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Friday, Jun. 20, 2014

Therese Park: Looking forward to cultural exchange in Guatemala

Special to The Star

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My nine-day trip to Guatemala with Kansas City’s Colonial Presbyterian Mission team that begins June 27 is closely linked to my childhood memories of poverty in Korea.

After our liberation from Japan at the end of World War II in 1945, thousands of American and European Missionaries flocked to our country to feed the poor, take care of the sick, teach the Gospel, and build schools and hospitals.

The first Colonial Presbyterian Church Mission Team from Kansas City ventured to Guatemala in the early 1980s, mainly to experience God’s work in that area, which is rich with Mayan culture. A few trips later, in a picturesque mountain region called Cantel some 7,000 feet above sea level, they met a native minister, the Rev. Pablo Poz Pum, who told the group that he had been praying for his small Christian school to stay open.

Over three decades, men and women from Colonial, along with their friends and children, have made short trips at least twice a year and worked under the direction of Rev. Pum. As a result, the school, “Colegio Mark,” has blossomed into a high-quality academic institute with more than 325 students from kindergarten through ninth grade. With its computer lab, library, water purifying system, basketball court and brand new dental clinic, the school today is the envy of neighboring towns. And Inspired by the Colonial teams’ dedication and love, students are now visiting nursing homes and orphanages in their communities.

Lori and Roy Harrison are leading the group for the second time this year. Their two adult daughters, Leisha and Maria, are going with the group for the second time, too.

“The trip is an opportunity to strengthen one’s faith by stepping out of his/her comfort zone and serving their Guatemalan brothers and sisters with their talents and skills,” Lori said. “We bring them hope and they teach us about faith. Though they lack material things, they are rich in faith and joy.”

I had no direct contact with any American missionaries until 1956, my second year in high school. Our family had moved to Seoul a year earlier. One day we were introduced to a handful of American Jesuit priests by the sisters who operated the neighborhood clinic down the street. The priests, we later learned had come to build the first Jesuit university in Korea.

The American priests were eager to learn to speak Korean and my older siblings were eager to learn English, so our parents invited the Jesuit fathers for dinner as often as they could come. Many times after dinner, the fathers told us about America, both in English and Korean — cowboys, Indians, the Statue of Liberty — and we taught them a few Korean folk songs, along with Korean slang. Looking back now, our evening sessions could have been called “cultural exchanges” but back then such fancy terms didn’t exist.

Unlike the Korean priests who were stiff and had no sense of humor, the Americans were fun to be with. And they were good storytellers. One of the stories they shared with us still makes me smile.

Their friend Father Thomas lived in a primitive farming village to teach Koreans modern farming. He lived like a typical Korean — sleeping on a straw mat, eating rice three times a day, raising his own chicken and working on the field from daybreak until dusk. One early morning, he decided to slaughter his young rooster to make soup for the day, and he began to pluck its feathers. About halfway through, the rooster unexpectedly got away and ran off. As he looked for the half naked bird, his Korean neighbor asked, “Father, what have you lost? Maybe I can help you find it.”

In his broken Korean, Father Thomas replied, “My chicken… gone!”

“What does it look like, Father?”

Father Thomas searched for words and said, “It has no shirt!”

Each member of the Colonial Mission team will give what he or she can in Guatemala, but we’ll all return with more than what we had bargained for — many stories to share with friends and family! This tells me that I must learn some Spanish. Hola, amigo. Soy Therese. Habla Ingles?

Retired musician and freelance columnist Therese Park has written three novels about Korea’s modern history.

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