Story and photography by 1st LT David Bartruff, USAR
Karaebi and Seoul, South Korea: “It came upon the midnight clear, That glorious song of old…Peace on earth, good will to men, From heaven’s all-gracious King”
The beloved carol of Christmas was ringing out loud and clear in 1956 in the hearts and minds of the American GIs stationed at their remote outpost along the Demilitarized Zone, the 38th Parallel truce line that separated the two warring Koreas: the Republic of the South from the Communist Aggressor of the North.
Just three years earlier the United Nations had negotiated a ceasefire to end three years of warfare on the peninsula that took the lives of 1.2 million combatants and civilians. But tensions still remained high and another outbreak of war was always a possibility.
But now in 1956, it was Christmas Eve and the GIs and their unit commander were frantically organizing the distribution of food and toys to be given out to hundreds of Korean youngsters from the nearby village school of Karaebi located near their compound.
Early in the morning of Christmas Day, when the khaki-clad American “Santas” arrived at the school, they were overwhelmed to find hundreds of the village children had already massed in military-like formations that would make any US Army drill sergeant proud.
Then in order to receive their Christmas presents, the children next paraded in tight columns to the front of the school and stood patiently by until one by one, each received their gifts.
And Christmas became a blessing to the GI providers and young recipients alike.
This was just the first of two memorable Christmases in Korea that the young American officer would experience in the coming years ahead. His second Korean Christmas would occur nearly three decades later in 1985, out of uniform and as a photojournalist on assignment.
But between his two Korean Christmases, the former US Army unit commander would return yet again to Korea to experience a heart-warming reunion with his Korean houseboy who through the years had become just like family.
Kim Hyung Tae at 44, was twice the age of the young 22-year-old Second Lieutenant when he arrived at his unit at rural Karaebi in the shadow of the DMZ in1956. The young officer had just graduated from the University of Illinois in the spring of 1955 with a journalism degree and his ROTC officer’s commission.
A close relationship quickly developed between the young American officer and his Korean house boy because of their common Christian faith.
Their friendship continued to flourish across the Pacific especially each Christmas even after the lieutenant returned home to the USA. This time it was with their exchange of Christmas cards each and every year for more than four decades.
But then the two met again in the capital city of Seoul in 1959, the former officer now a journalist. It was like “heaven on earth” for both. Especially moving was their visit to Kim’s family home in rural Karaebi and the nearby military outpost where their relationship began.
Then in 1985, another Korean press assignment miraculously brought the US Army veteran to Seoul just in time to celebrate Christmas in Korea for a second time. And this time he would worship in a downtown Christian church with the largest congregation in the world: The Yoido Full Gospel Church with more than one million members!
The megachurch’s main sanctuary seats 21,000 worshipers. Seven services are conducted each Sunday in the main sanctuary and on all other celebrations such as Christmas and Easter. Throughout the year attendance is in excess of 200,000 worshipers on Sundays at the entire Yoido complex.
The mammoth church itself is actually its own “downtown”: an entire city of multi-storied buildings that serve as alternate worship annexes and Sunday Schools. Yoido even operates its own bus system to get its mammoth congregation back and forth between home and church on Sundays.
All services in the main sanctuary are televised and broadcast not only to the satellite buildings of the church complex but to commercial television networks.
In all, 2-3 million Korean viewers “attend” Sunday services via television. And the worship services are also translated into 16 languages and broadcast worldwide.
Yoido’s founder, the Reverend David Cho, once a Buddhist, survived a near-death experience and found his salvation and hope through the Lord Jesus Christ.
Despite being the height of the Korean War in 1953, the Rev. Cho successfully founded his Yoido Church in the Korean capital of Seoul, facing of all things, the South Korean Government’s Capitol and National Assembly directly across the street.
Despite all the efforts of Christian missionaries from abroad to evangelize Korea, long known as “The Hermit Kingdom” beginning in 1784 with little success, miraculously it took the heartache of the Korean War in the 1950’s to explode the growth of Christian believers from 50,000 to over 10 million today.
And one in ten of these new Christians have been baptized in the Yoido Full Gospel Church.
Korea’s transformation as a highly Christian nation is also seen in its sending of missionaries abroad nowadays: ranking second in the world only to the United States.
Note: The young Army lieutenant and photojournalist mentioned throughout the story above is the Communities contributing columnist Dave Bartruff.
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