Easter Sunday 2011 – Belief in Korea: The Yoido Full Gospel Church pt. 3
Editor’s Note: This is part three of a loose-leaf series on different types of Religion and Spirituality practiced in Korea. Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Shamanism will be reported on from an eye-level perspective.
It’s the week before Easter and since the last Sunday I went to Yoido Church, the Korean teacher-recruiter who was hot to get me to read at a bible study in English has dropped out of contact. My emails to him bounce back for the usual reason: This account has been disabled or discontinued [#102]. I have not heard back from Emeritus Pastor Cho either and it is not likely that I will as he is in the center of a shit storm involving Islamic investment bonds, one of his sons taking over a daily newspaper that has connections to the Yoido Church, his wife being involved in murky real estate deals, and another son trying to get accepted as his father’s shadow successor to the same church.
But it is Easter Sunday and the Cherry blossoms are full blown. Perhaps Easter bonnets will be out and the New Balance shoes everyone seems to wear on the weekend will be put away. Nothing doing: Seoul City Hall has transformed its tourist brand to “Haechi Seoul” and opened free or close to free bike sharing depots along the Han River. When I went by the one closest to Yeouinaru station exit 2, five out of the 16 bikes on the rack were gone and in use. Many “Bike Cafes” along the Han River were giving away a cup of coffee with every bicycle rented and despite the air being dusty and the spring weather lacking nice and casual warmth, well, everyone out and about on this Easter was in some stride making the best of this flinty spring.
A hard-bitten one-legged man is prostrate and moving like a salamander in a rubber suit grinding around four inches forward at a time. I doubt he knows that it is Easter but he knows his route circles Yoido Church and he seems to have his ‘charity hat’ full of change and even some legal-pad blue 1000 won notes. It is too early for me to get seated for the 3 p.m. singles’ service so I head towards the basement of the “Churchtown Grounds.” Public relations officer Mr. Kim sees me enter while I’m still keeping my eye on the unfortunate inching forward and making his collections. I am pretty sure Mr. Kim has not read the first two parts of this story or maybe he has as he vibrantly shakes my hand speaks a few quick greetings and somehow picks up where we left off a few months ago. He explains that this part of Seoul used to be; “For poor people,” but now it is all different and “Many important people” are connected with Yoido.
He wants to steer me away from the amputee who I now can see has a flat roll board underneath him that helps his movement somewhat and protects all of his joints from pure contact with the street. He also has a small bicycle style warning bell taped between his fingers that he is able to ring three times when in-between grinding himself forward. It’s as if Mr. Kim is reading my mind as I’m about to ask him if the amputee is a member of the congregation or not and does the Yoido Full Baptist Church run some kind of shelter or outreach program for disabled wayfarers. Now there is a different surge of energy coming from the inner hall of the basement as some of Pastor Cho’s magnificoes signal for everyone to take their place as the vaunted pastor will soon appear to all then exit the premises. Looking inside, the basement is maze-like and impressive with the feel of a large grand hotel from the Catskills during that who-knows-who heyday of holidaying in the 1950’s. And now more apparent than the size of the church is the number of the entourage connected with it. Middle-aged men all in the same muslin white butler jackets and black pants flying around the basement with break-neck earnesty. They come to and fro barking out greetings and exclaiming who is in the church and who is on the way down. It’s great that I am not drawing any attention as a foreigner inside a famous local church: this was my chance to separate from Mr. Kim.
It is impossible to surmise how many centers of gravity there are in the basement of this church. In another hallway there is a wall about sixty feet long where each privileged member of the congregation has a cubbyhole-like offerings box. Thousands of envelopes—not white but the church bulletin colors of legal pad blue or soft fuchsia—are slid into every cubbyhole for the weeks tithing and the receipts of those are placed back in with a new donation envelope for the next week. At the end of this wall for the more irregular of the church’s congregation, there is a “Donating Room.” Church members who have not earned the prestige of having their own mailbox line up and are issued a service number and they wait for a turn—their turn to go into the room which in effect and procedure is a bank. When someone gets out, two or three try to squeeze in. Everyone is locked into a pattern of lively chaos in a locker room where blood and sweat turns into money and can be counted. And inside that locker room with its institutional color scheme and plastic furnishings all of this turns into an extreme Sunday culture shock that is yet somehow familiar. It’s like an NFL kickoff meets the KOSDAQ and the result is a Joy Division video.
With his wife respectfully walking six feet behind him and his key people at his side, the Reverend Cho is escaping the cerebra-motor region of Yoido church. His bodyguards are glad-handing his star-struck admirers and detractors, making room, as the chauffeured car is waiting to take him from the church-grounds.
Now up in the Basilica.
There are new wafts of expensive and trendy perfume and cologne resonating in the central staircase now and that can only mean that the seating for the 3 p.m. singles’ service is underway. With all this layout of success and big amounts of money being sanctified in the basement of the church, it seemed a progression to wonder about who was filling up the main sanctuary above and how close behind would the human instinct for courtship then mating follow? Churchgoers at the 3 p.m. service are noticeably younger than those of the previous service yet there is still intact a certain middle-class swoosh with all Korean church goers; well dressed but not to the point of distraction, people come in with animated greetings for their friends while finding the area they usually sit in. I quickly find a seat on the edge of the “Foreign Guest” section and there are strong Easter day bouquets colliding with each passing group of singles. But I have been off meat for three days eating only Kimchi, rice, tuna and cheese; so my senses might be a little too concentrated on the ethereal. It’s also common knowledge that for a long time South Koreans were not able to afford any lifestyle enhancing item as gratuitous as perfume and now they can. And again it is Easter, a good time to recall that reverse of biblical values story when a woman pours perfume on Jesus to anoint him. Besides, if you are going to be closed up in church all day as young Koreans are, who wouldn’t choose the best smelling option available to you.
The tabernacle is filling to capacity but not yet overflow. And it is the overflow services earlier in the morning that are beamed out worldwide. The first 15 minutes of the service was an Easter Chorale of rock n’ roll. Live music from the Church band that sounded like part Cold Play part U2. I think it was Lou Reed who said, “That if rock n’ roll isn’t an exorcism then it is a straight jacket….” The “Worship band” sounds weren’t from the high church like Patty Smith’s Easter nor the gospel caravan stuck in a clutch thrusts of Holy Roller Novocain but it wasn’t just baby Jesus jingles either. The music has more natural power than the mechanized sounds of dystopic K-pop. And of course there are taste points that the church will reserve on how enticing the music can be, yet the distortion of blues and gospel and cymbal crashes are keeping us together and on the holy grail. At some point towards the end of the mini-concert it dawned on me that Sunday morning and at Church might be the only time and place that many Korean people listen to rock n’ roll.
And with a good sense of timing Pastor Young Hoon Lee took the lectern. His sermon was titled, Bell Chimes of Resurrection and started with:
My ministry in Germany and how the non-Korean natives living around his church didn’t like the Korean language or the smell of Kimchi…. They had no respect for the Korean people… they would periodically call the police on his flock for making too much noise…. And that the only time they could be as praiseful as they wanted to be was on the lord’s Sunday morning when the church refused not ringing the church bells… for 10 whole minutes… this happened because god tells us bell chimes of resurrection
The English translator was working hard to keep up with pastor Lee’s sermon and I realized the pastor might be onto an interesting topic: living abroad and trying to crack the cultural codes necessary, of that to live with neighbors and not just at them, but right then he drew the anti-Christian and cultural spamming card from an obviously loaded deck. I’m transcribing best I can here if somewhat literally as Pastor Lee continued to bait the presumably already saved congregation with his The evidence of the resurrection. He continued by telling about:
when I tried to read the Da Vinci Code and had to put the book down as soon as he got to the part where Mary Magdalene talked Christ into coming off the cross and then Jesus took her with him to live in France where they are currently still living.
Pastor Lee also shared his love to go to the movies so much that his aunt would take him every weekend and at the age of 12 she took him to see Hell Gate and he couldn’t sleep for months… but then he watched Ben Hur (his favorite movie) and discovered how William Wyler was a Jew destined to prove the non-existence of Christ… but later accepted Jesus and became a born again Christian … that is the story on how he got to direct Ben Hur… Pastor Lee’s favorite movie.
I don’t know the point of parsing through the urban legends here or trying to understand the theology now at work via Yoido, but there was a nice touch of production when the giant video screen behind the Yoido alter opened to a clip from the end of Ben Hur ; where rain and blood pour from the sky after Christ’s death and the lepers are healed. Stranger to reckon though at the start of the video the largely under age 30 congregation (at least the ones sitting around me) turned away instead of watching and started to pull out their smart phones. Maybe it was the blood and the water mixing on the mud or the complexion of the former lepers Mirian and Tirzah clearing up and that caused a reflex action in the Singles Service where so many started to check their own complexions. I just don’t know, but both males and females around me took to their smart phones like that they might have been missing out on something more than this on-screen healing in front of them.
The Look of Love
Pastor Lee was clearly on more solid ground with his flock when the sermon turned to Korean pop actor Kim Young Min and the film Beethoven Virus. With earlier mentions of hard-boiled Germany and lyrical France, I didn’t know what to expect as the translation became garbled.
Here is the synopsis of Beethoven Virus:
Kang Gun Woo is a world renowned orchestra maestro who is a perfectionist in his work. He is not an easy person to work with and is fear by all his players. By chance, he comes across Du Ru Mi, a violinist, and a young cop who has the same name as his and discovers that even without formal training, the young Kang is a music genius. The three soon get tangled in a love triangle.
This is the sort of nice-life-if-you-can-get-it and you-can-get-it-if-you-want-it schmaltz. The storyline that would appeal to most of a younger generation in all four corners of the world.
The perfect Easter passion play that Pastor Lee was trying to catch his audience with and pin their souls on is a current TV drama called “White Tower.” It’s based on a Japanese novel and also has a spin-off being produced in Taiwan called The Hospital. The Korean cinema review site Hancinema describes it as,
Set in a university hospital, Behind The White Tower follows one brilliant doctor’s relentless pursuit of his ambition to its conclusion. By microscopically depicting the hidden side of the medical profession, it sheds light on a variegated spectrum of human types. The show recounts the friendship and conflict between two male doctors—one with a brilliant gift for his craft and the other with an innate warmth and a firm devotion to the healing art—and tenaciously investigates the lust for power that moves human beings in the “white tower” that is the university hospital.
Whether this is more paint by broad heart strokes some preferred images and create a trendy melodrama, or, is a real breakthrough in cultural storytelling, I am not sure. Pastor Young Hoon Lee forever won the audience over by telling them that he Googled Kim Young Min and found out that the actor and he had gone to the same high school.
I am getting tired as church life in Korea seems all played out and not fertile to me. The only thing I can now concentrate on is not blood or rain or white complexions as I can’t stop visualizing a pepperoni pizza. I’m hungry to the point of helplessness only noticing how cacophonic the sounds coming through the headset are and maybe that is the reason that I keep hearing the translator’s voice gargle and pause in my ear phones saying, “White Power. White Power,” instead of White Tower, White Tower.
Incidentally I didn’t realize my misunderstanding till later and while typing this. But right then I had thought I had enough of an Easter Sunday celebration. I need to move around the church maybe to spot an exit. The worst thing about it was I really don’t have anything so fascinating to write about. No kind and quiet submission to a foreign culture or clapping and celebrating with a holiday spirit. No real understanding of Easter in Seoul any different than what was marbling around my head before I came here to Yoido Church again. And I don’t think I’m the only one with some kind of church-droop. I must’ve had a Jesus-loves-you-but-I-don’t grin on as I noticed a not insignificant amount of couples also gathering their stuff and getting up to move around and go somewhere. They went away with each other not in the same manner as they had openly found each other on the way in. While moving past me couples avoid eye contact with anyone like they have a secret in the making. Was I watching some kind of mating ritual of holiness that leads to hook ups? I felt like I deserved to read their thoughts, It’s Easter and we feel the holiness of familiarity in our church; so lets challenge this dead spring and step on the peddles to joy.
Part 4. The Pursuit of Joy – the final installment of exploring the Yoido Full Gospel church will be published on Monday May 23rd here at 3wm.