Missionaries seek a new direction
Lee Hyung-woo is a devout Christian who has visited Rwanda, East Timor and Afghanistan on behalf of Frontiers, a missionary Christian group that tries to bring peace to troubled areas. He is “puzzled and sorry” about the recent kidnapping of 23 Koreans by the Taliban, but he still wants to visit Afghanistan, where the abductions took place.
“Our group takes a different approach from others,” he says. “We focus on peacemaking missions, not on building churches or converting locals.”
Thirty-five days have passed since the Taliban shocked the nation with the kidnapping. Two male hostages have been killed and two women have been released. Talks continue between the Taliban and various governments, but the fate of the remaining hostages is unclear.
Lee, who visited Afghanistan in 2004 and 2005, says that Korea’s many missionaries must learn a lesson from the hostage crisis.
Some Koreans have condemned the Christian hostages for their “arrogance” and some have expressed resentment that government resources ae being expended in the quest for their freedom.
Lee has found the reaction of non-Christian Koreans to be a “shocking eye-opener” that revealed widespread “antipathy against churches and missionary culture.”
“Reading some of the Internet postings, which expressed no sympathy for the hostages, I got the impression that some Koreans are using this issue as an opportunity to express their deep-rooted hostility against Christian churches and missionaries,” he says.
According to figures released in 2006 by the Korea World Missions Association, there are over 16,000 Korean missionaries working in 173 countries overseas.
Korean missionaries are active in 61 locations in African countries, 42 European countries, 33 Asian countries, 25 South American countries and 12 countries in Oceania.
In Asia, there are 3,300 missionaries working in 15 Muslim countries where Christian missionary work is banned. There are 8,877 female missionaries and 7,739 men.
Song Jae-ryong, a sociology professor specializing in religion at Kyung Hee University, thinks that the actual number is larger. “During summer time, the number of short-term missions soars with office workers and students heading out on their summer breaks,” Song says. “This number, which is very large, goes uncounted in the official statistics.”
Only the United States, with a much bigger population than Korea, has more overseas missionaries. Lee believes that Korean missionaries should continue their work, but with more humility.
“We should learn from the hostage crisis,” he says. “Missionary work must continue but with a different attitude.”
Not everyone agrees that Korean missionaries need to change their approach.
“These hostages were on a medical mission,” says an official of a leading Christian group that has active missionaries in the field. He refused to be identified, citing the gravity of the issue and possible risks to his colleagues. “I have to say that the missionaries in Afghanistan were held because they did not observe safety rules ― they were not kidnapped because of problems with our missionary culture in general.”
“This hostage issue is a tragedy that was caused by international politics, not the missionary culture of Korea,” says Reverend Sung Nam-yong from Seoul.
Park Eun-jo, a pastor at the Saemmul Presbyterian Church, which sponsored the hostages’ mission, has also stressed that his parishioners were engaged in short-term medical work.
Other Christian groups have joined Lee and Frontiers in urging an immediate change in the way Korean churches conduct their missionary business.
Late last month, seven pastors of various churches in Seoul issued a statement that began, “We hope for the safe return of the medical volunteer workers ― but we are searching for a change in the direction of missionary work.” The statement also said that Korean missionaries need to stay away from “self-centered” and “complacent” attitudes.
“There were some cases where Korean missionaries hurt the local people by ignoring them,” the statement read. “Missionary work should be accompanied by respect and understanding for local people.”
The statement added that Korean missionaries “should be crusaders for love, not war.”
Reverend Park Jong-wha is one of the clergymen named in the statement. “In some cases, Korean missionaries have tended to be imperialists with the aggressive attitude of a conqueror.”
Park remembers a stern warning that some Korean missionaries got several years ago from the Russian foreign ministry. “Some overly ambitious missionaries went to Russia and tried to convert the locals from the Russian Orthodox Church to the Presbyterian Church,” he says. “They ignored the fact that the Orthodox Church has 1,000 years of history in Russia.”
Noting that there are many Korean missionaries in Asia’s Muslim countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, Park warns that more Koreans could be taken hostage.
Park believes that the determined ambition of many Korean missionaries is part of the national attachment to religion, which has grown rapidly in recent years. “Koreans also have a strong desire to accomplish things, as seen during the rapid economic development of the 1970s and the 1980s,” Park explains.
Song agrees and he points out that “several giant churches” are “in competition” to see who can dispatch the largest number of missionaries. “Some churches and religious orders are like companies that set goals and judge their progress by numbers,” he says, adding that short-term missions are more likely to create problems and that few short-term missionaries are given a proper understanding of local culture in advance.
This lack of training leads to misunderstandings, Song says.
“In such cases, people often tend to underestimate the locals and regard them as people who need to be evangelized,” he believes. “There is a certain level of triumphalism among some churches, although there are also many other missionaries who are working with humble and sublime charity.”
Lee Dong-hwa, an international coordinator of Lawyers for a Democratic Society, became more vocal about Korean missionaries after he ran across some in Jordan and Afghanistan.
Lee, who has been a peace activist in Muslim countries, says that he has come across several “disagreeable” Korean missionaries who “lived in upscale areas around the U.S. Embassy and looked down on the locals with a condescending attitude.” He recalls that those missionaries did not have tolerance for the local culture and religion, although he has seen other Christian missionaries who were trying to be much more sensitive to the locals.
Lee recently chose to convert to Islam. He wanted to have a religion after spending years in conflict areas. “I didn’t want to become Christian after what I’d witnessed of missionary culture,” he says.
Reverend Sung Nam-yong, who published “A Report on the Missionary Scene” last year, worked for more than a decade as a missionary in Nigeria, after earning degrees in inter cultural studies. He learned from experience that “getting to know the locals and pursuing localization” is the key to a successful missionary work.
Reverend Park Jong-wha agrees. He says that there is a “vicious circle” in some missionary work abroad, especially in short-term missions. He thinks that it is better to work with international organizations and support local churches, instead of sending missionaries abroad.
Lee at Frontiers has some tips for prospective missionaries. “We have learned not to force our religions on others. If just one local chooses to convert, that’s a miracle, but that’s not the issue,” he says. “We are already serving our Lord by helping troubled people in conflict areas from a humanitarian perspective.”
Lee’s group often consults with international bodies like the United Nations, and it also has activities like peace camps and mine clearing, instead of evangelizing. “We keep the Christian element to a minimum,” Lee says. The group holds sessions when we share short prayers or parts of the Bible, but the locals do not have to participate.”
Lee and his fellow missionaries have made mistakes, like they did in Afghanistan in 2005. “As a part of our peace camp in the Bamiyan region, we thought of washing the locals’ feet as a way of befriending them,” he says.
Lee explains that foot washing takes place frequently in Korea as a way for teachers and students to bond. “However, the Afghan people thought that it was a Christian ceremony, not a friendship ritual and that caused complications,” he says. “We learned that we can never be too cautious or careful.” This is why he is still uneasy about the hostage crisis in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Song points out that the hostage issue offers a “painful lesson” for Korean missionary culture and Korean churches.
“It’s a good sign that reform-minded pastors are gaining more influence and are discussing changes that can be made to missionary culture.”
The unnamed official of a leading Christian group who does not think that the hostage crisis resulted from problems with Korea’s missionary culture, agrees with the claim that Korean churches are engaged in self-reflection over the hostage issue.
“We are aware that a limited number of missionaries have a tendency to act individually, recklessly and dangerously,” the official says. “So we have been making efforts to improve the way our missionaries work.”
In the meantime, Lee and his other colleagues at Frontiers pray every night for the hostages.
Lee Dong-hwa, Park Jong-wha and the unidentified Christian official may have different perspectives, but they share a wish ― the safe return of the hostages.
“I believe that God is not only for Christians. I happen to believe in Christianity and Muslims happen to believe in Islam,” Frontiers’ Lee says. “The important thing is to live faithfully in our own religions and to have respect for each other. And now we are praying to each other’s God for the safe return of the hostages.”
By Chun Su jin [firstname.lastname@example.org]