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Participants in WCC consultation visit projects in Seoul that model ecumenical diakonia

Participants in WCC consultation visit projects in Seoul that model ecumenical diakonia

A girl with disabilities, paired with a supportive member of the congregation, prays during a worship service in the Yum-kwang Presbyterian Church in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

21 December 2017

Participants in a 7-11 December consultation on ecumenical diakonia held in Seoul, South Korea, didn’t just talk about the important concept of service. They also took time to visit local projects where Korean Christians are fleshing out their call to actively practice diakonia in the communities they serve.

Among the programs they visited was a ministry with persons with disabilities coordinated by the Yum-kwang Presbyterian Church. Some 300 persons with disabilities participate in the life of the church, assisted by 500 church volunteers who provide accompaniment and support.

“In 2000, as we thought about our ministry to the neighborhood, we looked at what group was weakest,” said the Rev. Sang-rok Lee, a pastor of the church. “For a while we did funerals for the poor. But then we turned our eyes to people with disabilities. At that time Korea was far behind the rest of the world in meeting their needs, and this neighborhood even more so, because it’s a poor area. Some parents hid their disabled children because they considered them somehow dishonorable. So we starting working with them and their families as a way of responding to the community’s needs.”

The congregation developed several inclusive worship services for specific age groups or disabilities, pairing persons with disabilities with other congregation members. The church bought several specially-equipped vans to pick up and transport people in wheelchairs or otherwise unable to walk to the church. The congregation started a bakery where young adults with intellectual disabilities gain important job skills.

Bakers Seoul

Young adults with intellectual disabilities craft pastries in a bakery of the Yum-kwang Presbyterian Church in Seoul, South Korea. The congregation has developed an extensive outreach ministry with persons with disabilities. Photo: Paul Jeffrey


“It’s important that here we are all equal and treated equally. The ministry’s greatest gift to the church is that we came to understand that normal people and people with disabilities are being loved by God together,” Lee said.

The Rev. Sang Yeull Oh, an official of the Presbyterian Church of Korea who participated in the consultation, which was organized by the World Council of Churches, said the congregation’s ministry models a church really taking root among its neighbors.

“People with disabilities were successfully integrated into the faith community as the church integrated itself into the larger community,” he said. “This wasn’t about charity, the church just helping unfortunate people around it, but a true identification with and integration into the neighborhood.”

Another community visited by several consultation participants was an urban regeneration project in the Gangbuk neighborhood of Seoul. Historically one of the capital’s poorest areas, a convergence of events–including the Asian financial crisis and the success of South Korea’s democratization movement–created a unique moment for residents of the neighborhood to come together in unusual ways. Groups organizing around separate issues--from gender justice to the need for affordable housing to lowering the high number of school dropouts--found common cause in neighborhood revitalization at the same time as the city government developed an interest in supporting local initiatives to make Seoul a more resident-friendly city.

“In recent years we have started to elect our local political leaders directly, and they are more interested in supporting balanced development and local initiatives. The democratization process has really changed how people think, and they no longer see the government as their enemy but rather as their partner,” said Yi Kiho, a professor of political science at Hanshin University, a Presbyterian-affiliated school with a campus in the Gangbuk neighborhood.

Kiho and several colleagues at the university have enthusiastically supported what has become known as the Gangbuk Urban Regeneration, an experimental coming together of civil society groups that has fostered small businesses, art projects, health care, women’s concerns, and environmental awareness, with a focus on solidarity and sustainability. Local government is involved and supportive of the enterprise, but Kiho warns that local activists recognize the tendency of government funding to create authoritarian control, so they’re jealously guarding their identity and independence as a citizen-controlled community initiative.

According to the Rev. Dr Martin Robra, the WCC programme executive for ecumenical continuing formation, the church connection to the neighborhood project is through the activity of individual church members rather than some formal institutional presence of the church.

“In earlier years, from the stories that were shared, the diaconal engagement of the churches depended pretty much on pastors who had special interests and gifts to engage, for example, with persons with disabilities. But then the period of rapid church growth begins to slow, and they realized they had to develop other linkages with the community around them,” he said. “What this means for us as churches is that we have to step back from our institutional presence in order to really promote people’s participation, encouraging the solidarity and participation of the churches’ members. When that gets well organized at a local level it creates new social capital. The old ways of organizing around these issues, especially in our cities, simply don’t work anymore, so projects like this hold out real promise.”

Emphasis on volunteerism is key to this transition, says the Rev. Dr Kjell Nordstokke, a special advisor to the WCC. “In many parts of our world we first prepare the space for the professionals, then we ask if there might be some additional free space for volunteers if they are needed. Here we can see things the other way around. The work in the community was prepared in most cases first by the volunteers, and then supported and accompanied by professionals. That’s a very important learning experience,” he said.

For many in Korea, the kind of community involvement reflected in the Gangbuk project represents a future for the church in a rapidly aging society where Christianity’s numbers are set to decline.

“It’s like an early church community, it’s self-sustainable, but how that success will fare without long-term government and church support still remains to be determined,” said the Rev. Dr Sungkook Park, executive secretary for partnership and ecumenical relations of the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea. “The future is bright, however, because those communities actually function very well.”

Declining Christian numbers–both people and money–will mean the church will have to collaborate in new ways with other religious and secular groups in the future in order to support such community work.

“In the past that ministry was possible because there was enough income and people to get the work done. But that will change in the future, so having this kind of consultation on ecumenical diakonia now is a very timely one,” Park said. “It sets a tone for the Korean ecumenical landscape and the efforts of the churches to get more and more committed to diakonia, understanding why they are doing it, not just charity or relief, but because there needs to be something bigger and broader beyond themselves as they carry out sustainable work within the community.”

Photos from the Ecumenical diakonia consultation and visits to the local diakonia projects in Seoul

Asian church leaders exchange ideas on diaconia (WCC press release 19 December 2017)

Ecumenical diakonia: sharing God’s gifts at all tables (WCC press release 05 October 2017)