was a small girl living in another state when the letter was written, Oct. 24, 1919. Years later, my mother was active in church work at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, and she assumes that the letter was among some church records she was handling at one time or another.
The letter is a report from an American missionary in Seoul to her sponsoring church. And it turns out to be an eyewitness account of an important moment in Korean history.
“Dear friends,” wrote Mable Genso, the missionary. “Since March, when the Koreans rose up and demanded their independence things have all changed.”
Every Korean knows what began on March 1, 1919. Halfway around the world, in my mother’s basement, was a document of the Korean independence uprising during the Japanese colonial period. Mrs. Genso could hardly foresee the course of the Korean independence struggle, yet she recognized that she was an eyewitness to history.
Historians now generally agree that Christian missionaries and the Christian church were not direct participants in the independence struggle, but many of the leading figures in the struggle were Christians, urged on by their faith.
“We have had to be careful in all our dealings with the natives,” Mrs. Genso wrote, “else the Japanese should think we were mixing up in the affair and else we should put suspicion on the Koreans, for the Japanese have no faith in an American at all ― at all.”
But, she added, “Most Christians are in it because they represent the most advanced people of the country.”
I agree with a Methodist lady who said the other day that before the first of March seems like a dream. Everything is so changed that we can’t picture the Koreans the way they were before. No one can even guess how it will all end ― the end is not yet, nor is it in sight. One thing we know, most of our work will have to be readjusted to suit the needs of a changed Korea.
But whatever else changes one thing will not change, and that is the mother heart ― it’s the same the world over. I’m finding more and more how true that is. And as Korea awakes the mothers awake and want to know ― they want to know a lot of things.
Mrs. Genso was a medical missionary. She sent photographs of the children she cared for. The American ladies who supported her in Korea had a weekly sewing circle, where they made children’s garments ― everything from diapers to sweaters ― and sent them to Korea to swaddle the little ones. At this point in her letter, Mrs. Genso turned to the mundane business of missionary work, only to be pulled back again by the political currents swirling about her.
Our work got a pretty good start last fall. We made out a program for the year and had it printed, two meetings a month, one for Child Study and one for Physical Care. . . . We had 20 babies on the better baby list, and interest was spreading when the first of March came and with it the uprising. But it will all work out for good. It is awakening people of all classes, the women are coming to the front and everyone is taking an interest in things in general.
It’s been beautiful to see in what spirit many Christians have gone into it. I’ll just tell you about one of the Mothers Club women ― one of my very best Korean friends.
Just a few days after the Koreans declared their independence came the day for the Mothers Club meeting. About 15 women came but everybody was so excited that study was impossible. I served tea and cake to them (a thing I do not usually do at the club). . . .
Then this woman, of whom I spoke, led in prayer pleading with God to not let any bitterness spring up in their hearts for the Japanese (this woman’s husband was already in jail) but make [us] love them.
When we were through this woman came right to me and said something like this: “Mrs. Genso, did you know before-hand that independence was to be declared?” I said, “No.” “Well,” she said, “that is what we prayed for, that no one should know before-hand, and God answered out prayer.”
For two months, it transpired, the woman and her husband had been discussing the planned uprising.
“Now you stay out of this,” she ordered her husband, who was studying for the ministry. “You have entered God’s work and your business is to preach the Gospel, not dabble in politics.” But he said, “I feel I must take part. The work of the gospel is hampered by conditions as they are, and for the sake of the Church I must also take part.”
“But I still said no. So he said, ‘All right, we will pray about it together, and I will not enter without your consent.’ So for three nights, after the children were asleep, we two went together to the church and prayed. The third evening as we came out I turned to him and said, ‘It’s all right. You may go.’ Then he said, ‘Do you know why I do this? It’s so our little son may have a chance to grow up to be a better man than I am.’
“He was taken to prison, and when I came here today my heart was sad and discouraged, but the Bible reading and prayer together have been such a blessing that I go out strengthened.”
There are lots of people in this movement in that same spirit. Do you wonder that the poor Japanese are puzzled ― you can’t cut that sort of spirit out with a sword nor shoot it with a gun, and that’s all they have to fight it with.
The story has an epilogue. The woman apparently was pregnant during those prayers, but did not yet know it. In the summer, when she did know, she told Mrs. Genso, “how strange a peace she had . . . and that even though her husband was killed it would be all right.”
Was her husband killed, then? Or did she mean only that, confident of Korea’s eventual liberation and God’s providence, she was reconciled to the loss of her husband, should that be her lot? Mrs. Genso’s letter is unclear.
Just a few days before the date of Mrs. Genso’s letter, the new baby, child of struggle against Japan, was born. “I made its whole layette out of the things that you dear people sent,” Mrs. Genso wrote the Presbyterian ladies, “and out of money on hand.”
Perhaps that baby lives today, vigorous at age 83. But perhaps not. Life in 1919 was pretty chancy for babies.
I was real unfortunate with my babies last year, but it wasn’t the fault of the treatment. Still it was distressing. One died of diphtheria, one of pneumonia and one of something else. The baby I am now feeding is a sister of the first one on the death list, so you see the parents didn’t lose confidence in me. Of course I do not doctor the babies but just get the parents to go to the doctors. The one I am feeding is doing fine now. The poor mother has lost every baby ― this is the fourth. Pray that this one may be spared as a testimony to the Christian doctors and hospital.
We need diaper cloth the worst of anything and next little loose white garments or material to make them and caps, too. I have lots of soap, yet am running short on safety pins. Anything that babies wear at home is exceedingly welcome here. And everything you send serves a double purpose of clothing a baby and providing funds to help poor ones.
Now I know you want me to stop for this is a long letter. Greetings to all.
Sincerely, Mable Genso
by Hal Piper