Church has become my saving grace — wow that sounds weird

Right now I’m temping at a technology company near my home. This is my second Saturday of leaving home at 6.15 a.m. for a 7 a.m.- 7 p.m. day. Last week was the BKA Film Festival where I volunteered at UMASS Boston 12 hours and then went to post-festival dinner. Today I’m actually earning money for my time, but I think I put in more effort (and definitely more of my heart) during the volunteer work I did last weekend.

In the time I haven’t been posting here I’ve been trying to figure a lot of things out. And not that anyone reads anyway, but I figured one day I might want to look back at my life progress.

Surprisingly as of late church has become my saving grace. It still feels weird when I hear myself tell people, “I gotta go; I gotta go to Church.” I’m not religious. I’m spiritual but weary/suspicious of religion so my connection to the church has been out of character. I got involved because the job search was slow going and I needed something. I figured I would volunteer, and if I was going to work for free why not do it for the Korean community that I was missing so much anyway? The fastest way to find one here in the U.S. is thru church. So I phoned a church near my house. I had no idea what to expect or even how to help them, but lately (unexpectedly) I’ve realized it’s become the highlight of my week.

The other day while volunteering I had lunch with the Pastor and another volunteer, a woman two years younger than me who just completed her MA in divinity at Harvard. A church member surprised us with three homeade vegetarian lunches (with soup), made mostly of ingredients grown in her garden. We pulled up chairs and dug in.

This was the first time I’d met the new volunteer who I’ll call Nellie. I started telling her about my six months in Korea this past year. Mostly how difficult they had been. I told her about moving six times in six months. I told her about getting assaulted by the election campaigners. I told her about going to the fortune teller in Masan.

In general I don’t delve too deep into my experiences in Korea mostly because (I’ve learned) people won’t understand and most times they don’t really care. But sometimes I’ll reveal more to Korean people. And in response they’ll grasp onto me; reaching out because my experiences make them look differently at their own country, the place they call home.

Sometimes they’re outraged that such things happened to me by our own people! They feel responsible. Guilty. Angry. Outraged. Protective. Korean are so proud and tightly-knit (only 40 million) how could such bad things have happened to one of us? And in Korea, too! Sometimes they want to learn more from me about how I was treated. (This is such a fascination for Korean people, like those TV shows with foreigners speaking Korean! “Lookit what they can say in our language! And they’re not even Korean!”) Korea is such a homogenous country where people generally have similar experiences, when they hear what I experienced it blows their mind. Makes them think outside the box.

“I’ve never heard of that happening before,” they’ll say. Yeah, me neither. Things I experienced are unusual. Rare. Probably don’t normally happen.

As our lunch was nearing an end Nellie looked at me and said, “Even though those things you told me were bad I can tell they weren’t the worst things that happened to you there.” She looked pensive like she was feeling my pain deep within her soul. (I know that sounds cheesy, but that’s what it felt like.) “I can tell, just by seeing you, that there were other worse things that happened to you,” she said.

She was right. Still, I found that such a deep thing to say to someone she’d met less than an hour before.

I explained that most adoptees my age didn’t even know Korea existed for the first 20-30 years of their lives.

This is a hard concept for Korean people to understand; to fathom. I have to sketch it out: no Korean food, no Korean language, no Korean people, no music, no dramas, no knowledge even of where Korea is on the globe! (Impossible.)

I explained that no matter how bad things got; no matter how adverse or torturous or lonely we are in Korea, being in Korea–experiencing Korea– is better than not at all. It’s worth it. And because the abscence of Korea is felt so strongly upon first visit, having Korea in our lives now at age 30 or 40 or 50, even as torture, is better than not having it. And sometimes the only way to get it is to move there to incorporate it; to make up for its abscence.

It’s kind of like birth family search. I would never tell anyone to search for their birth family. It can be emotionally devastating; you have to be ready for it. But of all the unfortunate stories I’ve heard of adoptees meeting their birth families (discovering mental illness, first meeting and then utter rejection and declared hatred/humiliation, etc.) NONE of them wish they’d never met them. They say the opposite. With certainty.

“At least I’ve seen their faces. That’s more than a lot of adoptees will ever have. There’s no substitute for that.”

At the end of the day Nellie asked for my phone number. Then she told me to let her know the next time I’d be coming to volunteer because she wanted to be there the same time as me.

She started calling me older sister. And the next day I went to volunteer she texted me four times before she showed up. I told you, Korean people are intense. Do you believe me now? And, this intensity is so me; I act the same way. I warn people when they say to me: “Phone me anytime you want to talk.” Really? You may regret that.

There have been other equally significant experiences for me at Church. A lot of people have exchanged phone numbers with me. It’s been surprising.

Again, I want to say that even though I reached out I had no real expectations. I wasn’t hoping to make friends. Or to feel connected or accepted by the Korean community. I simply wanted to help.

My efforts have been small: stuffing envelopes, typing Korean names into new member letters, writing invitations and a press release and sending it onto the local newspaper, arranging books in the library, mailing letters, etc. Time flies by. I end up staying 1-2 hours longer than expected.

I’m not performing brain surgery here, and sometimes I lose sight of the fact that I’m even making a small difference.

But everyone there is appreciative of the work I do and they tell me this frequently.

Sometimes it is the litle things that make a big difference.


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