Recently I published a memoir in Korean of my father, the late Reverend Woon Hyong Lee (1892–1972), titled Baek Kwang II Gie, which translated is The Diary of Baek Kwang. The book is published by the Publishing House of the Presbyterian Church of Korea, and honors a man who was a minister, an educator, a social service worker, and a scholar of the Eastern hemisphere.
It has been a work of love to edit my father’s 600-page diary, his sermons, his poems, and his numerous works of calligraphy. The diary includes writings about his ministry and life between 1892 and 1965. He left sixty-three sermons, fifty-two poems, and thirty-some pieces of calligraphy.
My father was deeply involved in the patriotic movement for the independence of Korea during the Japanese occupation beginning in 1910 and continuing through World War Two. In 1930 he graduated from Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Korea, then located in Pyong Yang, North Korea. He taught philosophy and literature of the Eastern world at Dong Ah University in the city of Pusan, was a chaplain, and taught Bible classes in high schools. He was also a pioneer in the work of Christian social service and administered two orphanages, caring for and teaching the Christian lifestyle to hundreds of war orphans and abandoned children.
My father did not begin his life as a follower of Christ. Baek Kwang, a name he gave himself that means “white beam,” grew up in a Confucian family. In 1906, he purchased a small Gospel of Mark at a bookstore in An Dong, studied the book rigorously, and decided to convert to Christianity. He had met the person of Jesus while studying this Gospel. Being a member of the thirtieth generation in his aristocratic Confucian family that stretched back more than one thousand years when he converted, he found himself in the middle of excruciating conflict between the traditional religion of Confucianism and the new religion of Christianity during the early phases of Christianity in Korea. The members of my father’s extended family feared that the tradition of ancestor worship in our family would disappear. Baek Kwang was one of the first Christians in his hometown of An Dong, a town of conservative aristocrats. He was baptized in 1913, at the age of twenty-one.
After his conversion, he and his father, who had converted with him, freed the family servants and divided their own lands and gave them to the poor. Baek Kwang, who had spent most of his time in the family library, now traveled around nearby villages spreading the gospel, wearing straw shoes, with a bag of rice flour on his back. The town’s people said that “a Western god came into his head and made him go mad.”
Baek Kwang, with his gentle and humble disposition, met the family conflict with his profound silence, and soon retreated to the deep mountaintop village of Po San near Young Yang, where food was scarce. In order to hide from the Japanese police, he had to survive on boiled tree bark, with no electricity, no paper and ink to write with, and many tigers lurking in the region. He taught the gospel among the mountain villagers, and built a wooden church on the mountaintop.
When I visited the village in the spring of 2006, I was reminded of the catacombs of Rome, where early Christians had hidden in tombs. My father named his first church Po San Presbyterian Church, and it is still going strong doing ministry.
During his ministry, Baek Kwang founded many schools, including seven Christian preschools, and ten churches. He spoke at evangelistic events in Japan and China during the difficult period of World War Two, and those churches where he spoke are still strong in ministry. He also traveled to the United States to preach in 1958.
In 1968 Baek Kwang was awarded the National Merit Award for his efforts in the patriotic movement. He worked on behalf of the Korean government in exile when it was in Shanghai, China. The award recognized that he had been tortured mercilessly, and had had his life threatened many times during his four-and-a-half years in a Japanese prison for his involvement in the movement and for being a Christian minister.
I remember that many people in his town called my father a “holy man” for forgiving the occupying Japanese. When the occupation ended with Japan’s defeat in the war, he went to the train station to bid the occupiers farewell even while others were seeking revenge. And he took me, a young girl, to the station with him. I remember standing with him, holding his hand, and his forgiving action affects my life to this day. He taught me unconditional forgiveness and love as he himself lived it. Here in Princeton, Japanese students have taken my courses at the Seminary, and we remain good friends.
When I graduated from high school in the mid-1950s in Korea, my father told me that I should have a goal of becoming a woman who was a leader in and contributor to society. I was deeply moved to hear that from a man who had quite a conservative background, especially regarding the role of women. I think his Christian faith is what allowed him to say this to his daughter. And I took his words to heart. I became the first Asian woman seminary professor in the Unites States when I became a professor of pastoral theology at New York Theological Seminary in the mid-1980s, and the first Asian woman to teach at PTS when I first taught here in 1989. I served as the national president of Korean Presbyterian Women in the PCUSA and as national president of Korean Church Women United. My father’s faithful spirit is well alive in me here in America.
Many of the family members who had first opposed my father’s conversion are now themselves Christians. Most of my siblings have been educated in American graduate schools. They and their children serve the church as ministers, elders, and deacons. Just over half of my father’s twenty-one grandchildren have married interracially, one to a Japanese American, creating a happy family that circles the globe.
I am now in the midst of preparing a summary of the memoir of my father in English. My hope is that people of future generations who may think that they are “rootless” will know that they indeed have strong and deep roots, especially spiritual roots, somewhere on this globe, in places they may not think or know to look.
My father lost his biological mother when he was eight days old. Yet for the next eighty years, during turbulent times in Korea, he lived a high-spirited, and spiritual, life. He always gave thanks to God, saying that his life was lived totally by the grace of God.
My family has established the Baek Kwang Foundation in his honor, and plans to build a nursing home for the elderly, and to initiate educational programs in the fields of Scripture and Christian education. To God be the glory.
Inn Sook Lee is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Practical Theology at Princeton Seminary and is an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA).