South Carolina delegation to Korea discovers unexpected kinship, similarity

By Jessica Brodie

They might speak Korean instead of English, enjoy kimchi and tteok instead of fried chicken and sweet tea and listen to K-pop over American rock or hip-hop. But when you get right down to it, South Carolina and Korea have far more in common than many expect—especially when it comes to racial tension and a fervent desire for social justice and unity.

That’s what South Carolina’s young adult delegation had to say after their 12-day trip to the Republic of Korea June 30-July 11. Four South Carolina United Methodist college students—one from Clemson University, one from Winthrop University and two from the University of South Carolina—and their clergy leader, the Rev. Jeri Katherine Warden Sipes, joined 14 counterparts from the Mississippi Annual Conference for the pilot program led by the UMC’s General Board of Church and Society. Called “Parallels of Peace, Pathways to Justice,” the trip aimed to foster education and engagement between American young people and their peers around the world, enabling them to discuss global issues and ultimately forge new steps toward world peace.

“We brought the delegates to learn about the issues (in Korea) and then come back and talk about it here so we can help support them, but also to understand the parallels between our cultures,” Sipes said. “In the South particularly, our racial issues are so similar. And just like North Korea and South Korea, some people often say there are two Americas: north and south, black and white.”

During the trip, the college students and their clergy leaders spent time in Seoul, South Korea, learning about the reunification issues between that nation and their often-antagonistic relationship with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea. North and South Korea were formed after World War II, with North Korea maintaining a militaristic, dictator-led society and South Korea a democracy. The students traveled to a demilitarized area on the border between the two nations and visited the Border Peace School, plus did a prayer walk up a mountain where they could view both North and South Korea. They also had one-on-one time discussing biases, racial tensions and discrimination with people from both nations, including a North Korean refugee whose entire family had defected to South Korea.

The students said they learned Koreans share much in common with people from South Carolina, from biases about people from “the north” and of different races to a deep human desire to reach beyond those perceptions to achieve new understanding, growth, peace and relationship.

“South Korea was never a place that I pictured myself going,” said one of the students, Madeline Mulkey, from USC. “I didn’t have much of a background with the culture and wasn’t sure what the trip would hold. Upon arriving in Seoul, I realized that despite the fact that the culture of Korea was wildly different from that of America, the people were all the same. They all rode the bus home. They had parents and friends and jobs and desires for their lives. Despite the cultural differences, I found us all to be very similar in everything that we did.”

Mulkey said visiting the peace school was especially eye-opening. The schools’ founder had told them many from South Korea considered their neighbors in North Korea to be horrible people who were all evil communists.

“The next thing he said to me is what stuck with me. He said, ‘When the North Koreans are hungry, they eat, just like the South Koreans.’ Basically, people are people—just as I had perceived,” she said.

Brianna Stillinger, of Winthrop, said taking off her “South Carolina lens” to look through someone else’s lens was difficult, as was digesting all she learned on the life-changing trip. But she said it all comes down to the unmistakable human connection we all share, no matter the color of our skin, the shape of our features or whether we speak Korean or English.

“We are all connected,” Stillinger said. “Everyone deals with some of the same hardships.”

Grant Gibbs, of USC, said highlights of the trip for him were getting one-on-one time with certain Korean leaders and learning about perspectives from North Koreans.

“Realizing that the people (of North Korea) would actually like a democracy or possibly even a western political and social reform…was surprising,” Gibbs said, noting the trip helped him understand there are thousands of refugees each year and that they struggle to adapt to life in other countries.

Gibbs said he didn’t know before the trip that the majority of North and South Koreans would like to be unified, or how influential the politics of other countries, like the U.S., are with the unification. But he said he was relieved to discover Christianity is practiced by a much larger population than he expected, which has helped the situation tremendously.

Kendall Chapman, of Clemson, said the trip was not intended to be a “mission” trip, but it most certainly turned out to be one. She was surprised by how comfortable she felt in a culture so foreign.

“One evening in Cheorwon, I found my moved to tears by the sounds of tiny crickets outside my door,” Chapman said. “I was shocked that I was so deeply moved by this! I think this speaks to the importance of being present during the precious moments of every day. It hit me: this is what peace sounds like. ‘This sounds just like home,’ I thought.”

She said she is now very mindful of the issues that the Korean people are faced with and can no longer use the expression “worlds away” when describing the distance between America and the Korean Peninsula, for this is truly one world.

“It’s ever so clear to me that we are called to see that peace be restored in places where there is so much hurt,” Chapman added. “I am still unsure as to what my role is all of this is. But I do know that I can be a servant and share all that I have learned. The Lord will honor all that our group shares. From there, I trust Him to lead us to the next step.”

The delegation’s participants spent seven months preparing for the trip, including reading the novel “One Thousand Chestnut Trees: a Novel of Korea,” by Mira Stout. The cost of the trip has been entirely underwritten by contributions from congregations, individuals, represented colleges and universities. The Peace with Justice fund of the South Carolina Conference also helped with the trip. Part of the students’ requirement as a follow-up to the trip is to come back to speak about their experience in four local churches and inviting congregants to engage in conversations about peace with justice issues in local communities. They are also hoping to create a South Carolina Conference peace with justice team led by the students who went on the trip, and especially engaging college students to be leaders in peace with justice work in the United States and abroad.

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