Just a few days before the tragic ferry disaster outside the coast of Korea, I spent some very happy days on the island of Jeju. This is a beautiful island off the southern coast of Korea, southwest of Jeollanam-do Province, of which it was a part before it became a separate province and Korea’s first and only Special Autonomous Province. Its capital is Jeju City. Jeju was the beautiful island the ferryboat was sailing towards and Jeju was the holiday paradise where the young students or pupils were going to celebrate long years at school.
We were touring the island together with local YMCA secretaries and Mrs and Mr Park, Dr Park was the President of Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs a few years ago. The sun was shining and the beauty of the island was breathtaking.
When we heard the news about the ferryboat and the death of so many young people, the shadows of death and sorrow buried the sunny memories and I put away the happy photos of smiling people and joyous activities and decided to only show the beauty of the island Jeju, the places these young people were traveling to see and experience, and to remember those young lives lost, lost without meaning or explanation, lost.
It was a grey and chilly evening when we arrived on the island and this white chapel in the evening mist with a basket ball court in front of it reminded me of the Young Men’s Christian Association, of which several of the young people were members.
Another cross over the island. The cross is the most important symbol of Christianity, the symbol of death and suffering, growing out of the darkness of Good Friday, when our Lord and Savior gave his life for all struggling mankind.
When I see this photo now, I am filled with melancholy as I look over the endless ocean, silent now, beautiful under blue skies, but still the enemy, the dangerous enemy with endless dark secrets underneath its blue surface. This melancholy followed me every day as I continued my travels. I was preaching at the Methodist Church in Seoul, the church where the Korean national YMCA was started 100 years ago. I said farewell to my good Korean YMCA friends and flew over the island of Jeju, 35 000 feet over the beauty of Jeju and slowly I left Asia behind. More than three weeks of impressive meetings with YMCA leaders from all over the continent, coming together for the Asia&Pacific Alliance of YMCA’s Executive Meeting in Hong Kong. From there to India. Seven cities in seven days. And then after a short break a week in Korea to celebrate the 100 years anniversary. YMCA Empowering Young People.
These are the Grandfathers of Jeju, the “sol hareubang” statues. They bear a striking similarity with the gods of the Easter Island, thousands of miles away. One can only wonder how they relate to one another, if at all. A story we are told describes a ruler of the island who became tired of all the evil spirits the local population struggled to defend themselves against, and therefore he erected these statues to tell his people that the protective grandfathers were defending the island against evil spirits. And that is supposed to be the reason why there are no thieves and no criminality on the island today.
I brought the memories of Korea with me as I flew over the island and waved goodbye to a continent in sorrow. I landed in Japan, in Amsterdam, Geneva, again Amsterdam and then across another ocean till I next day in the evening landed in Chicago and cached my last flights via Atlanta to San Antonio, Texas.
The local traditional culture stands in stark contrast to the mainland (and much of Asia) as being matriarchal. Stemming from this basis, and some odd tax reasons, the role of seafood gathering on the island has been dominated by women. As such, a common sight around Jeju’s coastline is that of the “haenyo” or “woman diver”, a figure that has become somewhat iconic of the island.
These are samples of what the female divers are bringing up from the bottom of the sea. I was amazed to study these elderly women. Modern times are overtaking this tradition as so many other, so the average age of these woman divers is now 65 years, due to lack of recruitment. Ladies as old as 80 were diving around the island and bringing delicious seafood for sale and consumption around campfires where we were walking.
From they very warm and summerly climate of San Antonio the travel took me up to the Rocky Mountains via Denver, and snow was falling from the sky and we were walking in an ice-cold procession early in the morning of Palm Sunday, waving palm leaves under the falling snow.
As the silent week commenced and we were preparing for the sufferings of Jesus Christ, the ocean continues to hit the coast of Jeju as the news from the tragedy continues to fill the newspaper around the world.
The memories took me back to July 2011, the only other time I wrote a blogpost called “Young Lives Lost”. I remember how the loss of more than 80 young kids hit my country and still has not left us in peace.
Korea will mourne and cry for its loss for years to come. Tragedies like this takes us to the depths of human feelings. They carve themselves into our flesh and blood and become part of a country’s history.
I leave the Rockies behind and fly across the country. Good Friday I find myself in “Jesus our Savior’s Church” in Chicago. In the darkness of the church even the smallest candle is not burning, as we are commemorating the sufferings of Christ. The congregation is leaving the dark church behind in total silence, not a candle burning, not a word uttered. An ice cold wind is hitting us outside. Cold hopelessness.
The light of the morning is shining. Easter Day in a tiny little church in the countryside of Illinois. Light is filling the church, words are read, the gospel of Easter is shared amongst the people. “Christ is risen! Yes, Christ is truly risen!”
And as the light is vibrant in the sun filled little chapel, Easter Sunday continues with hymns and joy and smiles and hope for the future.
Then the female priest is looking over her congregation and says: On this Easter Sunday we will not forget the tragedy which cost the lives of so many young people off the coast of Korea. Together with Christians all over the world we will pray for the victims and their families and the country of Korea. I bow my head in prayer and a deep, deep feeling of belonging to one world wide family fills my body, runs in my blood, echoes in my heartbeats and goes up to my Lord in Heaven.
Out of the darkness and tragedy and sorrow, out of the darkness of Good Friday grows another plant, another seed of life. In my prayers I went back to the island of Jeju, to the YMCA there, and to the young people I met there, young people who are still alive and singing and playing.
Young people at the start of their lives, celebrating a ceremony related to the founding of a new basketball team.
Young eyes looking into a bright future.
As I sat in the little chapel in Lockport, USA, on Easter Sunday, I saw these faces again.
Out of the darkness of meaningless tragedy, out of the cold of a freezing winter, new seeds of life are blooming. And with these symbols of spring, of new life on the island of Jeju, we bow our heads in an elegy to young lives lost.