Asia region president for the World Council of Churches (WCC) Rev. Dr Sang Chang has reminded Christians they should understand that worshipping our God of Life and protecting the God-given lives of people are the same.
In an interview with the WCC’s Communication Director, Marianne Ejdersten, Chang spoke of the need for churches to adhere to their governments’ social distancing guidelines and those of the World Health Organization (WHO) in the fight against the novel coronavirus COVID-19.
“Fulfilling their social responsibility, Korean Christians continue praying and worshipping at home. Pastoral visits are being carried out via phone calls. Church-run food banks have stopped or adopted new services, such as dropping off food at people’s homes,” said Chang.
South Korea was one of the first countries outside China to show signs of the prevalence of COVID-19 cases after they were first reported at the end of 2019. Yet, it was also one of the first countries to show successful signs of tackling the disease. As of 6 April, South Korea had reported 10,284 cases with 186 deaths. North Korea had not reported any COVID-19 cases.
The world total on the same day was almost 1.3 million cases confirmed with more than 70,000 related deaths reported globally.
Protecting churchgoers and citizens
“To protect the churchgoers and citizens, many churches, especially the mega-churches, have adopted online streaming of services. Using facial masks and hand sanitizers, as well as employing social distancing, have become standard in most churches,” Chang said.
Born in North Korea, Chang lives in South Korea and said that many Korean Christians go to church three times a week, and some go every day for early morning prayers while noting that church worship services did not stop even during the Korean War.
“We should understand that worshipping our God of Life and protecting the God-given lives of people are one and the same. Churches should fulfil their social responsibility by wholeheartedly partaking in the government’s prevention measures. But at the same time, the government would be wise to refrain from creating any hint of an oppressive atmosphere,” she said.
She spoke of 2020 marking the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War and the launch by the WCC of the global prayer campaign, “We Pray, Peace Now, End the War.”
“This campaign is crucial in our ecumenical journey of the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace,” said Chang.
Formal end to the Korean War
“All Christians are invited to join in prayer for the formal end to the Korean War and the replacement of the Armistice Agreement with a permanent peace treaty. I hope the prayer campaign will help us to continue to dream of reunification and guide us to discontinue our present hostile policies,” she said.
Chang explained that the political dialogue between the North and South is currently stopped.
“Therefore, I believe the prayer solidarity among Christians worldwide is important for Korean Peninsula peace.... Prayer is the first place to start when seeking Korean Peninsula healing, reconciliation, and reunification.”
She said that such peace is not just for Koreans. “The peace of the world can be made closer through peace on the Korean Peninsula,” said Chang.
Rev. Dr Sang Chang speaks at the 70th anniversary celebration of the World Council of Churches on 17 June 2018 during the WCC Central Committee meeting, where delegations from both North Korea and South Korea participated. Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC
Read the entire interview here:
Korean churches adapt during COVID-19 while continuing reunification prayers
Rev. Dr Sang Chang is the Asia region president for the World Council of Churches
How are churches adapting to the coronavirus outbreak?
Dr Sang Chang: Many Korean Christians go to church three times a week; some go every day for early morning prayers, a spiritual characteristic of Korean churches. Church worship services did not stop even during the Korean War. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, churches in Korea are cancelling morning prayers and worship services. Many churches in Korea have quickly adapted online or with family worship over the last few weeks. Korean churches are doing their best to adhere to the government prevention policy. Of the more than 10,000 confirmed cases in Korea so far, about two-thirds are connected to the pseudo-church group Shincheonji. To protect the churchgoers and citizens, many churches, especially the mega-churches, have adopted online streaming of services. Using facial masks and hand sanitizers, as well as employing social distancing, have become standard in most churches. Most church activities outside of Sunday worship services have been postponed or cancelled.
We should understand that worshipping our God of Life and protecting the God-given lives of people are one and the same. Churches should fulfill their social responsibility by wholeheartedly partaking in the government’s prevention measures. But at the same time, the government would be wise to refrain from creating any hint of an oppressive atmosphere. Korean churches have endured many periods of persecution and martyrdom in their 130-year history, including during the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. That history is a point of pride for the Korean church, so any hint of oppressive government stance may only create unease among Korean Christians.
How can Korean churches serve as a role model?
Dr Sang Chang: Fulfilling their social responsibility, Korean Christians continue praying and worshipping at home. Pastoral visits are being carried out via phone calls. Church-run food banks have stopped or adopted new services, such as dropping off food at people’s homes. Also, there are many small churches with 100 or less members in financial distress. Many churches lac the equipment and expertise to run online worship services. Bigger churches are helping them, as the Christians at Macedonia and Achaia helped the financially needy in the Jerusalem church (Romans 15:26). “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Due to economic stagnation and COVID-19, many small business owners feel the crunch. Charitable church donations help them.
Is prayer effective to bring about Korean peace?
Dr Sang Chang: God is the Lord of history. We communicate with God through prayer, asking for His help. Prayer is more than an effective way to bring about peace in Korea. In prayer, we seek forgiveness for our own sins or ask God to help us forgive others. Prayer is the first place to start when seeking Korean Peninsula healing, reconciliation, and reunification. Prayer unites us as God’s children in this uncertain time. We have seen this wonderful unity in prayer when Pope Francis called on the world’s Christians and people of good will to join to pray the Lord’s Prayer on 25 March at 11 am. We are called to be peacemakers. Peace is God’s gift.
70 years after the war started, was the Global Prayer for Peace on the Korean Peninsula useful?
Dr Sang Chang: Christians are invited each year to join in a prayer for peace and reunification of the Korean Peninsula on the Sunday before 15 August, prepared jointly by the National Council of Churches in South Korea and the Korean Christian Federation in North Korea. The prayer is the ecumenical expression of a longstanding commitment to Korean Peninsula peace.
The year 2020 marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. The World Council of Churches launched the global prayer campaign, “We Pray, Peace Now, End the War.” This campaign is crucial in our ecumenical journey of the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace. Churches worldwide invite all Christians to deepen their relationship with God and each other by joining in prayer, witness and service for justice and peace. All Christians are invited to join in prayer for the formal end to the Korean War and the replacement of the Armistice Agreement with a permanent peace treaty. I hope the prayer campaign will help us to continue to dream of reunification and guide us to discontinue our present hostile situation.
Currently the political dialogue between the North and South is substantially stopped. Therefore, I believe the prayer solidarity among the worldwide Christians is important for Korean Peninsula peace.
We look back to when Korean War broke out in 1950, and we thank many countries for helping, not just militarily, but also through prayers. Seventy years have passed, but true peace has evaded Korea. But as the Christians of the world unite in prayer for peaceful reunification, I believe that God will be with us and work with us. The global prayer movement is a way of unity for peace, and a world peace movement. Korean Peninsula peace is not just for Koreans. The peace of the world can be made closer through peace on the Korean Peninsula.
What have you learned from your involvement in official exchanges between Christians from both sides of Korea since the beginning?
Dr Sang Chang: My engagement on the peace process on the Korean Peninsula has been a roller-coaster ride of hopes and disappointments. Even in great despair, there is always something to celebrate in the steps on the path to peace. The most practical lesson I learned from the Ecumenical Forum on the Korean Peninsula is that peace is a process, not a result.
The North is changing. From three visits to North Korea (in 2000, 2015, and 2018), I noticed impressive progress in economic growth and in science education. My impression is that they are doing their best to be accepted in the international society while retaining their identity.
Just as the North makes efforts to change, we must seek to better understand it. Dialogue and exchanges between the two Koreas must continue. After more than half a century of division and conflicts, we should not expect an easy way out. The process requires patience, and mutual trust must be built up gradually. Exchanges and community-building on the ground level would be as equally important as official dialogues between both countries’ political leaders. Christian leaders from both Koreas must pay more attention in this area.
How has the experience of being born in North Korea shaped your perceptions?
Dr Sang Chang: Birthplace is a root. Because I was born and raised there, my birthplace, even if its ideology and social system have changed over time, will never be strange to me. Every time I visit the North, I become acutely aware how much “we” of the Korean Peninsula share the same language, history, and culture. North and South Korea becoming one and living peacefully together is my dream, my life’s goal. So, I pray that the reunification will come one day when everyone can together call upon “Our Father who art in Heaven.”
What can the global fellowship pray for you amid unprecedented global challenges?
Dr Sang Chang: Reunification is a long process. Right now, the path to reunification is filled with fog. But trusting in God, the Lord of history, and having faith and vision that God will hear our prayers, we walk the path of pilgrimage to reunification. In the 10th General Assembly of 2013, the WCC declared its support for peace and reunification of Korean Peninsula. The Korean women leaders who were in attendance joined to form a prayer pilgrimage group in 2015. This group, PPP (Prayer Partner Pilgrimage on Peace and Reunification) has met twice a month for the past five years, totaling over 100 prayer meetings. Prayer for reunification is a prayer of pilgrimage, looking ahead to the future, and preparing for the process of reunification.
I believe the global fellowship of prayer is a form of PPP. I thank the fellow Christians across the globe who, like Simon of Cyrene, are walking the path of pilgrimage and prayer together with us.
Our most urgent prayer now must be for global cooperation to overcome the coronavirus pandemic beyond any differences and dividing disagreements. Our prayers must be for churches around the world working with governments in their fight to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with a special care for the poor and the marginalized facing the pandemic. And of course, we must remember North Korea in our prayers.
In closing, I would like to express gratitude for the selfless service of Korean medical and healthcare personnel doing an incredible job of protecting us here in South Korea and providing hope for the world.