Essay: Safe Sundays in Korea - Sharing Hope through Hospitality

Today we have a cross-cultural Sunday hospitality story from Kara, whose American style of hospitality has been stretched as she has practiced hospitality in China and now in Korea. In Korea she's seeing how simple hospitality gives people the opportunity to open up about their hurts and find hope. Her story provides insights for anyone seeking to connect with a Korean friend or a friend of another culture at a deeper level.

"Kara realized that Asian hospitality is more formal than American hospitality."

Kara grew up in the middle of America, where hospitality was casual and comfortable. Meals were plain and desserts weren't fussy. The important thing was simply that people were always welcome around the table. Moving to China after college to teach English, Kara realized that Asian hospitality is usually more formal than American hospitality. However, she carried her more casual American style of hosting with her to China, often inviting students over to her tiny apartment to speak English and eat platefuls of brownies or banana bread. (Hint: both desserts are almost always a win in any culture!)

When Kara married her Korean husband Peter, whom she met in China, they wanted to create a home that would be open to people needing a safe place to talk, to laugh or to cry. Their first home together was in China and later they moved to her husband's home town in Korea, where they started both their family and a small English service at the church next door. 

Peter, Kara and their children

Peter, Kara and their children

Korea is a place of great beauty, as seen in the rolling hills, in the art of the traditional food and in the faces of the gorgeous people. But the beauty of Korea is often weighted down by what Kara describes as a photo filter that increases the shadows, darkening everything. It took a while for Kara to put her finger on the overwhelming oppression in Korea. In fact, it was only when she felt the oppression come over her, too, that she recognized it for what it was. There is a deep, undeniably heavy hopelessness that hangs over the country. Kara sees it on the subway, on the street and on the playground. Hopelessness peers out from under forced smiles and concentrated faces.

"There is a deep, undeniably heavy hopelessness that hangs over Korea."

This hopelessness stems from the stressful everyday life of Koreans. From the time children are able to walk, they are placed in a school environment and shoved into literacy and achievement. By high school, students study from morning to midnight. It's a gruelling schedule that seeks to open up opportunities to attend the best universities, and therefore to get the best jobs in Korea. Once students graduate, they are pushed into an even more gruelling workforce where most people work 12 to 14 hour days, 6 days a week, just to make ends meet. This hectic schedule means families rarely see each other. There aren't many alternatives to this extreme way of life.

A Korean church building

A Korean church building

You would think that for churched Koreans it might be different, but unfortunately for many, the church has become a place that increases stresses instead of providing a refuge from them. Competition and deep hierarchical divisions from outside the church are perpetuated in the church as well. Many churches are more like social clubs than places of worship. For some, church attendance is another guilty obligation. For others, church is an unsuccessful formula for a happier life. For most, church doesn’t offer a real solution to the hopelessness.

"In Korea's honour-based culture, being served can be an especially powerful way to feel loved."

Koreans tend to consider pastors (including Peter, since he is an ordained pastor) as more holy and elite. In contrast, the Bible says that Jesus Himself “came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The implications of Jesus’ example of servanthood are profound for people of any culture, but for Koreans, whose society is based on understanding honour, being served by someone who is above them in the hierarchy carries a deep significance. Being served can be an especially powerful way to feel loved in Korean culture. 

A Korean church steeple

A Korean church steeple

Kara and her husband have found that inviting people from church into their home helps to break down hierarchical barriers. When church friends come into their apartment and see her husband playing with their kids or doing their dishes, it powerfully illustrates how Jesus turns human ideas of hierarchy upside down and calls believers to serve each other. Eating and sharing mundane aspects of life with a pastor's family has a powerful effect on guests, and puts them in a safe place.

Peter and Kara's entryway on a Sunday afternoon

Peter and Kara's entryway on a Sunday afternoon

Almost every Sunday,  Kara and Peter invite the small English congregation to join them for food and conversation in their home after their 2:00pm service. Ten to fifteen people slip off their shoes and gather around the table. Peter and Kara joke that they are "boring" people, and that their intention is not to entertain or impress anyone with their hospitality. They simply want to provide a safe place to serve and be served. Their goal is to have conversations that offer hope.

A Sunday afternoon gathering at Peter and Kara's apartment

A Sunday afternoon gathering at Peter and Kara's apartment

"Using English as the common language opens unexpected conversational doors."

The conversation in their home on Sundays is in English, although most of the guests are Korean. Interestingly, Kara and Peter have found that using English as the common language opens unexpected conversational doors. This is because the Korean language is deeply tied to the cultural concepts of hierarchy, age and status. It can be difficult for Koreans (Peter included) to talk freely about deep, heart matters in Korean. But around their table they've noticed that guests often over-share when speaking English. Speaking English with Koreans in their home breaks down barriers.

For Kara, one of the most significant Sundays so far was when a new church friend sat at their table and shared with her husband that he doesn't believe in God. It was not faith but obligation and habit that had led him to serve in the church. In Kara and Peter's home he finally felt comfortable enough to admit this. Through simple hospitality, he found a place to unload, disarm, and just be without needing to impress people or compete for attention. He continues to come regularly to the Sunday service and to the fellowship time afterward.

Hopelessness still hangs heavy over Korea, but Kara and Peter are learning how Christian hospitality provides hope to the oppressed. Cross-cultural hospitality doesn't take fancy desserts or a fully adapted cultural understanding. It doesn't even require fluency in a common language. There is something significant about welcoming people into what seems insignificant: our everyday lives. Sometimes the most powerful way to bring hope into hopeless situations is simply to open our doors and let people in.