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Relatives of missing passengers aboard the sunken ferry Sewol pray during an Easter service.
Associated Press/Photo by Ahn Young-joon
Relatives of missing passengers aboard the sunken ferry Sewol pray during an Easter service.

South Korean churches rethink Easter

Tragedy | The utterance ‘Death where is your sting?’ takes on greater meaning after a great national disaster

As the nation of South Korea mourns over the Sewol ferry disaster, thousands filled the church pews for Easter services in Ansan, the suburban town near Seoul whose residents made up the majority of Sewol passengers.

Churches that had planned for a celebratory worship service quickly adjusted bright decorations to more appropriately fit the somber mood. Congregants lit candles, and some removed “Congratulations, Happy Easter!” stickers from Easter eggs before offering them to mourning families still waiting for news of their loved ones. Pastors had to rethink their sermon themes to fit the joyous message of the Resurrection with the unexpected national tragedy, as parishioners still ached with shock and agony.

The Sewol sank Wednesday with 476 passengers on board, more than 300 of them 16- and 17-year-old students from Ansan's Danwon High School. As of Monday morning, 64 bodies have been recovered, but about 240 people are still missing. About 225 of the missing and dead are Danwon students who were on what was supposed to be a joyous trip to tourist hotspot Jeju Island. According to local surveys reported in South Korean newspaper Kookmin Ilbo, among 23 of the 249 Ansan churches, one church member has been confirmed dead, while 53 remain missing.

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By now, families of missing passengers have mostly given up hope of recovering their loved ones alive. Instead, many now worry the bodies will be decayed beyond recognition. One father of a 17-year-old boy, Lee Woon Geun, even worried that he might not be able to hold his dead son’s hand because it might be so decomposed that “it might fall off.”

“I miss my son,” he said. “I’m really afraid I might not get to find his body.”

As Easter Sunday approached, the nation remained in chaos. On the coast in Jindo, near where the ferry sank, tears of anguish still filled the air. Everywhere else, people lashed out in anger and frustration at the slow rescue effort and especially at the captain and crew, who apparently made fatal on-deck decisions that caused more deaths. Police officials arrested the Sewol’s captain, 68-year-old Lee Joon Seok, on Saturday. Two other crew members were also arrested, one of them a 25-year-old third mate who was steering at the time of the accident.

Early Sunday morning, about 100 relatives stormed towards the presidential Blue House in Seoul, screaming, “The government is the killer!” Police officers in neon jackets blocked their path, some officers weeping even as they pushed against the shouting and cursing crowd. South Korean President Park Geun Hye called the actions of the captain and crew members “unforgivable” and “murderous.” She said the fact that they were the first to escape the sinking ferry was “legally and ethically … an unimaginable act.”

At 5 a.m. on Easter Sunday, however, a distinct voice of both hope and repentance rose up from the pews. Ansan Vitna Presbyterian Church’s senior pastor, Yoo Je Myong, began his service by stating, “Today is Easter, but we gather here with an extraordinary heart seeking extraordinary grace. I pray that the hope and desire of our resurrected Jesus Christ will be with the victims of the ferry tragedy—the surviving families who lost their children and the children who suffered. May the grace of recovery be with them.”

In an emotional, high-toned sermon titled “Resurrect in the Cross,” Ansan Jeil Church senior pastor Go Hun began, “In the 70 years of my life, never have I felt such helplessness and shame as a pastor.” According to South Korean news source Christian Today, he said the night before Easter Sunday, he was unable to come up with a single sentence for his sermon because he couldn’t stop thinking about the children still shut within the sunken ferry’s steel walls, wondering how many were still alive. “Today our Ansan is a land of tears, a land of wailing,” he said, likening the mourning to that of Bethlehem when King Herod ordered the butchering of all 2-year-old boys.

“Easter is supposed to be a celebration of great joy for Christians who shout out, ‘The Lord has risen!’” Go continued. “But whenever I think of the kids who are trapped underwater, I am unable to eat, unable to sleep. … I cannot do anything because I am so blinded with tears. Oh, if I could solve this problem with tears, I would shed tears of blood!”

According to Kookmin Ilbo, by then his congregation—about 3,000—was also sobbing and sniffling, many wiping tears with handkerchiefs, others letting the tears flow freely. Go then turned the event on its heels. He said in the wake of the disaster, both the older generation and Korean churches must repent. He first criticized the ferry captain and crew who abandoned the ship, then flipped the coat of repentance over to “we adults who in great irresponsibility” also share the blame for “trapping our children who should be running with unlimited potential.” We too, he said, are entrapping our kids in all sorts of metaphorical sinking ships, such as rigid academics and computer game rooms (a significant social issue among South Korean teens).

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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