Congregation members went to a foreign land to help people who are far from their homeland.
By D.A. WILKINSON
VINDICATOR RELIGION EDITOR
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mission trips often energize a church and its congregation.
That's the case at the Korean United Methodist Church of Greater Youngstown, which recently sent its first team on a unique mission.
Congregation members went to help the descendants of more than 1,000 Koreans taken to the Yucatan in southern Mexico in 1905.
The Koreans emigrated during their homeland's conflicts with China and Japan and didn't know where they where going, said Dr. Tong Ho Ham, an elder of the church and a physician in Sharon, Pa.
Economic slavery: Once in Mexico, they became "economic slaves" working on henequen farms. They could not earn enough to return home, he said. Henequen comes from the agave cactus, and its fibers are used to make very strong rope or burlap. The industry was huge in the 1800s but is very small today.
In 1994, a national missionary from the Korean United Methodist Church, the Rev. Cho Nam-Whan, started to identify the descendants of Yucatan's original Korean farmers.
Making progress: Since then, said Dr. Ham, 3,000 people have been contacted and are becoming a Korean community, including a Korean language school.
The Youngstown church got involved after the doctor's wife, Kook Ja Ham, learned of the effort in Mexico during a choir trip to Houston. After that, the local church began talking and planning.
The doctor and his wife went to Yucatan last November to scout for the mission. A team of 10 people from the church went down in May with donated medical supplies.
The missionaries wound up in the villages of Uci and Sapacuc, where they had Bible schools and did home visits during the day and provided music, messages and prayers at night to the residents.
Spreading the word came easy to the Hams. The doctor said he is a third-generation Methodist, including a grandfather who was a bishop. His wife said she was raised in the Presbyterian church but became a Methodist when she and the doctor married.
"We grew up in this environment," said the doctor.
Each of the village has about 1,500 residents. Uci has several small Protestant churches while Sapacuc has none in the overwhelmingly Catholic country, said the doctor.
Each community was poor, with homes 120 or more years old that are open to insects and wildlife.
"There are walls and a roof. Nothing is developed," said Dr. Ham.
The villagers are happy and relaxed, said the doctor, who added, "They're nice people."
Help given: The team provided exams and medical supplies for 511 people in the two villages. Dr. Ham said he saw a number of diabetes and hypertension cases but the patients normally have nowhere to go for treatment.
The doctor, who came here to practice in 1973, said the team members felt proud about completing their first mission.
The third and fourth generations that descended from the Korean farmers also feel proud.
"They are trying to find their roots," said Dr. Ham. "They don't know much about Korea."
The Mexican Koreans have been waiting for 100 years for contact with people from their homeland, said the doctor.
The missionaries met several members of the second generation of the farmers, several of whom could speak Korean.
"Nobody could read it," Ham said. Communication was mostly through Spanish interpreters.
Mission work: The pastor of the local church, The Rev. Hak Soo Kim, has been interested in mission work and supported the Yucatan trip. His congregation has always contributed money or materials to missionary activities, and they continue to contribute.
The difference after the first mission, said Ham, is that congregation members have become deeply interested in the work.
As did the Mexicans.
Mrs. Ham said at each evening's service, many people came forward to accept the Lord.
"They want to belong to Jesus Christ," she said.
She added the villagers want them to come back. Planning is under way for another trip next May.