South Korean Churches Celebrate Easter With Sadness After Ferry Disaster

The choir at Ansan Jeil Church at Ansan, South Korea. (Alexander Martin/The Wall Street Journal)
The choir at Ansan Jeil Church at Ansan, South Korea. (Alexander Martin/The Wall Street Journal)

“Today is Easter, a day of celebration. But instead of joy, our hearts are filled with sadness,” Pastor Go Hun told worshipers at the Ansan Jeil Church Sunday morning, four days after a ferry sank with more than 300 students from the nearby high school aboard.

As he voiced his anger toward the crew arrested by prosecutors for escaping while the students were left behind, some worshipers sobbed and held their hands over their faces. Ten of the 253 passengers still identified as missing at the time of the service were Jeil church members.

“The sea. The cold sea of Jindo. Why, why have you drowned our innocent sons and daughters with your water?” Pastor Go said, referring to the island area off the southwest coast of the Korean peninsula where the boat capsized. His sermon was interspersed with hymns sung by a 130-member choir accompanied by a quartet of cello, violin, viola and flute.

Down in Jindo, members of the town’s Nulpuren Church distributed 1,200 Easter eggs to the Ansan families who have been living in a makeshift shelter at a gym since Wednesday, awaiting word of their missing children. Before handing out the tokens, the church members carefully removed the “Congratulations, Happy Easter!” labels traditionally wrapped around Easter eggs in South Korea.

The pastor there, Park Si-gu, said his church was afraid that the message of death and resurrection might provoke more despair and grief among people who are still hoping their children may return alive.

“To those who believe in God, the message may be comfort. But to those who do not, it may not be such,” he said in an interview. “We may think the missing all died already, but we still don’t know whether they are alive or dead.”

South Korea is one of the most Christian nations in Asia, with 50 million Protestants, about a quarter of the population, and another five million Catholics. Some of the country’s largest megachurches attract tens of thousands of congregants every Sunday. After nightfall, red neon crosses affixed to church steeples are a ubiquitous sight in Korean cities. Pope Francis will make his first papal visit to Asia in August with a trip to South Korea.

In Ansan, a working-class suburb of Seoul, and in Jindo, the traditional celebratory Easter services became moments of mourning.

The Ansan Jeil Church is a modern, glass-walled building with a curved exterior inspired by Noah’s Ark. The 15,000-member Presbyterian congregation, rebuilt in 2012, has been serving Ansan for more than 50 years. It is about a 20-minute walk from Danwon High School, which sent most of its second-year class of 338 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds for a trip on the ill-fated Sewol ferry that sank Wednesday morning.

“We have sent our members to Jindo to offer assistance of the family members waiting for the return of their children,” Park Byeong-ju, the pastor of the church in charge of education, said in an interview. One of the missing children had lost his parents when he was young, and was brought up by his grandmother. He said church members were taking care of the woman, providing her food and company.

The smaller Sansung Center Baptist Church sits just 300 meters from Danwon. About 60 members gathered for services in the sanctuary, located on the basement floor of a modest three-story brick apartment building. Pastor Kim Yeong-seong devoted part of his Easter sermon to his son’s girlfriend, Lee Hye-gyeong, who was identified as drowned Thursday night.

“She wasn’t a believer, but she attended my services several times since she began dating my son,” Mr. Kim told the worshipers sitting on wooden benches that lined the small prayer hall. “I heard that when she was discovered, she was clutching her hands together, as if she were praying,” he said.

In Jindo, Pastor Park told the 150 worshipers at the three-story redbrick Nulpuren church that this was the toughest sermon he had delivered in his 35 years of preaching. Searching for meaning, he said the way the tragedy unfolded over the past week was a lesson in humility.

“The president has come here, and so have many ranking government officials and elite military divers who tried to rescue the lives, if any, trapped in the capsized boat,” he said. “The entire nation tries everything but helplessly. Really, there seems little we can do…. We should not be arrogant. Only God can do it.”

None of the Ansan family members appeared to be at the service. Most were at the nearby gym-turned-shelter, awaiting the steady stream of grim updates, as divers who finally got into the overturned boat late Saturday were pulling out bodies through the day.

But Yang Bang-chae, a church member, said he witnessed several Ansan family members at an early-morning prayer session at the Nulpuren church.

“They kept crying during their prayers right behind me,” said Mr. Yang. “They kept crying and did not leave the church for a while, even after the morning worship service ended.”

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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal
Alexander Martin and Kwanwoo Jun

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