(Note: This post briefly references genocide and brothels.)
Every year we can, we go visit my amazing Korean parents in law, Halmeoni and Harabeoji (‘Grandmother’ and ‘Grandfather’). Now in their 80s, they consistently embody the kind of radical trust that I’m trying to build. Their lives tell like a movie script, one dramatic, heartbreaking story after another, interwoven with incredible courage, faithfulness, and generosity. Hunger and genocide, robbery and abandonment, occupation and persecution – and, unexpected, powerful sources of support and inspiration.
Against all odds, their journeys brought them together; then across the world to Germany, a haven to raise their children and minister to lonely Korean workers, far from kin and homeland. Then, uprooted again to chilly Alberta, to learn yet another language and culture, ecosystem and way.
By the time I met them, they were living in ultramodern Vancouver, BC. Their pilgrimage not only traverses cultures and continents but also a vast span of modernization. Harabeoji was born in 1934 on the remote volcanic island of Jejudo. Village life was still traditional after they married, when Halmeoni also lived there for a time; she is proud to this day that she finally learned to carry the water basket without spilling – although she insists her mother in law was much better at it.
If you met them, you’d soon hear laughter. They simply love to laugh. Through the language and culture barriers we always navigate, their eyes sparkle as they joke about Halmeoni finally teaching Harabeoji to cook this year. When asked, they’ll tell stories about how young Halmeoni was such a fierce basketball player that they called her the ‘Black Bear,’ and how everyone in seminary begged young Harabeoji to be their student leader, inspired by his gentle, humble example.
Yes, they met in seminary. Because they were each the first in their families to embrace a Christian path. After waves of Buddhism and Confucianism, each with its own mixed history, Christianity had begun to spread. I’ve asked them about it, and I can tell that it’s basically impossible for them to explain how things were back then. It was partly just… bad luck. The Korean peninsula, and especially Jejudo, lies in a strategic spot. Over the centuries, they’ve been invaded by everyone from the Mongols to the Japanese to the Americans, the ongoing longest war in our history. The Japanese occupation, which forced the Shinto religion and Japanese language onto the Koreans, was followed by the ambiguous US presence, so catastrophically inept that to this day, gomun-gwan, the technical term for a US advisory officer, still means ‘incompetent soldier.’ The US military was complicit in a horrific history that has only recently been named and honored by things like the 4.3 Peace Park and monuments to the hundreds of thousands of ‘comfort women’ (sex slaves) tricked into brothels, first by the Japanese military and then again by the US military.
In this midst of this maelstrom, these two powerful, faithful souls were forged. Christianity arose within the working class, and it came to represent courageous opposition to the brutal Japanese occupation, women’s dignity and empowerment, and peaceful unity. Despite inevitable political corruption – the US propped up one murdering dictator after another, after all – the message of justpeace and the example of Jesus nourished and sustained the demoralized yet gritty spirit.
As they talk and laugh, garden and pray, you can see that Halmeoni and Harabeoji have that indomitable grit. Halmeoni never even wanted to marry; she planned to become a lawyer to advocate for women. But she also loved and trusted her mentors, so when their professors conspired to get them together, she gave shy Harabeoji a chance. Together, they had a teamwork ministry in the Korean United Church of Canada so committed to non-authoritarianism that the traditionalists split off in protest. They welcomed the queer community long before it was common even in non-Korean circles. When we told Harabeoji that we planned to hyphenate our last name, he wondered that this egalitarian option hadn’t occurred to him before. And sometimes, I just wonder… how? How did they go through so much, and come out of it so generous, so loving? So unafraid?
I think one thing that nourished them was a different understanding of home. Home matters. Lands, waters. Ancestors, and traditions. But these two pilgrims see their home as something much bigger than one place or one culture. They aren’t… yoked. Everywhere they go, they reach out a hand. So instead of feeling landless, or lost, they always feel at home. If you remove the yoke from among you, says the prophet,
The pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil
If you offer your food to the hungry and care for the afflicted
Then your light shall rise in the darkness…
Love will guide you continually,
And satisfy your needs in parched places
And make your bones strong
And you shall be like a watered garden,
Like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt
You shall raise up the foundations of many generations.
You shall be called the healer of the breach,
The restorer of the dwelling paths. (Is 58)
See, all the other men in young Harabeoji’s family were killed. So he grew up surrounded by gritty, loving women; and then he married one himself. And then, together, they raised three boys to appreciate gritty, loving women, too. For these resilient, dauntless elders, Divine Love is huge. Big enough for all peoples and all Creation. They are Korean. And German. And Canadian. And now, because of me, a bit Celtic, Italian, and American. They love Boston, and our daughters’ Cornish names. They care deeply about indigenous rights, and black lives. Music, food, dance, flowers – they see the diversity of life as divine abundance to celebrate with reverence and gratitude.
I want that abundance. Where you secretly scrimp and save to help people you barely know go to medical school. Where you don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, over and over, because you feel so blessed that what would be the point?
Soon after I met them, Halmeoni and Harabeoji asked if they could call me Suh-hee, which means Joy from the West. During one of our visits a few years ago, after a home worship service together, Harabeoji said to me, I love your theology, Suh-hee. It is so wide, and open. And I wonder if, when I die, you would preach at my funeral?
Yes, dear father. Yes. I know, in the end, your pilgrimage will take you both to a glorious realm where your ancestors await. And when it does, it will be my greatest privilege to stand before the gathered beloved, and bless you on your way. Thank you for helping me embrace our journey, together; a feast of laughter and love. Of lifting of yokes. Of healing the dwelling paths. Of our sacred, now and always home.
Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee, PhD is an ecological ethicist and the founder of Climate Resilience Chaplaincy. She studies intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in metrowest Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.