Stairway to heaven

Worship with a North Korean house church

May 4, 2010

Pyongyang

Shoes are removed before entering the modest fourth-floor apartment in an otherwise drab high-rise in this North Korean capital city. The bare-wood living room floor is lined with simple straw mats. On each mat is a Bible and a soft-cover hymnal. The only other furnishings in the room are a TV on a stand and an upright piano. They are too big to be moved anywhere else in the cramped quarters.

The 10 North Korean Christians gathered here for worship rise to greet their American guests. They apologize for making us climb the four flights of stairs to this place — the building’s elevator appears to be permanently disabled.

This “house church” is one of 500 scattered throughout North Korea. They are related to the Korean Christian Federation (KCF), the partner church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in this extremely isolated country. Once home to 14,000 Christian churches — all were destroyed in the Korean War — North Korea now has just three church buildings, two Protestant and one Catholic.

House churches are now the life blood of the KCF, which claims about 15,000 members in the country.

This small upper room immediately feels like God’s house … and a family reunion. “While we waited for you, it felt like some close relatives were coming,” the wife of the house church’s leader — a doctor, Cho Mumbong — tells us.

General Assembly Mission Council Executive Director Linda Valentine reminds our hosts that Presbyterian missionaries first came to Korea more than 125 years ago, “so until today we’ve had a special affinity.”

Alluding to the spate of economic, social and political problems spawned by the Korean War and resultant intractable conflicts between Communist North Korea and South Korea and the United States, Valentine says, “We know there’s been terrible pain, destruction and division. Jesus preached peace and reconciliation and nowhere is that more important than here in Korea.”

The time together slips easily and quickly into worship, with periods of prayer, the singing of at least three hymns — accompanied by the piano and an accordion — an offering, and lengthy readings from the Bible. The service concludes with the Lord’s Prayer.

The Rev. Insik Kim, recently retired PC(USA) area coordinator for Asia and the Pacific, reads the story from Ezekiel 37 about the “valley of dry bones.” Kim was born in North Korea and fled to the south at age 12 when the Korean War started and eventually came to the U.S.  He offers a homily likening God’s reconstitution of the people of Israel in Ezekiel’s prophecy to the inevitable reunification of North and South Korea.

We are thanked for the PC(USA)’s longstanding support for the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula — first expressed by the 1986 General Assembly. “The PC(USA) is very well-known to Christian believers in Korea and is well-loved for your support of peaceful reunification,” says Dr. Cho. “We hope and pray the PC(USA) will continue its efforts.”

I ask if all the singing and praying make the neighbors in the towering high-rise curious. “Oh, yes,” laughs Mrs. Cho. “In the summer when it’s hot, we open the windows and sing hymns and a big crowd always gathers in the park across the street.”

Our departure two hours after we’ve come is bittersweet. Tears of joy at newfound Christian fellowship mix with tears of regret that our time together is so short. One thing is certain: God is in this place. And even on opposite sides of the world, and despite the political gulf between our countries, we will forever be together as part of the body of Christ.

The PC(USA) delegation, which visited North Korea April 10-17 at the invitation of the KCF, included Linda Valentine; Insik Kim; the Rev. David Hudson, Kim’s successor as area coordinator for Asia/Pacific in Presbyterian World Mission; Luke Asikoye, associate for international disaster response for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance; and this reporter.

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