The North Korean Who Sparked an Evangelical Revival
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because evangelicals need a savior to remain relevant.
By JY Lee
Evangelicals have been blamed for the rise of Trump and for the election of the unpopular Korean president Park Geun-hye. American evangelicals are leaving churches in droves, while Korean evangelicals have been mired in controversies, including $12 million being embezzled from the world’s largest church in 2014.
A quarter century ago, a North Korean born-again Christian named Han Kyung-chik received the $1 million Templeton Prize — dubbed the “Nobel prize for religion.” Born in 1902 near Pyongyang, then known as the “Jerusalem of the East,” Han founded a megachurch of some 60,000 believers in Seoul. When he passed away in 2000, he was one of the world’s most prolific Samaritans. Among his legacy? Helping launch the $2.7 billion nonprofit World Vision in 1950.
Born to peasants, Han witnessed the decay of the feudal Korean dynasty until its annexation by Japan in 1910. A year later, Han lost his mother at the age of 9. By age 12, he was married to a 15-year-old bride. He rode a white horse to his ceremony that wintry day, but his silk pants had been soiled by his earlier frolicking on the ice with friends. Although the young couple remained companions to a ripe old age, death haunted Han’s early years: His two brothers and first son all died prematurely.
What is missing in LA and other U.S. cities is a culture that keeps these principles a reality for the black population and the non-European immigrants.
Han found solace in nature and studied science at a school in Pyongyang founded by American missionaries. On an average day, “while I was walking along the beach … I received a calling from God,” Han recalled about his conversion in 1924 during his Templeton Prize acceptance speech. His missionary boss provided funds for him to study in America, and Han graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1929. He was then accepted to Yale Divinity School, but a sudden onset of tuberculosis confined him to rural convalescence in New Mexico. With the unreliable medicines of the era, death shrouded him, and after being bedridden for two years, Han concluded that a doctorate served only his ego, pivoting to serve his motherland instead.
In 1932, Han returned to his alma mater in Pyongyang to teach English and the Bible. But his American education was deemed ideologically suspicious, and the Japanese rulers annulled his appointment. So Han turned to ministry and grew a 400-member church at a border town near China to 3,000 members in a few short years. But the Japanese police — aka po-pos — returned, forcing him to resign after jailing him and imposing Shintoism on his church. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Han had hoped to resume his ministry in North Korea, but the Soviet occupiers indicted him for co-founding the Christian Socialist Democratic Party. So he crossed the 38th parallel into U.S.-occupied South Korea, where he was given the site of a Shinto temple in Seoul to erect his Young Nak Presbyterian Church.
What began as a refugee tent church of two dozen faithful in 1945 snowballed to more than a thousand believers within a few years, and he began dreaming of a white marble church. Construction soon began, and a sanctuary was completed in May 1950. A month later, the Korean War erupted, and Han had to again flee his church as Seoul fell to communists. Han spent his refugee years helping fellow refugees — building churches, founding orphanages and planting cooperative farms across Korea; he even reclaimed a dilapidated factory. When Rev. Bob Pierce launched World Vision, its first project was in partnership with Han. “Dr. Han would be my father’s dearest friend, mentor and co-worker throughout his ministry,” Pierce’s daughter Marilee Pierce Dunker once wrote.
Young Nak Church grew steadily after the war, with visiting dignitaries including the emperor of Ethiopia and celebrity evangelist Billy Graham. Although Han has been criticized for his involvement with the National Prayer Breakfast meetings that blessed South Korea’s military dictators, he remains revered in more than 500 sister churches worldwide.
When he knocked on heaven’s door after growing old in a mountaintop cottage, his only possessions were a wheelchair, a winter hat, clothes and shoes. “He was so frugal in his everyday life. He lived his whole life without a bank account,” says Gong Deok-heo, an elder at Young Nak. Gong’s parents had escaped from North Korea and helped build Han’s church in Seoul with their own hands. “Reverend Han is a towering figure of Korean Christianity. He gave up everything in America and returned to Korea when we had nothing,” Gong adds.
When Han returned to the U.S. as a nonagenarian in 1992 after the LA riots, he lamented that compared to the hospitality he experienced in the 1920s, religious groups were “failing” in their duty toward immigrants. “What Christianity brings to a culture is faith, hope and love,” he told the Associated Press, quoting 1 Corinthians. “What is missing in LA and other U.S. cities is a culture that keeps these principles a reality for the black population and the non-European immigrants.”
- JY Lee, OZY Author Contact JY Lee