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Christianity "just another company" to Korean student


June 4, 2003
-by Dan Dyck

Winnipeg, Man.—Not many people would travel to South Korea to learn more about what it means to be Anabaptist.

Cheryl Woelk, a CMU student from Swift Current, Sask., will extend her mission internship at the Korea Anabaptist Center for one more year.

But that is precisely what Cheryl Woelk unintentionally experienced during an eight month internship/practicum assignment under the auspices of Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Canadian Mennonite University.

About 30-40 per cent of the population in South Korea identify themselves as ‘self-declared Christians’. But, Woelk (Zion Mennonite Church, Swift Current, Sask.) says growth is starting to level off. “A lot of people are feeling very restless with the church and its vision and its role in society there and not really feeling that it’s relevant for people’s lives.”

While some have left the church, others seek another way. One student she works with at the Korean Anabaptist Centre (KAC) in downtown Seoul views Christianity as “just another company”, but meanwhile expresses a keen interest in the Anabaptist perspective of Christianity. He has associated peace and justice work primarily with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) or other social organizations, not with Christianity. “To put those two things together, I think, is very exciting for him,” said Woelk. MC Canada Witness workers Tim and Karen Froese were instrumental in starting the KAC in 2001 and continue to serve there.

Interest in Anabaptism is growing in South Korea, but many mainline churches view it as an alternative to Christianity because the word “Anabaptist” in Korean is associated with cults. In addition, a grass roots conscientious objector movement, which is in opposition to government policies, is seen as coming from alternative groups such as the KAC.

Serving at the KAC, Woelk is involved in ministry that focuses on three Anabaptist priorities KAC leaders have identified for the Korean context: peace, discipleship, and community.

Of these, the peace theme seems to dominate, even in civil society. The traditional ‘hello’ greeting in Korean means literally, “Do you have peace?”, and the good-bye greeting means “Go…” or “Stay… in peace.” Shopping malls and even a stapler manufacturer use the word “peace” as their brand name. Anabaptism also has “… an attraction for non-Christians, particularly through peace work and conflict transformation and restorative justice. Many people involved in those organizations are not Christian… to see a Christian motivation for this is really a new thing for them (Korean Christians),” said Woelk.

Talk of real peace is also a recurring theme in social conversation in this peninsula-country that is bordered on two sides by water and one side by an enemy – North Korea – a country that dominates militarily. Young people, says Woelk, invariably see peace between North and South as inevitable, and “coming soon”. The older generation is more skeptical.

Other Anabaptist distinctives such as community and discipleship are showing appeal in mainline churches.

Although there no congregations who officially adopt the words ‘Anabaptist’ or ‘Mennonite’ as part of their name, there is talk of forming one. But others feel that the Anabaptist theology some of the mainline churches find so refreshing would quickly become just another stream of Christianity in the sea of denominations that already exists. One exception might be the Jesus Village Church, who, Woelk says, “… would identify themselves as Anabaptist. I’m not sure they would call themselves Mennonite, although they are joining the Mennonite World Conference in August, which is very exciting.” MC Canada Witness workers Erwin and Marian Wiens (most recently from Windsor, Ont.) are currently serving at the Jesus Village Church.

Although the practicum portion of her assignment is complete, Woelk is looking forward to extending her stay in Seoul by another year.

With eight months of experience there, she shared one nugget of insight that helped her adapt to life in Korea. “Flexibility is a huge word living in Korea… things that look obvious might not always be the real reason for things... there is a saying that, ‘no’ means ‘no’, ‘maybe’ means ‘no’, and ‘yes’ sometimes means ‘no’.”

Koreans, she says, will consider their comments and responses in light of their motivation. If their motivation is to make a person feel good or strengthen a relationship (which she says is often the case), then details and facts can be “less clear”.

Opportunities like Woelk’s are made possible through the support of 235 Mennonite Church Canada congregations.

The KAC networks with others interested in Anabaptism, provides education through a growing library, offers peace, Mennonite, and Anabaptist resources, publishes books about peace, discipleship, and community, works in conflict transformation and restorative justice, offers a Korean language web site for KAC, and provides a peace-builders English education program with North Korean refugees. The KAC has a growing network of groups and individuals in Korea for whom it provides resources on Anabaptist faith and life.

Among other things, the KAC hopes to develop a peace curriculum for children, as well as a camping program, said Woelk.