Over the next 12 months, the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE) is spotlighting 12 leaders, their stories, and how their passion and call to shape a more hopeful future through Christian ministry guides the impact they are making in their communities, institutions and universities.
In high school, I collected divinity school catalogues, an admittedly strange habit. My adolescent love for faith, the humanities, and my preacher mother, seems to have planted the seeds. Life took adventurous twists and turns, but I did finally arrive at divinity school, the best decision I made in my twenties. I relished being in a context where my questions, as both a scholar and practitioner of religion, were encouraged.
In Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, I asked: Why is Ruth nearly invisible by the end of the Book of Ruth? During field education, I wondered: How do you do ministry in the psychiatric unit of a hospital? In Zen Buddhism, I challenged: Why are white Americans the face of American Buddhism, an Asian American majority religion?
Among the many questions, I became especially obsessed with one. Nearly seven years ago, in his course on transatlantic Christianity, historian David Hempton provided an educational context where I could explore and present my ideas on transpacific Christianity. I’ve chipped away at my ideas since then, and I am now immersed in a question that serves as the basis for my dissertation: Why did late-twentieth century American evangelical organizations find success in South Korea?
I find it odd and fascinating, for instance, that Billy Graham or “America’s Pastor,” as historian Grant Wacker calls him, hosted his largest revival, not in the U.S. South, but in South Korea. When I discovered that other post-1945 American evangelical organizations, including World Vision, were birthed in South Korea, and that Campus Crusade for Christ first internationalized there, I could not stop asking: Why Korea, of all places? And, what’s the significance?
It’s a bit of popular religious trivia to know that South Korea is a regional “Protestant superpower” – today, the home of the largest church in the world, and the sender of the most missionaries in the world per capita. But trivia alone doesn’t explain the interconnected rise of evangelicalism in late-twentieth century U.S. and South Korea.
Today, I’m mining sources in U.S. and Korean archives, and conducting oral histories in both English and Korean, for answers. My research has taken me to archives in Chicago, Orlando and Los Angeles, and as a Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE) Doctoral Fellow, I’ve had the opportunity to embark on a six-month research trip to South Korea. Through research, some of my historical subjects, who I have read and thought about for years, are coming alive.
Most recently, I conducted an oral history in Korean with a woman who was orphaned during the Korean War, toured the world singing with the World Vision Korean Orphan Choir, and attended Graham’s largest “crusade,” hosted in Seoul 1973. Her life captures an untold history of transpacific evangelicalism, taking us beyond the white and male voices that dominate the tradition’s history.
My research, ultimately, points to the global Cold War, religious experience, transpacific diplomacy, and the stratifications of race and gender, as crucial categories for understanding the transpacific rise of evangelicalism.
It’s a privilege and joy to ask questions and give them attention. The philosopher Simone Weil suggests that such attention in the life of the mind can even hone our attention to the suffering of the world. Though I am still waiting to see the full fruits of Weil’s experimental certainty, research has, indeed, pushed me to pay attention. Working bilingually and transnationally, for instance, challenges me to consider alternative worldviews and interpretations.
In a moment when our world’s submerged ideological divisions are surfacing violently, it is critical that we take the open posture of asking. And, that we give our attention to that which seems utterly “other” to our experiences. We need to resist the lure of providing pre-packaged answers, foreclosing inquiry for simple solutions, and reducing people to categories we think we understand, especially when it comes to a topic as complex as religion.
A beginner’s inquisitive mind can be a daring posture to take in a world tempted to build walls. So – I dare you to ask.
Helen Jin Kim is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Christianity and American Religions at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Helen’s research began with her undergraduate honors thesis at Stanford University, and involvement with the Asian Pacific American Religion & Research Institute (APARRI). Helen is working on her dissertation entitled, “Gospel of the ‘Orient’: Koreans, Race and the Transnational Rise of Evangelicalism in the Cold War Era.” Prior to doctoral studies, Helen completed her M.Div. at the Harvard Divinity School and worked for Google Inc.