Spreading the faith around the worldKoreans may be found teaching seminary students in Kenya, preaching the gospel to indigenous rural tribes in Malaysia, holding Bible study for children in a church in Bangalore, India or training seminary students on Luzon island in the Philippines.
These people are missionaries who devote a good part of their life to spreading the gospel in places thousands of miles from their home.
It has been only a century since Western missionaries spread Protestantism on the peninsula. But Korea, the second largest source of missionaries in the world, after the United States, has seen the number of evangelists abroad explode during the last decade, to 12,000 this year, according to the Korea Research Institute for Missions.
Korean missionaries operate in almost every corner of the world. According to the research institute, the evangelists are active in 164 countries, with 68 percent of them dispatched to nations where Christianity is not a dominant religion, including 26 percent working in Muslim countries. The percentage of Korean evangelists sent to Islamic nations is twice the international average.
At the behest of the Foreign Ministry, five Korean missionaries left Iraq in early November, including two who were abducted and released on April 8. “I was ready to die to convert Muslims,” Reverend Park Chang-seong says after returning from Iraq. “The only reason I turned back was the threat against Christians because of our presence there.”
What motivates these people to go even to a war-torn country is the sense of mission based on their faith ― the “great commission” cited in the Book of Matthew.
“I heard God’s voice while I was praying,” says Reverend Cho Joon-sang, 46, who has worked in India since 1994. “I was told to spread the faith to [non-believers]. It was my calling.”
“As citizens of a country indebted to missionaries who passed on the gospel to Korea, we need to return the favor,” says Reverend Kim Jong-seok, 46, who plans to start a mission in a small town on Luzon Island in the Philippines. Reverend Kim’s wife recently received a nursing license to provide medical assistance to Filipinos.
“When I worked on a ship and arrived in Mombasa, Kenya in 1989, I saw an old nun collecting relief goods from ships and distributing them to orphanages,” says Reverend Choi Jong-ho, 40, who will go to Uganda in January. “I was very touched. I believe God planned it all for me, making me board a ship and travel to Kenya.”
Each missionary is affiliated with a church that sponsors them financially, while there are professional missionary associations that organize delegations and manage administrative procedures for missionaries sent from a number of churches. The churches send money, clothes, medicine and other necessities through the associations.
Traditional types of work
Most of the Korean missionaries are involved in traditional work, such as setting up churches, training clerics and local missionaries, educating seminary students and converting non-Christians.
Generally speaking, there are two types of missions: to preach to those who have little familiarity with Christianity, and to preach to existing Christians.
“We aim to turn out indigenous leaders by teaching them the Bible and theology,” says Reverend Bae Ahn-ho, 52, who has been on a mission in Tanzania since 2002.
They say the ultimate goal is to train theology students and clerics as future leaders so that they can become self-sustaining in preaching Christian theology to their own people. In places where there are few Christians, they start from scratch.
“Our goal is to go to a village where there are no Christians and spread the gospel and eventually build a church,” says Reverend Choe Jo-ko, 45, who proselytizes rural Malaysians. “We cannot open a seminary if there is no church, but rather we try to preach the gospel first,” he says. “We need to take different approaches. First things first.”
The missionaries also preach God’s teachings to existing Christians whom the missionaries consider “impure.”
Reverend Cho, who trains 12 seminary students in Bangalore during the week and runs a Sunday school attended by about 80 children, says, “It is very difficult to convert them completely to Christianity, because they believe in multiple gods.”
“The faith of Christians in Tanzania is a mile long but an inch deep,” adds Reverend Bae.
Reverend Park Seung-gi, who worked for nearly 10 years in Kenya, says, “What makes it difficult to spread the gospel is resistance from ‘nominal’ Christians who make up of a large portion of Christians in the country.”
Missionary work also involves teaching local people how to make a living, and feeding them. “People have no hope about their future,” says Reverend Choi, who plans to go to Uganda. “There is no work to do. We have to create jobs and stop starvation.
“We will give them food and provide them with work. Uganda has good soil and a good amount of rainfall. If we plant seeds, I believe we can harvest,” he adds.
Reverend Choi says he wants to help Ugandans grow commercial crops such as coffee and cotton.
Reverend Choe, meanwhile, sells local produce in a market to help native Malaysians make a living.
“We opened a school for Kenyan adolescents to help them learn skills and become economically independent,” Reverend Park says.
No matter how good the missionaries’ intentions may be, their work may not always go smoothly and there are certain risks. They are well aware that they could face threats and that people they come across could be hostile.
“A Korean minister was preaching the gospel to people in a Hindu village. One day he found out that the church in the village was burned down, and two persons from the village died,” Reverend Cho says. “The minister was very shocked.”
Dealing with emergencies
The pre-mission training often incorporates case studies and discussions led by senior missionaries on family, health and emergency issues, including riots and civil war. The kidnapping and beheading in June of Kim Sun-il, who went to Iraq partly for missionary purposes, has heightened precautions.
Missionaries are instructed to stay calm, continue to pray and wait in case they are abducted, according to Reverend Kim. Kidnappers often aim at foreigners because they believe they are carrying a lot of cash, and missionaries often become easy targets because they go into the hinterlands.
While abduction and terrorism may not be everyday issues for most missionaries, other obstacles still exist.
In many countries where Korean evangelists work, such as China, Vietnam, Mongolia, India and most Islamic nations, it is illegal for foreigners to do missionary work, which makes it impossible to apply for a visa as a missionary. Thus, most of them do not declare on visa applications that they are on a religious mission. Instead, they obtain visas as professionals.
Helping Overseas Professionals’ Employment, an evangelical organization that specializes in placing missionaries in countries where such work is prohibited, said it has sent 108 missionaries to 11 Islamic or former communist countries since 1991. The group is reluctant to discuss the matter further since the missionaries could be deported if local law enforcement officials find out about their work.
“There are many foreign companies and Christians in Bangalore, although there are different levels of vigilance from region to region in India,” Reverend Cho says. “Unlike New Delhi, it is rather lax here.”
Financial problems can also seriously affect missionaries’ work because money plays an important role in religious missions.
“It was in the middle of the financial crisis in Asia. I was in shock whenever I went to the bank and checked the amount of money wired from Korea,” Reverend Cho says. “I saw the amount plunge to one half of what I used to get.”
For all projects, such as building a church or training seminary students, the missionaries are entirely dependent on the money from Korea, because contributions from those in the host country are typically very small. During the 1997-98 financial crisis, many Korean churches stopped providing funding to missionaries and many of them had to return home.
Disease is another danger faced by the missionaries, many of whom work in tropical countries. “There was one time where all my family was afflicted with malaria,” Reverend Bae says.
Despite the difficulties, many missionaries feel that their work is worthwhile. “It feels most rewarding when people come to understand God’s words or when those who resisted initially come to embrace the Bible,” Reverend Choe says.
Koreans tend to anticipate quick results, but evangelists say the process is gradual and it is better to take small steps. “There is a saying in Tanzania that ‘haraka,’ or the rush to do something, will destroy luck,” Reverend Bae says.
Despite its short history of Christianity, how did Korea become the second largest source of Christian missionaries in the world?
“First of all, the Christian religion became deep-rooted in Korea,” says Reverend Kim Tae-jung of Helping Overseas Professionals’ Employment. “Besides that, Koreans have a strong pioneering spirit.
“Wherever they go, Koreans build churches,” Reverend Kim, who is moving to the Philippines, says. “But, most of all, it is because of Korea’s economic growth and its higher status in the world. Economic strength is closely related to the number of missionaries a country sends. A mission can be very costly,” he adds.
Reverend Bae says Korean missionaries are slowly replacing Western evangelists as more Westerners withdraw from religious missions due in some cases to the declining number of Christians in their home countries.
“In the future, the biggest source of missionaries will be China,” Reverend Kim says. “The country has unlimited potential.”
by Limb Jae-un