By Yung Me Suh Morris
After 10 days in Detroit working as a volunteer for 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, I am inspired, energized, exhausted, and also grieved. We connected with friends and met new ones. We learned of new worshipping communities and new resources available to make existing ministries more vibrant. We voted on the side of justice and celebration by passing in favor of same sex marriage within our denomination and another significant vote that would consider a change in the language of our constitution that has defined marriage as between a man and a woman to between “two persons”.
All this is truly wonderful, at least in my opinion. But sandwiched between the wonderful and controversial issues, like marriage equality and divestment in the Middle East, we also voted (529-44) to dissolve a non-geographic Korean speaking (Hanmi) presbytery in Southern California. What details I do know about the Hanmi presbytery, and what I have learned since GA, is enough for me to trust the Synod’s recommendation to dissolve this Hanmi. There had been conflicts, litigation, court costs incurred by the Synod upwards of $2M over 15 years with no resolution on the horizon. I trust the process which is designed to listen to the minority voices.
The Committee assigned to discuss the issue of whether or not to dissolve the Hanmi presbytery voted to recommend dissolution. I do not know who was on this committee or how many of them were Korean or Korean speaking or how many had a working knowledge of Korean history and the Korean people. I do not know so I cannot speak to this but I must speak to the fact that I could count how many Korean American Delegates and Commissioners were present at GA on both hands. Additionally, because Delegates and Commissioners do not get to choose which committee on which to serve, it is very possible that only a few Korean voices were heard.
As a volunteer, I could not vote nor did I have a voice at the microphones on the plenary floor. I was even told to remove any items or articles of clothing that would indicate my position on any of the items up for discussion. So I could not tell them that South Korea is called the Hermit Kingdom for good and solid historical reasons. That as a country and a people, South Koreans have endured occupations, humiliations, mutilations and systemic attempts at eradicating their cultural identity. I could not remind them that in the United States, the Korean War is called the Forgotten War because the war is technically still ongoing but no one seems to remember that or care. The Korean diaspora still live in the tension of wartime uncertainty and PCUSA must not forget this but instead remember.
I could not say out loud that larger, stronger countries have taken turns at exploiting their natural and human resources throughout history and their tendency to retreat from others is a coping mechanism to preserve their identity in the face of perceived or real opposition. I wanted to tell GA, the Committee and the Synod that language may not be the main communication barrier but a more probable barrier is a lack of trust and cultural understanding. But I also wanted to say that this trust has nothing to do with PCUSA’s trustworthiness but has everything to do with Korean reluctance to be vulnerable and to submit to foreign dominance yet again.
I am more surprised than anyone to find myself speaking out, or rather writing out my grief over Hanmi presbytery. My own Synod of the Pacific is taskforcing the request for a Hanmi presbytery and I am not in favor of creating one. My reasons are 1) because as a female Korean creation, I did not and do not have a voice or an influential place at the table in the Korean community and 2) I do not see how this promotes unity and peace throughout the larger Church especially in light of Korean tendencies to become insular. But I, as a Korean immigrant creation, feel sad for the members of this Hanmi presbytery who were present. It was painful to listen to those who struggled in language to articulate their pleas on the plenary floor but it was possibly more painful for those who were not called upon to speak at all.
I am grieved because I sensed that the Korean Presbyterian identity was somehow losing its credibility as unique in culture and race because there are now enough of them who speak English with little to no accent.
I am grieved because I am who I am and I am where I am today, on the verge of a first call in the Presbyterian Church, partly because of the faithfulness of Korean immigrant Christians. I have no relationship with this Hanmi presbytery but they represent the people who first proclaimed the good news to me as an immigrant child in a strange new country where I was and still am, “the other”.
I am grieved because immediately following the plenary vote in favor of dissolving this Hanmi presbytery, the Moderator chose to bring the Young Advisory Delegates up for an energizer. This physical energizer only added insult to injury. It moved us too quickly away from this season of tearing away and loss into forgetfulness and denial of others’ pain and prematurely onto celebration. There may have only been a few who felt the sting of this vote but it was painful all the more while everybody danced and sang “Do you want a revolution, woot, woot”!
I am grieved because our ending hymn “Blessed Assurance”, is a favorite in the Korean churches. It was one of my mother’s favorites and she would sing it or hum it daily up until her death. The chorus of the song goes:
This is my story, this is my song
Praising my Savior all the day long
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long
I wept into the arms of friends because now part of the story of this Hanmi presbytery is that it was dissolved by the 221st General Assembly. I do not dispute the vote to dissolve this Hanmi. Had I been given a vote, I too would have voted to dissolve it. However, I grieve with them for the loss. And I grieve that it was all too quickly forgotten by the collective GA body of PCUSA.
Yung Me Suh Morris is a Pastoral Intern at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church in San Rafael, California, and a graduate of the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, CA.