Diffusing Islamophobia: a Documentary Film by GTE Alumnus

Some of our alumni of the Global Theological Education (GTE) Immersion Trip to Thailand will remember a courageous and brilliant woman by the name of Raylena C. Fields. Back in 2011, she participated in the trip as one of 7 students from Lancaster Seminary who, along with 7 members of the Southeast Conference, jointly embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime journey to a country in Southeast Asia–Thailand, known as the “Land of Smile.”

As many of us were, Raylena was deeply enchanted by Thai culture and people (and of course, food!), and she decided to pursue Ph.D. in Peace Studies at Payap University in Chiang Mai–the second largest city in Thailand in its northern region–after graduating from Lancaster Seminary. The GTE trip was indeed life-changing for her; she is now in the process of completing her degree. Today, I received the joyful news that she is on her way to Osaka University to study at the School of International Public Policy on a full scholarship for 6 months. Following her studies, she wishes to work in the areas of global interfaith conflict resolution, dialogue, and film.

The following link will take you to a documentary film created by Raylena on the topic of “Diffusing Islamophobia in America.” The project was sponsored by the Luce Foundation, the Lancaster Theological Seminary, and the Southeast Conference, UCC. We are proud of Raylena’s work in the area of peace-builing and interfaith dialogue; we are proud to be a part of a project that aims to dispel any misconceptions that induce fear and deter communication in regards to a particular religion.

Here’s the link to the video which is divided in to 6 Parts. Many individuals who appear in the film are actual people we met during our trip who had provided us with extravagant, unforgettable welcome.

Click here to view film.






The Roth Prize Contest open to all students

This is a message from Prof. Anne T. Thayer of Lancaster Seminary to all students who may be interested in writing a paper on Mercersburg Theology:

As the 2013-14 academic year gets underway, I am pleased to announce that the “Roth Prize” will once again be offered by the Mercersburg Society and to invite your students to participate in the competition. The award of $750 is given for the best student paper on any topic, historical or contemporary, pertaining to Mercersburg Theology.

Mercersburg Theology developed in the German Reformed Church in the mid-19th century, with the incarnation as its theological starting point. It stressed the importance of the universal Church as the body of Christ organically developing through history, took a special interest in worship, and produced a liturgy for both pulpit and pew which highlighted the role of the sacraments. Radical in its time, this rich tradition continues to animate the life of the ecumenical Church today. A recent upsurge in scholarly interest has resulted in new editions of primary texts as well as articles and books on this distinctive movement. Indeed, the contest had such a large pool of excellent papers in 2013 that the Society awarded three prizes!

Students taking courses in American Christianity, Theology, Church History or Worship might well find the Mercersburg tradition a fruitful topic for in-depth study.  Papers submitted for the prize may be written in a regular seminary course or arise from independent study. Doctoral students are welcome to participate. It is expected that papers will be approximately 15-20 pages in length, complete with appropriate documentation.

The recipient of the prize will be invited to present the winning essay at an upcoming Mercersburg Society Convocation (held annually in June). At the decision of the editors, the paper may then be published in the New Mercersburg Review.

Submissions should be sent to me by May 15, 2014. I will be glad to receive email inquiries: athayer@lancasterseminary.edu.

Sincerely yours,

Anne T. Thayer

Anne T. Thayer
Diefenderfer Professor of Mercersburg and Ecumenical Theology and Church History
Lancaster Theological Seminary
555 West James Street
Lancaster, PA 17603                                              www.mercersburgsociety.org

The Far East Report II – Korea

By Sarah Kim

korea_kbgKyong-Bok Palace (Seoul): Home of the Kings of Yi Dynasty (1392~1910)

Geographically, South Korea is a small peninsula located between Japan to its east and China to its west. The peninsula is divided into North and South, making South Korea a littoral state with three sides facing the ocean. Due to its geo-politically strategic location, Korea has been invaded some 900 times throughout its 5000 years of history. Today, the ideologically differing Koreas are the only two states that remain divided in the world after the ending of the Cold War over 20 years ago. The democratic South (ROK) has population of about 50 million people; the socialist North (DPRK) has about half of that number.

As a native of Seoul, I can go on and on about the long and dramatic history of Korea, especially in light of the growth of Christianity in the country, its economic achievements, and recent success in the global entertainment industry; but for the purposes of this report, I will focus on the nature of my visit. During a one-week stay before departing for China, I had the opportunity to visit Minjung Theology Institute, Hanbaek church, and Hanshin University’s School of Theology, and Jesus Abbey, exploring prospects for implementing the Global Theological Education (GTE) program in this cross-cultural context. All but one destination was located in Seoul, the capital city of over 10 million people—the largest city proper among the OECD countries.

I began my week by visiting the Jesus Abbey community first. After a 5-hour bus ride, I arrived in Tae-baek city located near the East Coast, and after another 30-minute taxi ride, I entered the grounds of the community situated in its beautiful mountainous setting. Jesus Abbey (www.jabbey.org) was founded by Rev. Archer Torrey, an American Episcopalian priest, in 1965; it is home to several Korean families who lead a life of faith, with emphases on labor (mostly farming), prayer, and communal life. It was just my luck to visit Rev. Ben Torrey (the son of the deceased founder) and his wife on the day the community celebrated its 48th anniversary. The 2-story main building was full of outside visitors, including young and lively students from an affiliating Bible College who stole the show with comedy skits, musical performances, heartwarming testimonies, and a short film introducing the history of Jesus Abbey.

korea-jaTatami floored prayer room at Jesus Abbey. (Tae-Baek City)

One of the reasons that attracted me to explore this community was the unique ministries of Jesus Abbey that include equipping believers for the reunification of the two Koreas. Over the years, they have done this systematically, offering seminars on North Korea, sharing information and intentionally praying for reunification. Rev. Torrey is currently involved in the Fourth River Project whose primary purpose is to equip people to do mission work in North Korea once it opens its doors to the world. It’s hard to tell when that’ll be. But my heart warms up at the fact that that day will come one day.

After the long and hard one-day trip to the East Coast, the rest of the visits were less demanding, though the jetlag was still bothersome for a while.  In Seoul, Rev. Jinho Kim, the Director of Minjung Theology Institute, graciously served as my host. He is also the pastor of the Hanbaek church that was founded by the forefathers of Minjung Theology—one of Korea’s well-known liberation theologies indigenous to the Korean context. Together we visited Hanshin University’s School of Theology for a meeting with the faculty and the President, who enthusiastically voiced their desire to strengthen partnership with the United Church of Christ. (In September 2013, they will welcome a UCC minister, commissioned by the Global Ministries UCC, to work as the school’s chaplain.) They welcomed at the prospects of collaborating to implement a GTE immersion program in Korea, and also expressed interest in sharing resources through the PATHWAYS program. For their hospitality and openness, I was very grateful.

korea-hssChapel at Hanshin Theological Seminary (Seoul)

I am particularly grateful for Rev. Jinho Kim’s alliance and friendship because it is not easy to encounter a progressive thinker who is also a brilliant theologian at the same time in the context of Korean Christianity. Rev. J. Kim is a prolific writer, and has published several books on Korean Christianity and its history from the liberation theological perspective. The Minjung Theology Institute and Hanbaek church are affiliated with the more liberal Presbyterian denomination (PROK) of Korea—as Hanshin University is—and yet their efforts in social justice issues go beyond average ministries that take place on the liberal end.

In other words, Rev. Kim works from the marginalized end of the marginal end, asking the toughest theological questions in a very conservative, homogeneous, evangelical society. He gets phone call threats just for having seminars on sexuality that invite questions of diverse sexual orientations and their place in the Christendom. Seminars on homophobia, islamophobia, hegemonic masculinity (that is infused into every level of Korean society), and migrant worker issues as a lens to social injustices draw vehement criticisms from Christian groups from the fundamental to the evangelical spectrum. More recently, right wing Christians raucously protested against the newly made anti-discrimination law (against homosexuals), which resulted in an action by the National Assembly to temporarily withhold the law from being passed.

What does this say about Korean Christianity? For one, intra-faith dialogue—between the liberals and the conservatives—is quite difficult on many issues pertaining to the evolution of humanity and society, and God’s intervention in the midst. For many believers, God “has spoken”; the notion of conformity is a cultural norm where any “abnormality” is considered a sign of divine condemnation. Fortunately however, not everyone thinks so. Thinkers like Rev. J. Kim and his teachers have taken reason and experience seriously in informing their theological understanding in a changing world. They have taken seriously the experiences of the marginalized, and sublimated them to serve as the basis for formulating liberation theologies that address new realities of social injustices. It is unfortunate that such theological activities are taken as a threat to many who enjoy the status quo. In my view, that is being a lazy Christian; in a fast changing world, theological thinking must also change—however resistant we homo sapiens may be to change.

korea-hbchurchAltar at Hanbaek Church (Seoul):  Rocks on the altar come from Mt. Baek-du (highest mountain in the most northern part of North Korea) and Mt. Han-rah (highest mountain in the most southern part of South Korea) symbolizing a prayer for reunification.

Final reflections on my trip to the Far East: Although China and Korea received first Protestant missionaries around the same time some 150 years ago, Christianity in Korea prospered during the 50s and the 60s following the Korean War, while the Cultural Revolution obliterated Christianity in China. After several decades, these contrasting pictures have resulted in two very different scenes: shortage of Christian leaders and resources in the face of rapidly growing churches versus surplus of Christian leaders and resources in a saturated context. For the Korean context, the question is no longer about the quantity (of supply leaders, church buildings, and funds) but it is about the quality of theological understanding and its implications for a Christian life.

Christians of Korea are zealous in faith and action; they boast of having the largest congregation in the world (Yoido Full Gospel Church) and actively send out mission workers across the globe into the most unreached regions. They like to conform to the norm, and have distaste for heresy. As people who were first exposed to Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism before Christianity, they appreciate beauty and harmony in nature, enlightenment, and stillness. They are hard workers as people of han*, as wounded warriors. They are makers of their own fate, empowered by their faith in God, driven by their determination to achieve higher goals. Since I left the country to come to the U.S. 32 years ago, I was astonished by their growth on multitude of levels in their ever changing lives as people of a nation and people of God. It is my prayer and hope that the growth continues to allow God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

korea-jgs450 year-old tree @ Jogyesa Buddhist Temple (Seoul):  Colorful lanterns depict the prayers of believers on this joyful occasion in the celebration of Buddha’s birthday on May 17th.


*The minjung theologian Suh Nam-dong describes han as a “feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.”

Yoo, Boo-wong (1988). Korean Pentecostalism: Its History and Theology. New York: Verlag Peter Lang. p. 221.

The Far East Report I – China

By Sarah Kim

Written in Chinese, China literally means the “Middle Land.” The country does occupy a huge portion of the land in the middle of the globe with its 1.3 billion large population. That’s four times the U.S. population, and 20% of the world population.

Last May, I have had the privilege of visiting China, made possible by the Brown Grant (General Ministries, UCC) for a continuing education excursion that was attached to my trip to Korea, which I will discuss in my next report. I met our host Rev. Dr. Xiaoling Zhu (Global Ministries, UCC) in Beijing and traveled to Shanghai and Nanjing with ten members of the Asian Pacific Forum, a group of ecumenical church leaders from various locations in the U.S., who works with Asian partners on global ministries. Together we visited Yanjing Theological Seminary (Beijing), China Christian Council (Shanghai), and Nanjing Union Theological Seminary (Nanjing), to learn, share, and strengthen ties for collaborative work around theological education and church and social ministries.

Although I had lived in South Korea in my childhood and have visited Japan as adult, I was unsure of what to expect of their neighboring country in visiting for the first time. As a major power in Northeast Asia, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) boasts deep, magnificent historical roots, evident in the richness of its culture, tradition, language and philosophy; but the communist nation also has suffered much in its years of modern history.

Historically, China treated Korea (back then Korea was one, not divided) as an extension of its state, much like how it is treating Taiwan, and more so, Tibet now under One-China policy. China also has been at war with Japan many times, resulting in the Japanese occupation during WWII. Korea was also occupied by Japan during that time—for as long as 36 years—then was attacked shortly after by North Korea whose military support came from the communist China and the Soviet Union. So, the feelings go to and from all directions, which adds to the tension and the complexity of the balance of power in the region.

photo-3Shanghai cityscape (May 2013)

My initial impression was how amazingly big the country is. Beijing and Shanghai redefined the term “big city” for me, with enormous commercial buildings, apartment complexes, factories, and train stations. UCC President Rev. Dr. Geoffrey Black, who was in China during the week before I was there said in a sermon, “You have to go to China to see what’s happening in the world,” referring to the proliferating factories in China that are practically supplying all the goods in the world. With so many people in the job market, labor is cheap in China; and with an open economic policy, the newly risen capitalists—a selected few, I might add—are in the advantage of reaping the benefits, inevitably increasing the gap between the rich and the poor.

When our group visited the China Christian Council (CCC) in Shanghai, we learned about the rapid urbanization that is happening in the nation and its implications for the church. CCC reported that by 2012, urbanization reached 50% in China. It is projected that by 2025, 2/3 of China’s population will live in the cities, and by 2030 it will reach 80%. This seems to be an inevitable trend given that all the (factory) jobs are located in and around the cities while rural areas are being deprived of resources for development.

china-ccc_China Christian Council (Shanghai)

The impacts of urbanization are many: 1) changes in lifestyles; 2) decline of the rural churches; 3) diversified church membership with more young people and rural migrant workers; 4) increased need for pastors for growing urban churches; 5) the need for churches’ involvement in social ministries. Rev. Zhu pointed out the problem of the lack of trained pastors in China despite the rapid growth of Christian churches since the end of the Cultural Revolution some 30 years ago. Among the 22 theological education institutions that are currently in operation in China, only one of them—Nanjing Union Theological Seminary located in the city of Nanjing—offers graduate level degree program in theology.

During my visit to the Yanjing Theological Seminary in Beijing, I had the opportunity to ask the President: “Can your students, upon graduating from school, fill the positions in the churches?” Rev. Dr. Yin Gao’s answer was no, because the students are still “too young, without much experience,” since Yanjing is a bachelor level college and not a graduate seminary. It’s a small wonder that many urban churches with thousands in membership are often dependent on the leadership of one trained pastor if not voluntary lay leaders without much theological training.

china-ycs_Chapel at Yanjing Seminary (Beijing)

Evidently, theological education and leadership formation for ministry are urgent issues in China. The faculty at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary—NUTS, as the largest theological institution, has a total of about 300 students in bachelor and graduate degree programs—who received us warmly shared with us candid stories about how investing in a faculty personnel or a student in training sometimes can end up being a disappointing endeavor when they don’t come back to China to serve after studying abroad through the financial support of the seminary.

china-njs2At Nanjing Union Theological Seminary (Nanjing)

After long hours on the bullet train, buses, and taxis traveling through three cities in one week, I needed to take a deep breath, with a tinge of discouragement, at the face of the situation of China and its churches. “You’ve only seen the cities with fancy buildings and big roads, you haven’t seen the rural area, it’s embarrassing,” said Rev. Zhu bluntly, hinting at the horrid conditions of poverty in the countryside. His statement was such a contrast to what my friend, a Beijing resident, said to me: “My boss is so rich, he owns all the buildings on the entire block.” She was referring to the wealthiest district in Beijing where the hotel she works at is located. Apparently, some are billionaires in China, while the most of the population live in various degrees of poverty. There continues to be much fluctuation and turmoil in the nation with so much ongoing economic activities and constant migration of population. For some, such turmoil serves as opportunity for fortune; for others, it’s madness for survival.

I would like to end this report with a notion of hope. I believe the hope lies in the hearts of the people of China. I say this with a dose of grief, in remembrance of the bloody oppression they had to endure during the Cultural Revolution where any talent of artistry unique to the Chinese people and the profundity of their religious and philosophical traditions had been oppressed, stripped away, and annihilated by its own government. In my view, this was even possible because of the goodness—or naiveté—that defines the character of Chinese people. Bertrand Russell once assessed the Chinese way of life as having the following characteristics*: 1) production without possession, 2) action without self-assertion, and 3) development without domination. These characteristics are, Russell adds, “virtues chiefly useful to others, and vices chiefly harmful to oneself.”* Unfortunately, unprepared goodness has a tendency of becoming vulnerable in the face of evil, as evidenced by our own biblical traditional narrative.

What is disconcerting is the possible demoralization of inherent goodness that threatens hope. Demoralization has many roots, the primary one being the economic reason, followed by socio-political policies—e.g. the One-Child policy—that prohibit natural ways of being human. Meanwhile, such predicaments always engage us back to our own roots—to our connectedness with the Ultimate Reality, the Source of Life, in the name of God, and to seek answers in the Divine wisdom. The remarkable growth of Christianity in China is not unrelated to the nation’s rapid economic growth; in light of the negative externalities of urbanization and centralized capitalism, people’s hunger for transcendental experience is bound to deepen, their passion for truth and salvation destined to heighten.

As an adherent to progressive theology who believes that God is still speaking, I do not have all the answers on how to engage China’s fledgling Christianity or how to be helpful with its shortage of theology and trained leaders. But these questions have allowed me to reflect on the theology of accompaniment. Theology of accompaniment places emphasis in the “being with” rather than “doing for” when it comes to living out the spirituality of Jesus who lived with the poor, the sick and the marginalized. In saying so, I may be risking the criticism of lacking action in the face of great need. But I would rather take the criticism than to impose theological understanding and praxis that have grown out of the Western context over the millennia. As such, it is my prayer that the Chinese people think—hopefully without closing doors to the West for open dialogues—for themselves, in terms of who God is and what God does in their context. It is my hope that they will soon be able to share what they discover—the theological understanding and practices that are indigenous to their lot and true to who they are as people of a great nation. That would be the mark of diversity suitable for the greater faith community in God we serve in unity.

china-ct Statue of Confucius @ Confucius Temple (Nanjing)

chinafoodOne of the best vegetarian dishes of all times.


* Bertrand Russell, The Problem of China (Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2007.) pg. 10.




Reaching Divinity through Diversity

In my final year in the Master of Divinity program back in 1996, I had to do a final project in the course titled, Images of Christ. There was no limit to what we could come up with, which resulted in some students simply turning in a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread, or pages and pages of reflections on christology.

In my young mind back then, I was focused on the color of Jesus’ skin. While many of my peers focused on the transcendental image of Christ, I was curious about the historical Jesus who walked on earth, lived with the disciples, preached to the masses with words of spiritual wisdom, felt compassion, sorrow and anger, and healed those in agony and pain.

In my research, I discovered that the depiction of historical Jesus differed from tradition to tradition. In parts of Asia wherein the influence of the first Western missionaries is still prevalent, Jesus is white with blue eyes who looks very much like a caucasian. In some African traditions, Jesus is black; in some ancient Korean and Chinese paintings, Jesus is portrayed an Asian man just like others in the culture.

At that point, I began to think it would be easier to focus on the transcendental, larger-than-life image of Christ as the Son of God. A universal figure whose death and resurrection forever changed human destiny. The one image of Christ no one could dispute. But, I still was intrigued by the diverse images of Jesus. And I wanted to express my thought and feelings about it. So, my final project was a collage of photos of people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. The title was given to the effect of Divinity through Diversity: Jesus as Representation of the Combination of all Peoples in the World. I was thinking–however corny or silly it might have been–that his skin color would be the perfect combination of all skin colors in the world.

After 17 years, I’m now more intrigued by divinity beyond the skin color. Studying and doing theology has to be about seeing through the mundane, about understanding the spiritual reality of things, about reaching divinity through the clutters of distractions–both internal and external. It’s about discovering and training another set of eyes that can see the truth; it’s about training and expanding the mind towards embracing the world in the Divine manner.

A lenten reflection written by S. Kim



Envisioning, creating, and implementing theology and spirituality for a changing world is the task for the 21st century.

All who value and appreciate the effort are welcome to join the community.