SEOUL, South Korea (BP)–Celebrating 60 years of Southern Baptist work in South Korea, the Korean Baptist Convention recognized 15 former and emeritus Southern Baptist missionaries during its annual meeting in Seoul.
David Hahn, 74, emeritus pastor of Seoul Memorial Church, organized the trip for the returning missionaries. Hahn said he feels a deep sense of gratitude to Southern Baptist missionaries for the support they provided following the devastation of World War II and the Korean War.
“Korea was in darkness,” Hahn said. “Missionaries brought us the living Gospel. They brought us Jesus Christ.”
Missionaries also provided practical help as they shared the Gospel, Hahn noted, citing free medical care that missionary Daniel Ray provided in the late 1950s as he traveled from town to town with a portable X-ray machine. Ray and his wife Francis were appointed to Korea in 1954.
As Koreans like Hahn recounted kindnesses shown and lives touched, returning missionaries like Lucy Wagner appreciated the opportunity to reconnect with old friends during the Sept. 27-29 sessions at Central Baptist Church in Seoul.
Wagner, who retired in 1994 after 39 years of service in South Korea, reunited with Samuel Choi and his wife Song. Wagner first met Choi in the late 1950s when, as an 11-year-old boy, he snuck into the back of a Girls in Action class Wagner taught.
“The class was for girls but he came with his friends to hear an American speak Korean,” Wagner recounted.
When Wagner asked the children if they would say “yes” if God called them to be a foreign missionary, Choi raised his hand. That decision was the beginning of his call to foreign missions.
Choi and his wife were the first missionaries appointed by the Korean Foreign Mission Board in 1980. Today, they serve with the KFMB in Honolulu, Hawaii — among nearly 650 South Korean missionaries serving in 54 countries.
The Korean Baptist Convention and its affiliates grew rapidly from the 40 churches that appealed in 1950 to Southern Baptists’ then-Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board) to send missionaries to the war-ravaged country. Today, South Korea has more than 2,800 Baptist churches with nearly 800,000 members.
Early missionaries like Wagner and Don Jones, who served with his wife Nita from 1956-93, marveled at such rapid spiritual growth.
Jones attributed the growth of Baptist work in Korea to a strong sense of purpose.
“Koreans compare their liberation from Japan to the liberation of the Jews from Egypt,” Jones said. “They believe that God liberated them physically and spiritually. As a result, they believe they have a special role to fulfill in world missions.”
Franklin Harkins, who served with his wife Janie from 1967-99, agreed.
“[Koreans] saw us as their friends,” Harkins said. “They accepted the Gospel as their Gospel — not as a foreign Gospel.”
Sterling Edwards*, an IMB strategist, noted that Koreans used the economic gains of the past 60 years to further spiritual pursuits. The World Bank currently ranks Korea as the 13th largest economy in the world.
“Koreans have a tremendous work ethic,” Edwards said. “While many Asian countries have vision and passion, Koreans have vision, passion and financial resources.”
As a result, Koreans can do things that others with equal vision and passion can’t, Edwards said.
Koreans, however, humbly deflect such notions, pointing to the training they received from American missionaries as key to their rapid spiritual growth.
“American missionaries came in love to help churches, start churches and train pastors,” said Chul Ky Pek, 73, retired director of the Korean Home Mission Board. “They modeled for us how a missionary should live, act and love. We have followed that example.”
Hahn’s wife, Hyun Sook Um, agreed. Um, 59, attributed the missionary zeal of Koreans to the lifestyle they saw lived out by the missionaries and to the personal kindnesses missionaries showed to families like her own.
“Because of what missionaries did for us, we always try to help those in difficult situations,” Um said. “And we have a special place in our heart for missionaries.”
*Name changed. Tess Rivers is a writer for the International Mission Board based in Southeast Asia.