The search goes on

2006/09/06 21:36

The search goes on

by Jieho Choi, JoongAng Daily
May 10, 2002

Amid a cluster of rustic buildings in Daehyeon-dong, behind Ewha Womans University, sits a small, two-story redbrick house surrounded by poplar trees.

In a large room on the second floor of the house about 15 people have gathered in a circle this recent Sunday morning. They are meditating, some with their eyes almost closed in deep thought, others reading the Bible, gently turning to pages so as not to disturb the silence.

In the stillness, only the slight hum of bees moving in and out of the open windows can be heard. In the middle of the table, a small candle burns -- to give a feeling of unadorned holiness.

This is a meeting of Quakers, the Religious Society of Friends, in Korea.

The worship service starts each Sunday at 11 a.m. The first hour is spent meditating, and the next half hour is for sharing stories, ranging from everyday activities of the past week to epiphanies and revelations. The meditations are a way of improving "spiritual strength and will," in the words of one member. The clerk of the service, who acts as sort of an emcee, begins the sharing session by introducing new joiners, one, and old timers, two, back after a long absence. The group takes turns discussing topics such as the recently held Jeju Peace Forum, last week's service and how to improve the welfare of foreign workers in Korea. The services are held in Korean, but bilingual members are able to translate.

Most of the attendees are involved in social work, either professionally or part-time. One is a member of Korea's anti-landmine civic group, another a feminist theologian who works at Ssi-al Women's Peace Foundation. There's a professor at Sungkonghoe University who lectures about nongovernmental organizations, and a theology student who is one of the founders of Nonviolence Peace Force in Korea.

Quakers are known for their dedication to community service, and this group is no different. "It's a chicken-or-the-egg question," says Tom Coyner, a 50ish businessman and former Peace Corps volunteer in Korea. "Did these people become social activists as a result of Quakerism or did their vocation induce them to be interested in Quakerism? Maybe both." He shrugs.

It's the fifth meeting for Aaron Ricker-Parks, an English language teacher from Canada who now lives in Daejeon. Chance brought him here. "I was surfing the Net one day and came upon writings about and by Ham Seok-hun," he says, "and I realized we shared the same views."

Ham Seok-hun is the most famous Quaker in Korea. A tireless advocate of the nonviolence movement and spiritual leader during much of Korea's struggle toward political democratization, Mr. Ham was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and has been called "the Ghandi of Korea."

Mr. Ham was one of the first Koreans to take up with the Quakers. He came to his first meeting in 1961 and became a member in 1967. He was a strong personality, and after his death in 1989, the Quakers lost many of their members who were dedicated to Mr. Ham. It took 10 years for the group to rebuild to its current membership level.

For many in Korea, Quakerism equals Ham Seok-hun due to his strong presence in the community. But Kim Hyeong-rul, the Quakers' clerk, says, "we are much, much more than mere followers of Ham. Most of us are committed members of civic groups, who like to get together and meditate."

The Religious Society of Friends began in 1660 in Britain, founded by George Fox as a reaction against the religious turmoil and violence of the times. The society is opposed to hierarchies and emphasizes the individual's relationship with God, that each individual should search for "the light within." In addition, Quakers staunchly advocate nonviolence as a means of social change.

The first Quakers on the peninsula came right after the Korean War to give medical aid. They created a formal group in 1958 with about a score of attendees. In the 1960s and '70s, due to Mr. Ham's influence, the membership doubled, but these days it's about 20.

Tom Coyner first attended a Quaker service when he was a senior at the University of Colorado, but grew away from the ideas as an adult, dabbling in other religions. A friend who served in the Peace Corps in Biafra, Nigeria, encouraged him to join the Peace Corps to gain "enriching human experience." Mr. Coyner ended up in Korea in 1975. He served as a volunteer teaching English in middle schools in Eumseong and Okcheon, Chungcheong province. After four years of living in Korea, he went back to the States with his Korean wife, worked in a computer software company and earned a master's in business administration from the University of Southern California. In 1990 he was posted to Japan to work at various software companies before becoming sales manager of the Korea office of ACI Worldwide in 2000. They have two teenage sons.

Born in a Presbyterian household with Irish roots (and a dab of Roman Catholicism), Mr. Coyner says it was his desire "to move from institutionalized religion to a more primitive one" that compelled him to commit to the Quaker faith. He adds, "In Quakerism, we do not call it 'conversion,' but rather 'conviction.'" He became a "regular" Quaker four years ago in Tokyo. His wife Yeri was born a Roman Catholic and practiced Buddhism in her youth, but tagged along willingly.

Professor Park Sung-joon is also a regular member. He is the husband of Han Myeong-sook, the Minister of Gender Equality. Mr. Park works with Mr. Coyner every Tuesday teaching English to civic group activists. Mr. Park says, "Tom is perhaps a genuine example of harmonizing the spiritual world with the secular world of business. He knows how to apply the theme of peace into the practicalities of business. And when we teach English, he uses works by Ham as the main text, dealing with pacifism ideology."

When mediating, Mr. Coyner says, "I recite the Lord's Prayer very very slowly, then I try hard to shut out the monkey chatter, and then experience God by listening to the faint sound of my inner voice." When asked if he hears an actual spoken sound, he says, "on rare times I do, but mostly it's dialogue that goes on in my head." What makes him committed to this group? "It's the peace of mind, the tranquility of being able to hear myself think that makes it so interesting."

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