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South Korea tragedy can lead to soul-searching among younger generation, missionary says

Signs light up the night on a busy street in South Korea. IMB photo

SEOUL, South Korea (BP) — The night of Oct. 30 was supposed to be one of revelry for an estimated 100,000 people descending on the trendy nightspot area of Itaewon to celebrate Halloween. It instead became a night of tragedy when a crowd surge trapped many in a small, sloping alleyway, leading to 156 deaths.

Grace Winslow, a member of the International Mission Board’s Seoul Global City Team, has been working with young adults in the area and spoke with Baptist Press on the tragedy as well as how the IMB is working to connect those affected to the Gospel.

A crowd surge at a Halloween celebration Oct. 30 in Seoul killed 156 people. Screen capture from NBC News.

“I have spoken to a few foreign students and young professionals since the tragedy. A couple of my Korean school classmates were in the area of the crowd surge on that night,” Winslow said.

Itaewon’s reputation as a Halloween hangout – and the accompanying crowds – had been growing for years and seen as an indicator of a generational gap. Many of the young people in the area Oct. 30 were likely taught to speak English by native speakers from outside South Korea. Those English lessons would have introduced cultural customs such as Halloween, which became popular with those schoolchildren.

Itaewon also is near a defunct American military base and has many foreign-born residents who celebrate the holiday.

A crowd was to be expected if going to Itaewon. However, only 137 officers had been dispatched. Panicked calls asking for help came in hours before it became apparent what was unfolding. 

Two Americans were among the dead. Anne Gieske was a nursing major at the University of Kentucky studying abroad as was Steven Blesi, an international business major from Kennesaw State University near Marietta, Ga., where he grew up.

Gieske and Blesi knew each other and were attending together. According to media reports, a friend of Blesi who saw the crowds sent him a warning text at 10:17 p.m. to stay away. It’s unclear if Blesi ever saw it.

One decision spared Winslow’s classmates of potentially being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“They thankfully didn’t like big crowds and found a quieter place to hang out,” she said. “They came to class feeling quite shaken, having come so close to the scene of death and knowing that it could have just as easily have been them had they not made a simple decision to go in the opposite direction rather than deal with the crowd.”

The event was being held for the first in three years since the lifting of COVID restrictions.

“This unfortunate tragedy presents a trauma all across South Korea for teens and young adults who lost friends or who have been forced to come to terms with their own mortality,” Winslow said. “Neither of my friends [have] mentioned eternity or the Gospel, but my prayer is that this tragic experience will be a catalyst for them to begin thinking through and being open to a personal relationship with God.”

Some say South Korea’s hyperconnectivity may factor in the enduring mental health toll on the country.

With so many smartphones in the country, the tragedy was practically livestreamed over social media from numerous vantage points. Social media algorithms continued to place those videos in front of audiences in the following days.

That, combined with the fact that it occurred in a well-known spot, creates a collective social anxiety, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“Witnessing tragic deaths at an unexpected location, even through pictures and videos, can cause immense trauma and stress,” said Paik Jong-woo, a psychiatry professor and chairman of the Korean Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.

Winslow and others build relationships with young people through outreaches such as language exchange programs and community events or by participating in existing community groups. They also partner with local believers hosting English Bible studies or English practice. Countless one-on-one conversations take place over coffee and meals.

“We are also partnering with local believers to plant small churches in coffee shops where young adults can feel like family and grow alongside their peers,” she said.

Her observations in South Korea echo the American experience.

“Many young adults here grew up in church but left as they became adults,” she said.

She cites many reasons why – unhealthy power dynamics, the ineffectiveness of the prosperity gospel, the perception that too many rules go along with being a Christian and social pressures. During COVID, media accounts placed churches in a negative light.

“Young adults need to experience what Christian community looks like in a way that connects with them deeply,” Winslow said. “They also need healthy relationships free from the comparison and competition that is often experienced in school and the work force.

“And,” she said, “they need encouragement as they live in the midst of an extremely busy, stressful environment.”