Around this time in 2012, I was a fresh college graduate and was preparing to depart for the Korean Peninsula to serve a year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. Before my year there, I knew very little about Korea, aside from the war fought long ago. In fact, the main reason I chose Korea over China was that I only knew two words of Mandarin, and the Fulbright program for teaching abroad required fluency in the local language. At the time, I would have preferred to go to China, because I knew so much about it through literature, non-fiction, and my own studies. However, it wasn’t an option for an overseas year, at least with the Fulbright program.
So, with excitement and a little trepidation, I flew over the Pacific Ocean to a country I barely knew in a continent that was relatively unknown to me. However, it was in Korea that I encountered the Sacred Heart of Jesus while living with a local family.
My time in Korea is something I often speak of and write about. It was a deeply transformative time in my life, primarily because I was on my own and navigated new experiences that few people encounter. It was also transformative because I was at a spiritual crossroads. After graduating from college, I wrestled with curiosities about Catholicism that had lingered for nearly a decade. I was raised in a loving Protestant home and church-hopped between Protestant congregations during my college years. Yet I always eyed the little Catholic church at the corner of my Baptist campus. I only entered the doors of the church once. I remained at that crossroads for nearly three years after my Korean adventure, but my experiences in that year made lasting impressions on my mind and soul.
When I went to Korea, I truly wanted to know if Catholicism was for me, or for anyone at all. Halfheartedly, I prayed, “God, if Catholicism is for me, could you place me with a Catholic family?” Yet I offered this partially-crafted whimsy with little to no faith that Our Lord would actually hear me out. Six weeks after a Fulbright orientation packed with language and culture lessons, I was put on a plane with two Korean English teachers and sent to Jeju Island, approximately 50 miles south of the mainland. It was there that I met my wonderful host family, who absorbed me into their unit as one of their own.
My encounters with faith in Korea impacted me in many ways. Religion on the Korean Peninsula is a unique phenomenon, manifesting itself in ways that those in the West may find strange. For example, it’s not unusual to see people of all faiths on street corners passing out religious literature and proselytizing. Here in the West, we often pride ourselves on being much more intelligent than those people who stand on sidewalks proclaiming that the end is near or that Jesus is Lord. Religion, more often than not, is a private affair.
Yet in Korea, where Christianity is a recent religious addition to society, my assumptions about religion in daily life were challenged. My host family immediately connected me with the Presbyterian pastor and his wife who lived in the upstairs apartment. My co-workers asked me where I went to church, and I was asked if I was baptized and given a copy of the Korean Presbyterian Church’s statement of beliefs. I was truly surrounded by God-fearing people who, openly and without reservation, lived out their Christian faith—potentially a good lesson for us in the West.
While religion was not directly mentioned in my own homestay, symbols of it were in evidence there as well. After a few days in my new Korean home, I began to notice statues of Mary tucked in curio cabinets, crucifixes on the wall, and a few rosaries hanging from hooks on the door frames. In my host father’s SUV, a saint medal (that of St. Christopher, if I remember correctly), swung back and forth in the daily traffic. In time, I realized that most of the family was non-religious, but the mother was Catholic. Thus, beyond all my expectations or hopes, God answered my prayer.
Admittedly, from what I could tell, my host mother did not keep all the obligations of her faith; I never saw her attend Mass, and still, don’t know why. Nevertheless, she was always adamant about practicing her faith in the home—e.g., fish on Friday for Lent and pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. While, of course, Catholics should not try to divorce this life of private devotion from the great sources of life in the sacraments, the ways in which my host mother did keep her faith were a providential fit for me: God taught me important lessons through them. Her little religious practices punctuated my life in Korea with a spirit of faith and showed me something important: that Catholicism was to be lived in the fullness of body and spirit. It was a not a religion kept merely within the four walls of one’s local parish or majestic cathedral. Catholicism was, and is, a living, breathing faith.
Even more than these daily manifestations of faith, however, it is the kindness of my host family that I will always remember; it showed me how Christ’s followers are meant to act. Like some teachers living with families, I could have been relegated to a spare bedroom in the back of the house and excluded from family life. I knew of many teachers who were not invited to participate in Korean festivals with families and often stayed home during these joyous occasions.
However, my family was not of that variety: I traveled with them to visit distant relatives, fished for snails with them in the nearby ocean, received money from them at the beginning of the Lunar New Year, and joined them for every family outing. In a world where I did not speak the language, looked like no one else, and only knew a tiny bit of cultural expectations, I could have easily become a victim of avoidance. Yet I was included each and every day.
In this month dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I fondly look back on my time with my Korean host family, especially my Catholic host mother. Despite her omissions, I learned much from her about concretely living out faith in daily life, particularly in the practice of charity. Often, I believe, we complicate what the love of Christ should look like: whom we should help, how we should help, whom to love, and how much to love. In the midst of determining how to live like Christ, we often lose sight of the simple way of the love of Jesus: to love our neighbor as ourselves. My host family loved me, their foreign neighbor and new addition, as they would any local girl. I was enveloped in the heart of the home and ultimately reminded that the heart of Jesus is open to all. We just have to be brave enough to love.