Columbans in Korea bring together young people from around the world

6th July 2018 - by Jack Edwards

On 3 July the Columban Centennial youth mission exposure was opened in Seoul South Korea by Fr Joseph Kang. Jack Edwards and Emily Tierney, a descendent of one of the first Columban martyrs, are attending from Britain.

Jack Edwards, Columban Faith in Action Volunteer, shares some early reflections.

The Columbans have gathered young people from: America, Britain, China, Fiji, Myanmar, Mexico and Peru plus Koreans and there you have the recipe for just over two weeks of unforgettable experiences.

The opening Mass was in Spanish, with English readings and intercessory prayers in Chinese! This has quickly become the norm and we can expect many more strange language combinations.

The first day was our orientation day, starting with icebreaker activities introducing us to each other, although a late night drinking Fijian Kava and watching Brazil play Mexico in the football World Cup had already done this. Admittedly, this choice of viewing material may have been a poor choice as the group was split with everyone choosing a side, but by the morning no blood had been spilt and the Mexico supporters accepted the result with magnanimity.

After a delicious lunch, with a minimum of struggling with chopsticks, we spent the afternoon in mixed nationality groups discussing why we were here, what our expectations and fears were and how we individually viewed mission. I cannot speak as to what the Korean Region wants from this experience but I think that this is what I will enjoy most from our time here. One of my group put it like this: “It is an opportunity to learn from other views of church without having to take a plane and fly to each”.

In my first few hours of being here I talked to Koreans about the religious desire for peace and reunification, and with Americans about migration, Trump and getting young people to engage in mission. All of these issues I had heard about before but not in those contexts or with their responses to it. One conversation I found most moving was with one of our Chinese companions who spoke of the suppression of the Church and how dangerous it is to be a practicing Catholic loyal to Rome in China.

I hope, and pray, that this week will bring us all closer together and remind us that we are not alone in the world with each of us toiling in the vineyard, building the kingdom of God in a very Columban way.

Day 2 The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church

On our second day of the CCYME we travelled around Seoul visiting various sights covering the history of the church in Korea, in particular the jeoldusan martyrs shrine where approximately 8000 Catholics were murdered in the 1860s. On Friday the 13th we spent the day in Gwangju where from May 18th- 27th 1980 a fledgling democratic movement rose against and was crushed by the military government.

These two events are in my mind inextricably linked. Tertullian said ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’. The martyrs who were killed in the 1860s showed the strength of the church. The Columbans who stayed and were martyred in 1950 live on in the memory of the Korean church and have grown the church. A visit to Gwangju diocese where the Columbans founded the diocese is a reminder of how the Columbans have grown the church through example and hard work. After each suffering the church grew with renewed vigour and in a different way.

I find a parallel of this suffering and growth in the suffering of the democratic movement in Korea. In Gwangju 165 people died and 75 vanished never to be seen again in a brutal military crackdown. Did this stop the democratic movement, did it cause the people to cower in fear? No, it spurred on the democratic movements of the 80s and 90s and acted as a rallying cry.

I find in Korea many stories of great suffering, suffering the likes of which I cannot comprehend. It has been invaded by outsiders, divided and ruled by its own authoritarian regimes. Modern Korea has grown, flourished from these sufferings, learning moving and growing in to the modern, welcoming country it is today.

It is this repetition of history a cycle of suffering and growth that makes me positive for the future. There is a great feeling of optimism in Korea that the future will always be better and any pain we must feel now will lead to a better world to come.

A reflection on fear

As faith in action volunteer I should spend around a fifth of my time on developing personally. This means I have developed a bit of a reflective streak. We were asked to reflect on our past four days and I thought I’d write mine down.

Over the past four days we have been on homestays with local families in a rural area, we spent some time at a Buddhist temple and finally we spent some time at the Emmaus centre for those with mental disabilities.

The one common theme I could find from these experiences was fear. I once read that fear was standing on the edge of the diving board looking down over the edge, but the moment you have jumped you push through the fear.

This came to mind because I have been very nervous at several stages over the last week. At the home stay I was worried I would accidentally make a fool of myself, the family wouldn’t get on with me or any hundred other minor fears. All that faded away the moment I shook hands with them. They welcomed me like a younger son, showed me my first Korean Sauna and stayed up far too late as I introduced them to Wimbledon!

At the Emmaus welfare centre my fear told me I wouldn’t get on with the person with disabilities I spent time with, that I would be awkward. Again the moment I met Erin, the young woman with learning difficulties, her smile, easy friendship and charm soon had me forgetting that I was ever worried. And when we parted with a hug the amount of emotion that poured out was nothing I would have predicted a few hours earlier.

In the midst of this nervousness our time in a Buddhist temple was an oasis of calm, with no expectations and even time for a swim. The program is planned to the hour, and when we finish we are often to tired to do anything but sleep. This gave us time to bond and reflect. As well as prepare ourselves for the next stage of our journey – Jeju island. I don’t think any of us have realised how close to the end we are now, but it is only a few days away.

That is my next fear, what’s next, will we remain friends after our fellowship has shattered sending us back to our homelands. It has taught me that the Columbans have a galvanising effect on young people around the world. We have all enjoyed ever moment. I have also learned to push through my fears to the endless opportunities that await on the other side and that the Columban world will always be willing to join me on the other side.

The DMZ or “the illusion of war and peace”

If I was asked to sum up my experience of visiting the area around the demilitarised zone between the Koreas it would be ‘contrast’. It is simplicity itself to see the contrast between the north and south, divided by a small gap of four kilometres but the differences ran much deeper than that.

We began our day at a church decorated beautifully and ended crouched in a dank tunnel 500 meters underground. The tunnel had been made by North Korean infiltrators and the church had been modelled on one originally built in what is now the north. I could not help but see a kind of duality in that both originally constructions of the North both now in the south, one for war the other celebrating the divine.

I also found a contrast or even a contradiction in our visit to Panmunjom. Outwardly it appears as a place where peace can be discussed. It straddles the militarily demarcation line with conference rooms and meeting areas, and was originally intended to be where unification would begin. Despite this I found it a place of strength and power not peace. Each side has their guards, areas where we were told not to photograph and enough cctv cameras to cover a small city. It did not feel like a place for peace, it felt like a place to stand off, get in each others faces although perhaps one day peace may grow from that strange place.

From Panmunjom we went to an observatory overlooking the DMZ. Whilst there we were subjected to a video explaining the history of the DMZ. I use the word subjected because it was little more than propaganda. It emphasised that Panmunjom was a place for peace, but that your friendly Korean army was available with overpowering force to win that peace.

All of this left me with the notion that the demilitarised zone has become so much more than just a strip of land four kilometres wide. It has become an institution a psychological construct in the mind of so many people. It’s in their political, economic, military and psychological interest to keep it standing. They simply could not conceive of a world without division.

That was the biggest contrast, I feel the desire for peace and reunification among the people we have been spending time with. Among the priests and young people, and in the papers I read of a desire for peace among some politicians. But around the DMZ it was as if none of that existed. Every inch, every iota of energy and propaganda was devoted to war or at least maintaining the status quo.

Yet things cannot stay the same forever, and a true movement for peace cannot be denied. It may be hard, it may take a long time but the young people and old that we have spent time with will see it done.

Jack Edwards is a ‘Faith in Action’ volunteer in Britain.