Sunday, September 18, 2011

Postcard from Seoul

Published in the Fiji Times - Off The Wall With Padre James Bhagwan- Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Anneyong-haseyo from Seoul, South Korea!

After a little delay and a ten-hour flight, I landed at Seoul's Incheon International Airport to find the weather just as warm as Nadi. However, I have been warned by my hosts that this will all change in a few weeks as we head into autumn and then winter. And to think that I have just left the "Fiji Winter" of a "chillary" 20 degrees celsius and in a few months will experience temperatures below freezing.

I am in Korea to attend the Methodist Theological University's International Graduate School of Theology's Masters in Theology programme. With me in the the programme are ministers/pastors and lay men and women from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kenya, Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma) the Philippines and Cuba, who for the next two years will be part of my "family in Christ" in Korea.

The other part of my Korean "family in Christ" are the Pastors, Elders and members of the Gaepo Methodist Church, my sponsors and hosts during my time in Korea. I spend Mondays to Fridays studying and residing at the University and during the weekends, I reside in a flat in the Gaepo Church building.

The Gaepo Methodist Church was established about 26 years ago with only 7 members. 

Today its members number in the hundreds and the church holds 4 main services Sunday services, special services and programmes for children and youth as well as daily dawn prayer meetings and services on Wednesday and Friday nights.

The senior pastor of the Gaepo Church is Rev. Sung-ok Ahn, a humble, spirit-led and charismatic ordained minister of the Methodist Church. He is assisted by a number of assistant pastors (talatalas not vakatawas in our i-Taukei context). As in Methodist tradition, the leadership of the church is shared between the clergy and the lay elders.

The church is active in evangelism and weekly new members are introduced and welcomed during the main 11am service.

As an aside, Rev. Ahn is a lover of wildlife, birds in particular. On the top floor of the church, directly opposite my flat and the dining hall for members communal lunches, is an aviary (glass birdhouse) with beautifully coloured birds. Rev. Ahn spends time every day with the birds, although he is quick to point out that we in Fiji have the most beautiful bird in his book, the Kadavu Parrot.

Gaepo Church is also very active in mission work. Currently the church has 40 missions in 28 countries, including Myanmar, China, Nepal and Fiji (Vision College, and Naibale Methodist Church in Vision Circuit - Indian Division).

I arrived on the weekend of Father's Day (for the western world / one week before Father's Sunday in the Methodist Church in Fiji), which meant that I had to spend this father's day away from my family. Strangely enough, I didn't miss it. The reason was that in South Korea, as in most Asian countries, instead of Mother's Day or a Father's Day there is a Parents' Day which falls on May the 8th, while Children's Day is on May 5th.

Instead of Sunday lunch with my family in Suva, I have Sunday lunch with my new family - the entire congregation of Gaepo Church.

In the evening, I join Assistant Pastors, Rev. Zhi and Rev. Nam and the churches audio-visual team for dinner as I sha
re my experiences in media with them.

What I did experience this past weekend was Chuseok, the Harvest or Autumn festival.
While the tradition relates to a day for honouring one's ancestors, for Christians in Korea, this weekend is a family Thanksgiving weekend, particularly for the elders or seniors in the family. Monday and Tuesday are holidays to allow people to travel to their home towns to be with their extended family.
On Monday, I joined Rev. Ahn and his family for a 45-minute drive out of Seoul to a Senior Citizens' Village where Rev. Ahn's father, a former principal, Christian book publisher and Pastor now resides. Grandfather has spent a number of years doing mission work in China, and has a good command of Chinese, which coupled with some English and my beginner's Korean and basic Fiji Chinese phrases, made for interesting conversation over lunch.

Apart from the obvious academic programme at the Methodist Theological University, there is a marked emphasis on spirituality, with many quiet places for prayer and regular early morning, lunchtime and evening services.
On Friday morning I had the opportunity to lead the IGST students in devotion. Services in the University are mainly in Korean but there is a translation service for international students until we learn enough Korean to understand and there are a number of English-language services.
In the midst of it all, my thoughts often return home to family and friends and my beloved nation. Of course there is always a way to watch rugby during the World Cup... Go Fiji Go.
There is much to learn here, not just academically, but there are lessons to be learned of a mission-oriented church, that does not get sidetracked from its core work of proclaiming the Gospel and living a life based on the ethics of the Kingdom of God. In a country still separated from its own people by a demilitarised zone with an unpredictable brother in North Korea just beyond the 38th Parallel, there is also much we can learn about peacemaking, reconciliation and hope.
Annyeonghi gaseyo and may your week be filled with simplicity, serenity and spontaneity.
nRev. James Bhagwan is the Circuit Minister for the Dudley Methodist Circuit - Indian Division, Methodist church in Fiji and Rotuma. The views expressed are his own.

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