K-Pop, companies like LG and Samsung, and the rise of Kimchi-infusion dishes – Korea is making waves in economic and cultural sectors with increasing global recognition. The 10th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) sited in Busan in 2013, however, called for a distinct break in the otherwise uniform news cycle – and for good reason. 2015-16 Fulbright Senior Researcher and Underwood Visiting Professor at Yonsei University’s United Graduate School of Theology Dr. Perry Hamalis not only took part in the seminal WCC assembly; he’s here for the year to study the longitudinal impact of the event on Korea’s Orthodox Christian community and presented his preliminary findings at the Fulbright Forum on February 12th, 2016 last week.
Dr. Perry Hamalis is known stateside as the Cecelia Schneller Mueller Professor of Religion at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, and made a splash at the WCC’s General Assembly in Busan as both a delegate and moderator for the organization. As an institution, the WCC has a profound global presence; Established after World War II, the WCC is the world’s most inclusive ecumenical organization with over 345 member churches across 110 nations. The ecumenical goal of the WCC is to promote visible unity and collaboration within and among Christian churches, and including its members and partnership with the Roman Catholic Church, has influence over 75% of the world’s Christian population – about 1.6 billion people.
Why Korea? Dr. Perry Hamalis notes that the choice to site their tenth general assembly in Busan is no small gesture and signals both the rising status of Christianity in Korea as well as the increasing significance of East Asian religions worldwide. The 9 previous general assemblies have been held outside East Asia, the last one in Asia was held in New Delhi back in 1961. Within the overarching rise of Christianity, the Orthodox Church is a smaller yet meaningful branch within Korea with approximately 5,000 members nationwide. When over 6,000 WCC delegates, observers and staff members descended on Busan in 2013, a number of internal ecumenical paths intersected with the Korean Orthodox Church, leaving a digestibly-sized zone of impact for Dr. Hamalis to study.
Although Dr. Hamalis is still in the middle of his research, his presentation at the Fulbright office highlighted a few preliminary findings. First – the siting of the WCC general assembly in South Korea is of cardinal importance with reference to the history of the Orthodox Church in South Korea. There is a subtle yet clear distinction to be made between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Church. The former is comprised of 14 autocephalous regional churches, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (under which the Orthodox Metropolis of Korea falls), the Patriarchate of Moscow, -and others based largely in the Balkans and Eastern Europe countries, while the latter includes Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, and 3 other autocephalous regional churches. The Busan WCC Assembly was an occasion for growth in unity between the two major Orthodox families, as well as for deepening relationships with the non-Orthodox member churches. Although the Orthodox presence in South Korea can be drawn back to Russian missionaries who arrived in the year 1900, and, after the Korean War, came under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at the request of the local people, the WCC assembly helped bring global, national, and inter-Orthodox notoriety to the Korean Orthodox Church as a model of canonical ecclesiology, since Orthodox Christians of all ethnic backgrounds living in Korea are united under one local bishop. In addition, the WCC helped bring a heightened level of public leadership and publicity for the comparatively small Orthodox Church, a faith more known for its mystical liturgies and asceticism than for its vocal evangelism or public theology. Additionally, an air of hope for reunification between North and South Korea undergirded the assembly, bringing the political issue into more theological and moral spheres of discussion.
Fulbright Korea Alumni Relations Committee Member Robert Little attended Dr. Hamalis’ February Fulbright Forum and had the chance to ask a few follow up questions.
FKAR: What first sparked your interest in Korea’s Orthodox Church?
Dr. Hamalis: My interest in Korea and the Orthodox Church in Korea began when a friend of mine from graduate school took a faculty position in Korea at Hanguk University of Foreign Studies and invited me to give a lecture here on Orthodox Ethics back in 2001. Since then, I made another 6 trips to Korea before coming this year as a Fulbright scholar. My interest in ecumenical theology and inter-church relations increased dramatically when I began collaborating with the World Council of Churches in 2007.
FKAR: How has the adjustment been for not just yourself, but your family here in Korea? What has been the greatest unexpected benefit associated with moving here?
Dr. Hamalis: My family and I have had an outstanding experience so far in Korea. Of course, there were some difficulties at the beginning, mainly because of our very limited Korean language skills, but the people we’ve met and befriended have been extraordinarily generous and supportive toward us. We have two children, both of whom are in high school, and their openness to this year abroad experience has really inspired my spouse and me. Since they’re teenagers, we couldn’t just say, “pack your bags we’re going to Korea for a year” (unless we wanted a war to break out in our home!), so we had many talks that led up to our decision to apply and access the fellowship. Seeing them make friends here and develop a much more nuanced picture of Korea (and of East Asia more broadly), has brought us much joy; so have the many conversations we’ve had over the past few months about cultural differences and about the things we most appreciate about Korea and the U.S.
FKAR: Looking forward to resuming teaching in the states, how you think your experience will influence your career, studies or teaching?
Dr. Hamalis: The experiences I’ve had teaching at Yonsei University, conducting research, and building relationships with the local community will enhance my teaching on many levels when I return to my home institution, North Central College in Naperville, IL. I’ll certainly be an even stronger advocate for international programs–study abroad, recruiting more international students to NCC, and continuing our tradition of hosting Fulbright scholars on our campus. I’ve also learned a lot about teaching methodology and the transformative potential of engaging students through active learning. Korean students work extremely hard and are exceptionally respectful of their professors–yet the Korean higher education system (from my limited experience) would benefit from more creative pedagogy and a stronger emphasis on encouraging critical thinking. This is risky for professors, of course, but aren’t all things that have transformative potential?
I also hope that the insights I’ve gained as a racial minority here (albeit a very privileged one) and as a non-native language speaker will make me a more compassionate and welcoming teacher in the U.S.