I've been meaning to write this post for almost a month now, but delayed doing so because I was unsure of how to frame it. I was reminded this morning of an important event back home this weekend (see title). Before you read on, please realize I don't really have any pictures to accompany this blog, nor does it contain accounts of exciting travel or beautiful scenery. Check back Sunday night for that. This one's about God.
Several Sundays ago I was invited to an English-language service at a nearby church. Really it's probably somewhere around three miles from my apartment. I was excited by the prospect of being in church for the first time since leaving home, but also nervous at the prospect of trying to find this location on my own, and then following that endeavor (if successful) with the task of meeting and interacting with a sanctuary full of new people. I fully expected to be warmly welcomed. The church likely specializes in welcoming newcomers, as so many of the native English speakers here are foreign teachers. A great deal of these teachers are in and out of the country within a year, and though I don't have the numbers, I imagine a great majority are gone within two years of arriving.
Thus, my anxiety was not a result of fear of being unwelcome. It was just my usual reaction to new. (To this point, I was explaining the word "nervous" to one of my classes this week, and to get them to understand I said it's how you feel "when you have a test, or when you meet someone new".) Adding to the effect was the fact that I would likely need to hail a cab here for myself for the first time. The night before while perusing the directions to the church I had flirted with the idea of walking there, estimating I would need at least an hour to get there and allow time for what seemed like at least one inevitable wrong turn.
Unsurprisingly, when my eyes opened for the first time Sunday morning to see the clock I decided that extra hour of sleep would be worth the cab fare (which is very reasonable here) and the admittedly not-that-daunting challenge of getting into a cab and telling the driver where I want to go. When I did wake up and get dressed I copied down in my notebook the Korean directions to show the cab driver in case my pronunciation proved to be indecipherable, as it often has, and headed down the stairs. (Here I would like to thank my neighbor back home for teaching me how to read and write Hangul. Although I still know very little of the meaning of what I can read, it helps tremendously with pronunciation and having some idea of what I'm writing when I copy things down. The Romanization of Korean words and names can still be rather confusing. I think it might take me almost as much time to learn that system as it did to learn Hangul.)
Turns out I did need that notebook. It was pronounced more "Yaum" than "Yum", I realized later, and that was just the first syllable. I'm sure I muddled much more of it too. Luckily, once I showed the driver what I had written he had me at the church in under ten minutes. At first I didn't realize it was the church, but after about twenty seconds of standing in place on the sidewalk and looking up and down the street for clues, I was spotted by a man who had been directing traffic. He led me inside and handed me off to an English speaking church member who led me up to the English-language service.
Wolgwang is a large church, with several thousand members. They offer services in several languages, including Chinese and English. There were several dozen people in the English service that day (somewhere between 50 and 100...I'm better at estimating distances than crowds), and they were indeed very welcoming. I was greeted by the pastor and many other church regulars. I particularly enjoyed the small group meetings after the service, which allowed me to converse a bit with a few other men there, including a couple of American teachers. The service was good as well, but the most striking moment for me came during the opening musical worship time. The songs were listed in the order of worship, but I didn't recognize any of the titles. The church I grew up used mostly traditional hymns, so I'm unfamiliar with much of the music performed in more contemporary services. I enjoy it, I just don't know it as well.
There were talented musicians leading the songs, including guitarists, a keyboarder, a drummer, and several singers. It was a joy to hear, and it really lifted my spirits, not that I'd been feeling low.This has been a fantastic experience thus far, even better than I had hoped and imagined it would be. I do at times think of how much control I have over who I am here, however. Other than what was on my resume, what people here know about me is a result of what I decide to tell them. I've felt this way before, particularly when starting college (and off to that two-week course in Montana, which will probably have a post all its own in the future). The sensation is mostly thrilling, but it can at times be disorienting as well. In the most harrowing moments I realize just how much who I believe I am at home can be my reading of how I think the people I've known for a long time see me. It's a mosaic of impressions made intentionally and unknowingly over years and years. I've been here seven weeks. No one is going to show me who I am. I have to show them. Yes, I know it should be this way at home too, and it's more nuanced than this, but I can't say everything now or I'm sure to repeat it later this year, so allow me this oversimplified aphorism.
The last song listed in the order of worship before the announcements and sermon was titled "What a Fellowship, What a Joy Divine". It didn't strike me until they began to play it that it was that old comforting standby which I'd sung with pint-sized gusto since my earliest days from the hymnals ("Leeeeee-inning") and which was the main source of my enjoyment of the Coen Brothers' remake of "True Grit" - "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms". I soon joined in with a widened nostalgic smile, having had a bit more of myself shown to me as from an old photo album. It hadn't been such a long time since I sang it, but being so far away can make everything feel like it was longer ago.
This brings me to the impetus for my finally writing this blog post. I wanted to write one this week after I missed last Sunday. This morning while talking to my parents before work they reminded me that this weekend my church at home, First Baptist Church in Dupo, IL, will be celebrating its 100th anniversary. This church has been more important in my life than any other institution. I was raised in this church, as were my parents. In fact, members of my family have been involved in the church for most of the past century.
As I understand it, my paternal great-grandmother (my grandmother's mother) began attending the church as a young woman. She raised her children in the church, and they raised their children in the church, and they raised my generation in the church. On the other side, my mother's mother began attending the church not long after moving to the town when my mother was a kid. My parents got to know each other through the church. As a kid, many Sundays ended up being like decent-sized family reunions, with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, cousins, cousins, cousins. In a town of 6,000 and a church service with less than 200 in attendance, in many cases a couple dozen of those would be my relatives.
My extended (and even my immediate) family has spread out a great deal since then, though you'll still find a consistent core of those still in or back in town most Sundays. No matter how far flung we become, however, I am thankful for the foundation that I found there and that I can take with me wherever I go. I am inspired by the thought my family before me finding their way into the church and showing such commitment to doing God's work and maintaining a vital community of believers in Dupo. Happy 100th anniversary! I'm sorry I can't be there to celebrate with you this weekend, but I look forward to sitting in the pews again soon.
Here's a link to the church's website. It was just recently launched and is in the process of being updated, but the basics are there.
P.S. As I was mulling over this blog post and preparing to write I struggled with many conflicting feelings and ideas. While I've never denied being a Christian, it is a part of my life that I often don't discuss unless I'm asked directly about it. It did feel a bit odd, therefore, to consider posting something like this in a place where theoretically, anyone could see it. I realize most readers who get to this point probably know me pretty well already and may even be somewhat of a captive audience (I still thank you for sticking with me this long). But my faith still felt awfully personal to discuss here as I thought of those who might not know me so well (and if that's you, I also appreciate your hanging in here for this long).
The day after arriving here in Gwangju I pulled all the clothes I had brought out of my two suitcases. In one of the bags I found a piece of paper ripped from a yellow legal pad and drawn on in crayon. Spread over a rough sketch of East Asia my brother had listed Bible verses for me to look up, all related to brotherhood.
A few weeks later, as I was walking home from work, I ran into one of the former Korean employees from the school. Unfortunately, I arrived here just as he was preparing to leave the school and begin his next adventure in life, so I didn't get a chance to know him very well. He was the first person from the school I met here, as he picked me up from the bus terminal and took me to my apartment and the school, and he was a big help to me in getting settled in the weeks that followed. He always seemed to me like an incredibly friendly and fascinating guy, and by all accounts from other teachers, he is.
That night on the sidewalk as he was saying goodbye he told me he'd seen that note when he was setting up my television in the apartment, as I'd left it sitting out right next to the TV. I remember now thinking as I set it down that if anyone were to be in my apartment I would want them to see that note more than anything else I have here, so I was actually pleased he'd noticed it. He told me he'd seen what my brother had written at the top of the page: "Don't forget your roots."
Then he told me that although he didn't know me well, he thought I probably wouldn't. I was flattered.
As I said, I have to tell people who I am, and this really is the most important aspect of my life as I see myself. I don't even list my religious views on my social networking profiles, which are (somewhat) private. So here I am, revealing myself.
One of my fears is that some people may learn this about me and feel some discomfort with me as a result. If you've met me already, you've met the real me. If it seemed like I liked you, I liked you. Even if it seemed like I didn't like you, I probably liked you. I'm often not the most adept at displaying to people that I truly enjoy their company, though I usually do.
Many, many terrible sins have been and continue to be committed in the name of Christianity and other religions, and the loudest voices claiming to represent us often spew hate. Meanwhile a great many of us go about our lives seeking the fulfillment that comes from being good to people. I don't always do it, but when I don't I always wish I had.
P.P.S. I need to send a special birthday shout-out to my best friend of 25 years, one of those cousins I was always excited to see at church, David! Miss you, bro!