From Hostility to Hospitality: Neighbors Across Political Divides
To Guyhun Kwon 06T, being a good neighbor means offering hospitality to the “other.”
“Throughout Christian history, hospitality is understood as welcoming the stranger with love, warmth, and kindness, as Jesus did,” says Kwon, who received his Master of Divinity degree from Candler in 2006. “Today, the church follows his example by welcoming the poor, the marginalized, the outcast, the invisible, and the forgotten. This is what being a good neighbor means to me; it is the essence of true hospitality. Hospitality remains crucial today because the poor and marginalized are often ignored in our modern societies.”
There’s a common scene in movies and books that illustrates this theme of neighborliness with the “other”: A young child throws a ball or a Frisbee and it ends up in the neighbor’s yard. And not just any neighbor, but the scary neighbor—the one who is reputed to be a monster, feared by all children. The last neighbor you’d want to bother to get your toy back. In the movies, the child usually screws up his or her courage, encounters the neighbor, gains insight on the neighbor’s life, and learns a valuable lesson about how the neighbor isn’t actually an “other” at all.
In some places, though, it’s impossible even to take that first step into your neighbor’s yard. Consider North Korea and South Korea.
“It takes no more than two hours to get to the North Korea border by car,” says Kwon, who is pastor of the 2,200-member Sunlin United Methodist Church in Incheon, South Korea. “The border between North and South Korea is not just a simple border that divides our country, but it is, in fact, the most heavily armed security fence in the world, heavily guarded at all times. No one is ever allowed access near the border at any time, for any reason.”
In other words, you’re not getting your ball back from this neighbor.
North Korea might be the ultimate scary neighbor. In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, sparking the Korean War. Since the war’s end in 1953, relations between North Korea and South Korea and the U.S. have remained tense. North Korea adopted a policy of self-reliance and shut out the rest of the world, alerting us to its presence with provocative military actions and declarations of nuclear weapons.
Despite the self-imposed isolation, North Korea has often asked for the world’s help in feeding its people following poor harvests or catastrophic disasters such as flooding. At the government level, analysts debate the wisdom of distributing aid to a country that spends so much money on its military and question whether the help will even reach the people who need it. To Kwon and his congregation, those questions are unimportant. The starving people of North Korea are their neighbors, the poor and marginalized, and they are determined to help.
“We are in earnest and constant prayer for the unification of our country and for the people of North Korea who have suffered for more than half a century under the Kims’ regime,” says Kwon. “We are permitted to help the North Koreans but only through registered NGOs [non-governmental organizations] or government departments,” he adds.
Each year, Sunlin dedicates its Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas offerings to support families in poverty all over the world. The 2011 Christmas offering of $23,000 (U.S.) was directed toward World Vision International’s “Food for Life” program. A Christian development organization, World Vision is able to visit North Korea to monitor food distributions, ensuring that the flour purchased by Sunlin is delivered appropriately. The previous pastor of Sunlin, Bishop Yongkag Kwon, was given special permission by the North and South Korean governments to travel with the donations.
Even though Sunlin can only help from a distance, they live up to the translation of their name—“good neighbor”—through many different projects on local, national and international levels. Sunlin’s service work includes building schools and vision centers in Pakistan, funding free eye surgeries at those vision centers, supporting earthquake victims in Japan, preparing food for welfare centers, providing English classes for the community, running a study center for low-income families, and caring for low-income families as well as families of missionaries.
Kwon knows well the trials that missionary families face. He and his wife, the Rev. Sunhwa Yeon 10T, also a pastor at Sunlin, were missionaries in Pakistan for four years. Continuing the missionary spirit, Sunlin will be involved in missions for the next five to 10 years in a tribal community in the Philippines. Kwon calls this area his favorite neighborhood to visit.
“It is a minority community in the Philippines where the families are incredibly poor and oppressed,” he says, explaining that he undertakes missionary work because “helping others and supporting the needs of those who are underprivileged is central to my Christian values.”
Kwon says that working at Candler with Karen Scheib, associate professor of pastoral care and pastoral theology, was important to his ministry.
“Dr. Scheib is my lifelong mentor and I consider her family,” Kwon says. “She is the quintessential example of what it means to be a good neighbor and has displayed such characteristics both during and after my time at Candler. I learned from her the true meaning of hospitality. She really cares about students who are in need.”
And as policy analysts continue to fret about North Korea’s role in the world, Kwon remains dedicated to the policy of caring for the country’s people, despite their government’s insistence on remaining an “other.”
Kwon sums up his commitment by quoting Henri Nouwen: “When hostility is converted into hospitality, then fearful strangers can become guests, revealing to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them.”
Members of Sunlin United Methodist Church gather to pray as trucks of flour prepare to cross the Korean Demilitarized Zone. The banner reads, "May the grace of God and the truth of Jesus Christ fill North Korea."
Molly Edmonds loved living on Vicolo del Cinque in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood when she studied abroad in Italy.