SEOUL, South Korea—The Starbucks near Seoul National University was like the iced drinks the young customers were shaking and sipping—cool, mixed, and tightly packed with bodies tumbling over one another as they bucked for the rare open seat.
At a corner table for two, two Korean-Americans and a Canadian woman bowed their heads in prayer. They conversed in English, which attracted some cursory glances, but perhaps it was also their outfits and mannerisms that stood out.
Starbucks isn’t the only rapid foreign expansion in Seoul, which now has more Starbucks stores than any city in the world. The number of expats living in Seoul has also exploded—and continues to grow. According to a 2012 city survey, more than 280,000 foreigners live legally in Seoul, a hike from 61,920 in 2000. Most are migrant workers, but some are bilingual Korean-American working professionals, college graduates with wanderlust tutoring English part-time, or Koreans who were adopted as children and have come back.
In a nation that prides itself as one of the most ethnically homogeneous in the world, the seep of multiculturalism stirs alarm and hot discussions among native Koreans who worry about cultural and ethnic preservation, diseases, and crime. The debates aren’t that different from typical American anxieties about immigrants, but with greater emphasis on ethnic purity. Still, more and more Koreans, particularly the younger generation, are welcoming multiculturalism and embracing expats.
The South Korean government has played a crucial role in pushing smoother integration for foreigners since 2006. On a quieter note, so has the expat church community, a small but dynamic group whose outsider perspectives open ways to minister in the many blind spots in Korean society. As the international community burgeoned, so has the need for and roles of international ministries. The three expats praying at Starbucks late on a Sunday afternoon offer a great example.
Jee Lee, a 34-year-old from northern Virginia, is a full-time volunteer at Jerusalem Ministry (JM), a Christian NGO that trains and equips international volunteers to serve children’s homes in Seoul. With her were two fresh volunteers: Young-rae Kim, 23, from Los Angeles, and Emily Boivin, 35, from Montreal. As Lee led the two-hour training session, in which she described Korean prejudices against orphans and stressed long-term commitment, the two orientation students took copious notes.
Boivin, who moved to Seoul after the Korean bug “bit” her, told me she was drawn to JM after listening to sermons about orphans at New Philadelphia Church, the multi-site EM (English-speaking Ministry) branch of a Korean Presbyterian church. As an adoptee, she “knew the orphan spirit” and felt “tugging in the heart” to serve the abandoned children of a country she has come to love. Meanwhile, Kim is on a one-year stint in Seoul to teach English—but considers lengthening his stay to serve its community.
JM, founded in 2006 by John-Michael Becker, a gangly 32-year-old Virginia Tech graduate, is one of many Christian organizations founded by expats in South Korea. I joined Becker and his mostly expat team at his apartment/office for their weekly prayer meeting for North Korea.
Becker has lived in Seoul for nine years, during which he married a Korean woman, learned conversational Korean, and now eats spicy, pungent Korean food without losing weight. Within five months of working full-time at a Christian children’s home, Becker noticed a pressing issue: Commitment from orphanage volunteers was weak, especially among Western volunteers who expected warm hugs and Orphan Annie smiles, and then disappeared when things got too difficult or a new job popped up. Such broken commitments only deepen the children’s spirit of rejection and distrust.
When Becker first initiated JM, the orphanage staff, tired of foreign irresponsibility, refused to accept any expat volunteers despite the dire need for English tutors. Since then, JM has formed partnerships with nine children’s homes and has trained and sent about 100 expat volunteers who commit to serve a minimum of 6 to 12 months. Becker has broadened his ministry to include soccer and arts and crafts camps, and a college scholarship and mentorship program for orphans. Becker said he’s seen many foreigners recommit to a 10-year stay in Korea because “they recognize that God is doing something here.”
Even though South Korea sends out many missionaries, Becker calls it “ironic” that not as much outreach goes to its own people—leaving many Christian expats to fill in the blind spots created by cultural barriers and social challenges. Orphans—socially typecast as undisciplined troublemakers and rarely adopted because of deep cultural emphasis on bloodline—are just one unreached pocket in South Korean society. Other typically overlooked issues include sex-trafficking, prostitution, North Korean refugees, the homeless, single mothers, and abortion.
Eddie Byun, a 40-year-old Korean-American pastor from Illinois who’s been leading Onnuri Church’s English-speaking Ministry (OEM) since 2008, remembers being shocked to discover that some estimates of the women and children under sexual servitude in South Korea topped 1 million. He was even more shocked that not a single local church was doing anything about it. When he first started OEM’s anti-sex-trafficking ministry, he ruffled the feathers of many local pastors, who shunned taboo topics of sex and prostitution, suspected encroaching “social justice” liberalism, or just wasn’t used to a young, newly appointed pastor shaking up the rigid hierarchy based on position and age.
Byun said if he had been raised in Korea, he probably wouldn’t have been able to leap past cultural prejudices and initiate the various justice ministries OEM leads today, including foster care for North Korean orphans. Because he is so obviously American, even elderly Korean pastors allow him certain leeway in saying something that would ordinarily be “shocking” or “offensive” from a native pastor.
But sometimes, the shock factor helps. Becker said because he’s “the most random white guy,” there’s “a level of shame that hits Koreans” when he gets up on stage at benefit concerts to represent Korean orphans. “To them it’s kind of like, ‘Hello, wake up!’ I think if I was Korean, they wouldn’t be ashamed.”
And some Korean churches are taking notice. OEM’s Korean parent church has recently partnered with OEM to form a “social mission” ministry to sex-trafficking victims and North Korean orphans. Byun said he believes God has placed “a very special role for the expat community” in Korea to speak up for traditionally repressed voices, and hopes one day Korean churches will lead such initiatives by placing “a higher value on the gospel and kingdom culture versus the Korean culture.”