My story is actually a big cliche in many ways. My family moved to southern California from Korea when I was 8 years old, with typical immigrant aspirations of working hard to fulfill an American dream. We didn't have much, and we hit a big speed bump a year into our move when my younger brother got hit by a car on our way to school. I witnessed the accident, which now is a distant blur, but for many years caused me much anxiety .
Throughout these early and difficult years, my mother served as the rock. Her unwavering faith, and insistence on the rest of us actively being involved with church, in hindsight held us together. During my high school years, I served on the praise team at our church, and continued on in early college years through involvement with campus ministry.
But as I entered my 20's, difficult questions arose in my mind. Do I really believe in God, and if so, why? Was it merely an emotional byproduct of the naivete of my youth and difficult circumstances? And the most troublesome question: was I using the notion of a higher power as a crutch to compensate for my weaknesses (and by extension, does religion draw from the weak and the failed, which I certainly did not want to be associated with)?
I embraced Ayn Rand's philosophy of self-sufficiency and ego, and was determined from that point on to rely on myself to possess everything the world had to offer. I got degrees from the best schools, worked for the best companies, wanted to hang with "cool" people, and dine/party in the best places. I drove a fancy car, traveled to six continents and visited nearly 40 countries. And in 2009, I married an attractive and successful woman I was dating in NY (the only prerequisites for any single and successful Manhattanite, as Sex and the City has taught us over its glorious six seasons). We had a storybook wedding at the Boat House in Central Park, and soon thereafter were joined by our son, Andi, and our Boston Terrier, Sophie. I took comfort in my accomplishments and the approving nods from family and friends.
In 2012, we moved to Germany to escape the helter-skelter of New York life and have our then 1 year old be closer to the in-laws. While the move to a new country and a new company posed some initial challenges, I was generally "happy" with life. But about a year into our move, my wife walked out on me, along with the dog and the child. I was devastated, afraid to be alone in a foreign country, and felt an overwhelming sense of personal failure and shame (fortunately, my family came to my side and provided unconditional support, which I am so grateful for).
For the next year, I "exiled" myself to a tiny 160 sq. ft. studio, where I wallowed and drank myself to sleep most of the nights. In the midst of my deep-seated doubts, however, I had a sense that God would present another big challenge in my life along with an offer to come to peace with Him, and that I would prevail and come out the other end stronger and more effective to do the work of God.
Let me share a bit about my Short-term Service Team. When I initially met the team in 2015, my first thought was, "Oh my, they really look young." And after introductions, "Oh my, they really are young". 18 year olds can be scary. Turned out that my teammates are some of the most amazing and courageous young men and women from UK and Canada. Being disconnected from the noise of the world, and spending time with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in a simple environment, was the most peaceful and fulfilling time I have had in... I can't even remember how long. God asks us to be still, and Hands Village along with my team provided peace, security, and comfort that really reached deep.
Having said above, I was still apprehensive about sharing my story, which many occasions demanded... after all, most of the team was still young and innocent, not burdened with the detritus of life that age brings. But God had me repeat my story over and over. Including at Sommerset community, where I got talking with a local pastor and we somehow got to the subject of my divorce, all within the earshot of the rest of the team who attentively listened... again. It was highly uncomfortable, but perhaps helpful for some in that room, including myself. During our last dinner together, we had a nice session of encouraging each other, and I was really touched by how so many of my teammates thanked me for being vulnerable and openly sharing my experience. I was really energized by being around young people of faith, I believe they benefited too from my lessons, and we built a deep friendship in a short amount of time.
The community visits themselves were a great learning for me. During our first community visit, I was arrogant, and asked the long-term volunteer accompanying us what the real resource gaps were, as I suggested our short-term presence could not truly add value in any meaningful way. What I learned over the course of the following two weeks and visits to four different communities was that it is actually much more difficult to demonstrate empathy without showing pity and be present, than merely fixing something or providing food/donation.
After dinner one evening at the Hands Village, George visited us for a chat. He shared with us his early days of working with the poorest of the poor, and how there is a thin line between Africa and heaven that allows some to briefly peek their heads above to witness glory. He also spoke about how we chase all the wrong things in the developed world, and how arrogance overcomes us, and I felt that he was speaking directly to me. Not in a judgmental way, but in a manner of a father desperately seeking out a lost son. We were all very touched and sat together in silence for a long time, myself with quiet tears streaming down for remorse over the many years I squandered and the grace with which God continues to seek the least of us.
I have become a big fan of the Hands approach, not only in the way it approaches community development, but also in the basic belief and attitude of transparency and humility. "We are before we do." This would have been unpalatable to me until recently, but I think I get it now. I have been reading from my old and dusty Student NIV Bible with unusual vigor and thirst since returning from Africa. I can't explain it, but I just want to. A.W. Tozer talks about "following hard after God," per the Psalms. I know I will continue to struggle with doubt, vanity, and obedience, but I have been sowed with a desire to know God with immediacy and intimacy, and to live the peace and joy I got a taste of in South Africa.…
One year later…
I returned to Africa with another team in August 2016, this time to Zimbabwe. While I was tired and distracted as the trip approached, I knew that God had made it possible and much was in store for me. I spent 1 week with the Kim family from the San Francisco Bay Area, their cousin from Korea, and the Zimbabwe Service Center team. The family’s objectives for the trip were to build a relationship with the local Hands staff and Care Workers in the community of Pimai C that they supported. My objective was to go deeper in my understanding of Hands. This time was less of an emotional journey than the first visit, but provided greater appreciation for what it takes to mobilize efforts at ground level and build the foundation for enduring relationship with communities in need.
I am blessed to be part of the Hands family and am looking forward to meeting many of them at the upcoming National Advocates Gathering in the San Francisco Bay Area beginning November 4th.