Back home, families unite, pray for Korean hostages

GYEONGGI PROVINCE, Korea (BP)--"I spend one day in heaven and one day in hell. I am constantly shuttling between these two places." Mrs. Chey Pok Lee wipes her eyes as she describes the agony of waiting for news of her 38-year-old son, Chong Hee Chey, one of the 19 Korean hostages still being held by Taliban militants in Afghanistan.

Chey, an overseas marketing agent with a Korean electronics company based in Seoul, has been on previous humanitarian aid trips, to Turkey in 2006 and India in 2005. He also has taught English to Korean students in an English language institute. He went to Afghanistan as an interpreter for doctors and nurses on the 23-member Korean team that was taken hostage on July 19.

And he went just to play with the children. "He learned magic so that he could entertain the Afghani children," his mother said to Baptist Press. "He also left Seoul loaded with toys, books and other things that he thought the children might need and enjoy."

Lee's greatest fear is that her son will be executed by his Taliban captors. Chey is one of five men who were in the group, two of whom, 42-year-old Hyung Kyu Bae and 29-year-old Sung Min Shim, have been executed by the Taliban. Bae was an associate pastor of Saemmul Presbyterian Church, just south of Seoul, and Shim worked with handicapped students.

"Those of us with sons are more anxious than those with daughters," Lee said, her voice breaking. "It seems that when the Taliban chooses to execute a hostage, they choose a man rather than a woman."

Throughout the three-week ordeal, Lee has spent many sleepless nights and has lost nearly 15 pounds. She and other family members of the remaining hostages meet daily in a small room set aside especially for them at Saemmul Presbyterian Church. Lee sits on the floor and leans against a wall, her knees covered with a quilt.

The atmosphere in the room is quiet and subdued. This day, the families have just learned that the release of two sick female hostages has been delayed yet again by their Taliban captors for unknown reasons. Some pray. Others read Scripture. Many watch the TV screen that has been installed to provide up-to-the-minute news. Thankfully, the two women, Ji Na Kim, 32, and Kyung Ja Kim, 37, were released to the Red Cross a few hours later. After a medical examination at a Korean air base near Kabul, the two are scheduled to return to Seoul as soon as possible.

The team of volunteer healthcare workers and teachers are all members of Saemmul Presbyterian Church, whose name in English translates to "spring water." Twenty-three young men and women, mostly in their 20s and 30s, left Seoul on July 13 to assist other Christian workers with humanitarian aid, primarily among Afghani orphans in Kandahar. Taliban militants kidnapped the group on July 19 as they traveled aboard a bus in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan.

Sharing the love of God cross-culturally is not new to Saemmul Presbyterian. Currently, the church sponsors 47 Christian workers in 14 countries. For the last five years, seven of those have been based in Afghanistan. Three of the seven are among the hostages.

"These young men and women went to Afghanistan with a burden to repay a debt of love," a church spokesman explained. "The nation of Korea received unconditional love and assistance from numerous nations around the world when we were wrecked by war more than 50 years ago. Because of this, our debt of love extends beyond race, religion and borders. It was the prayer of this team and of our church that the children in Afghanistan would learn from us how to grow and act in love."

Eun Jo Park is senior pastor of Saemmul. Park has been criticized for allowing the trip to proceed in spite of the potential dangers. He has publicly apologized on two separate occasions and has taken responsibility for the deaths of Bae and Shim.

Sitting on the floor with the families of the hostages, he casts his eyes downward and whispers, "I know that dying for the Lord is noble and that these men will be rewarded in heaven for their sacrifice. But to actually lose two friends was something that was unexpected and for which I was unprepared. To see it happen has been very, very difficult."

Conversations with those close to the situation reveal that the team members were fully aware of the risk they faced. This was the second trip to Afghanistan for 39-year-old Jung Hwa Yu. Last year, she accompanied a group from Saemmul to Afghanistan to teach English. Her mother, Ok Kang Kwak, said, "Her heart was so touched by the needs she saw that she returned again this year."

Daniel Lee, senior pastor of the Global Mission Church, a Baptist congregation one hour south of Seoul in Suwon, is a good friend of Park. Lee recounted a sermon that Hyung Kyu Bae preached just two weeks before the group departed. "Dying for Christ is a glorious thing," Bae said. "Don't cry for me if I die in service to my Lord. Put on my tombstone, 'He died training young people to make a difference in the world.'"

"Where in the Bible," Daniel Lee asked, "does it say that we should not go to difficult places? We must be willing to share the love of God wherever He compels us to go."

Lee noted that Park's support for the families has been unwavering throughout the crisis. Park opened the room at the church for the families to gather for prayer and news updates. Doctors and nurses are constantly available in the event that family members begin to exhibit problems with emotional stress. Church volunteers provide food and comfort to the families and to manage media updates and inquiries. Park himself is often by the side of family members, providing comfort and counsel.

And in the gloriously redemptive nature of God, glimpses of good resulting from the tragedy are beginning to emerge. Park noted that tension was evident in the beginning. An anti-American group approached the families and encouraged them to take part in a demonstration at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. While some initially wanted to participate, Park persuaded them to think through the situation. "I told them it would be better to appeal to the American government for help rather than to demonstrate against them."

In addition, about half of the family members who are meeting together are not Christian. Now, Park said, "Both Christian and non-Christian families are praying, reading Scripture and finding comfort in each other and in God."

Jin Pyo Shim, a state congressmen, is the father of Sung Min Shim, the second man to be executed. Before the crisis, he was not a Christian. However, Park reported that shortly after his son's death, the father confessed faith in Jesus Christ.

Many of the families are praying that God will be glorified. Jung Hee Yu is the sister of captive Jung Hwa Yu. She and her mother, Ok Kang Kwak, are praying that the captives will not be discouraged, that they will continue to hold on to the Lord, and that their faith in Him will be strengthened rather than shaken during this difficult time. But more than that, they also are praying that revival will result. "We know the difference that the prayers of the church have already made in our lives," Yu said.

"It is only through prayer that we have been able to endure these hard times and it is only through prayer that we will survive," Yu said. "It is our prayer that this tragedy will unite the Korean church and that revival and spiritual renewal will be the result. Please pray for us."

Ann Lovell is a media worker based in Seoul, South Korea, with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

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