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Like a Tender Rice Shoot

June 16, 2020 by

From our particularly mountainous corner of this mountainous land, I ponder what is happening in the United States – my homeland – on the far side of the planet. The apartment block our community inhabits faces one of South Korea’s last operating coal mines, a massive ugly gash across the now-green landscape. What does building community here have to do with the turmoil back home?

Our neighbors are former miners and their wives; the younger generations have departed for brighter opportunities, leaving a village of old folk. As my husband and I walk up the valley, they pause their activities to greet us. Some are tilling vegetable plots; some harvesting mountain greens, which they boil over outdoor fires and spread on mats to dry; others are just exchanging gossip in groups of half a dozen, relaxing in wayside pagodas or through shouted cross-street conversation. There are noticeably fewer men than women: those who breathe coal dust all their working lives die tragically young.


My neighbors’ strident accent bears slight resemblance to my language lessons, so I rarely catch their words; but I can’t misunderstand the sparkling eyes of the first wizened grandmother I pass, the hearty chuckle from the next, or the third’s jovial punch to my shoulder. I too am a grandmother, but I feel like a schoolgirl beside these women with their creased faces, bent bodies, and determined demeanor. Each has weathered so much hardship.

Before coming here half a year ago, Martin and I knew something of Korea’s painful history: its invasion by neighboring countries for millennia – culminating in Japan’s ruthless forty-year reign last century – followed by the terrible Korean War that devastated this entire peninsula and split the country in two. We knew less about brutal governments in subsequent decades. Living here, we learn of poverty, of injustice, and of protest violently suppressed. My neighbors lived through all that, while their husbands toiled beneath the ground.

One of our brothers here grew up in the 1970s. His father, crippled by tuberculosis, took Anan begging in the street. Police destroyed the family shack several times. Anan’s mother would weep – then start to rebuild. School too was harsh. As a high school junior, Anan was instructed by a senior to thrash a freshman who did not perform to par in the band. When Anan refused, the senior beat Anan in the youngster’s place: 150 blows with a broom handle.

Anan loved waiting tables and landed some good-paying jobs. But in each instance, he witnessed injustice toward his fellow workers. And because he could not remain silent when a manager mistreated a simple-minded or clumsy waiter, Anan lost his job every time.


There was another issue. Anan’s only sister became a single mother, struggling alone for fifteen years to raise her son. Korea held a strong social stigma against unwed mothers, and Anan’s heart burned for all such women and their children. He joined numerous anti-abortion protests. But protest, he came to believe, was not enough.

There were restless years and bitter tears. Anan never gave up searching for a way to live without exploiting others or participating in personal and societal injustice. He finally found it. In Christ, Anan has a leader to serve whole-heartedly; and in Church community, he and his wife have discovered a place to build brotherhood and to raise the four children they adopted.

Our community is small and fragile, like the tender rice shoots springing from flooded paddies in nearby valleys. But like the growing rice, it gains power from above; and we pray it will someday bear an abundant harvest for God. It is a tiny embassy for His coming reign, when every tear will be dried and where justice and peace will kiss. So our joyful efforts to work out our differences, overcome selfishness, and discover new ways to serve each other are not just for the twenty brothers, sisters, and children currently here. We are building unity for the sake of our village neighbors, for this entire battered land – including the North – and for the whole world.

Does this small endeavor have meaning for the chaos embroiling other nations, including my hurting homeland? As I hope and trust: Yes.

Helen Huleatt and her husband, Martin, live at Baeksan House, a small Bruderhof in the Taebaek area of Gangwon province in South Korea. She writes for Plough Publishing, most recently co-authoring From Red Earth, a book about the Rwandan genocide.


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