Saturday, 26 August 2017

Orientation Week (with pictures!)

A Philosopher's Introduction

I have not yet come to a conclusion about what this blog is about.  However, after a week in South Korea, I do know a bit better what it is not about.

My experience in only one week has been so full, it would stretch my ability as a writer to try to do any kind of justice to it.  This would be true, even if I had limitless time to write, and thought my readers had limitless attention spans.  Yet, because this is a blog, I want to write short posts, and -- for the most part -- do this relatively quickly.

So, I have come to a rather obvious conclusion: I will not be able to communicate the richness and variety of my experience to you in this blog.

At the same time, since I have not yet figured out what else this blog could be possibly be about, I will try to capture a bit of what my experience has been, as best I can.

What Happened in Outline

I arrived in Incheon Airport, near Seoul, last Friday night with Allison, my friend from Virginia and fellow MCC volunteer.  At the airport, I met Dante, the volunteer from Indonesia who will be with me at the Dandelion Community.  We were greeted by MCC staff, and fell asleep on the three hour bus ride to Chuncheon, where the MCC office is located.

Me, Allison and Dante in the big city

During the week, we got to know everyone in the MCC office here, and met many people from the local Anabaptist congregation.  This involved going to many restaurants and eating lots of Korean food.  We also had sessions throughout the week about Korean culture, language and history, as well as MCC's work on the Korean peninsula.

First Korean meal in Chuncheon with MCC staff

Dante and I will be leaving for the Dandelion Community on Monday.  Allison is going to another placement in South Korea tomorrow.

Two Memorable Experiences


It is Sunday evening and the sun had gone down.  Allison, Dante and I had just gone out for dinner with Dongyu, a founding member of the Anabaptist church that we attended in the morning, as well as a well-known citizen of Chuncheon and university professor.  He treated us to Chuncheon's famous Dakkalbi, a delicious chicken rib dish, and Patbingsu, a red bean shaved ice dessert.

Dongyu and the YALTers eating Patbingsu

Dongyu had dropped me off at a place I did not recognize.  I knew it was the wrong place when he dropped me off, but I had heard that in Korean culture publicly contradicting elders is not respectful.  I thought the right place would be near by, so I didn't make a fuss.

I soon found, however, that it was not nearby.  

First, I tried talking in Korean to the nearby security guard.  Somehow, the security guard concluded from my use of the Korean language on that occasion that I would be able to understand him only if he spoke veerrry sloooowwwly.  That turned out to be optimistic of him.

Some of you might think I should have been worried at that point.  You are probably right.  The night before, returning home after the daily sessions at the MCC office, I was unable even to correctly locate the doorway of the apartment where I was staying.  (This is something the South Korean MCCer who was guiding me home, thought was extremely funny.)  

I am nevertheless sometimes overcome by an irrational self-confidence (and the streets here are very safe).  So, I was not worried.  

I did recognize one road, and after phoning one of our MCC reps (whose apartment I am staying at), was able to make my way back.


Allison, Dante, Solger and I were visiting Seoul together.  Solger is the same above-mentioned MCCer.  We had been to a memorial for the Sewol Ferry, a protest for comfort women at the Japanese Embassy, a palace from the Joseon dynasty (1392-1897) called "Gyeongbokgung," and closer to South Korea's executive government building, called "Chongwadei" or "The Blue House," than Solger had ever been.

Statue of a Comfort Woman by the Japanese Embassy

Entering Gyeongbokgung

Us in front of The Blue House

After dinner, we decided to stay in Seoul a little longer than planned.  Solger had never been to Gyeongbokgung at night.  Only foreigners are permitted to buy tickets at the gate.  Moreover, they require one of the foreigners in a group of four to have a passport with them.  Dante had brought his passport, and so we decided to take the opportunity to see the palace at night.

When we got inside, we saw instruments and chairs set up outside Sujeongjeon Hall.  Sujeongjeon Hall is the place where the Korean alphabet and writing system, called "Hangul," was created.  This was a very significant achievement in Korean history.  Hangul, which is phonetic and easily learnt, was created to bring literacy to the common people of Korea.  Because of the work accomplished in this building, it took me only a few hours to start learning how to sound out written Korean words, rather than spending my life learning Chinese characters.

Sujeongjeon, the place where the Korean writing system was created

It was in front of this building that we watched a concert featuring, among other things, traditional Korean music, dancing, and a paly paly (very fast!) electric violin version of Vivaldi's four seasons.

The night concert at Sujeongjeon
It kept raining sporadically, twice or thrice turning into a downpour.  So, every five minutes or so, we, along with everyone in the seating area, would huddle under our umbrellas, and then close them all again as the rain stopped.  It was something special.

Friday, 18 August 2017

A Theological Introduction to My Trip to South Korea

I have arrived safely in South Korea, and even had a good night's sleep staying with the MCC representatives here.  I miss the new friends I made at orientation in Pennsylvania and friends and family back home, but am excited to learn and do my best here!  Below, I have a reflection, or better, a confession, about how I got to this point, which you may be interested in.
Thank you to Renea McKenzie, the editor at, for helping me edit this piece.  A more polished version of the same reflection will soon appear on this website.

This confession is about my encountering Jesus at work in my home church and how, through this encounter, I now find myself on a plane headed to South Korea to volunteer with Mennonite Central Committee.
I grew up in a small town in Canada, attending a Mennonite Brethren church every Sunday with my family.  
My father is the owner of a successful business, and my mom is an elementary school teacher.  So, when I went away to study Philosophy at secular universities, it made me different from my family and many of the people I grew up around in some important ways.  My opinions and attitudes have been shaped in a dramatic way by my experience at university.
At the same time, however, my blue-collar background put me in a unique position to see how the concerns and opinions of blue collar people are not fairly represented and sometimes not even discussed in academic circles.  For example, in my experience, academics, when opining on business affairs, do not concern themselves with the specific pressures and responsibilities to clients and employees involved in running a successful business.  In my opinion, specific responsibilities like these are the real meat of ethical reflection.  Yet, rather than engage with the ideas of business owners like my dad, I found that my academic colleagues often simply treated the views of the working-class as too far gone to be calmly discussed in seminars.
This lack of communication between academic, “ivory tower” and blue collar, “salt of the earth” people is part of the reason why I sometimes wonder along with Wendell Berry what it would be like if more academics returned home and became a part of the life of their home communities.
What if academics in Canada and the US returned to be a part the life at home?  That might be pretty interesting!  This might not be as visibly heroic or sexy as protesting each other, but maybe it is part of the path to healing the divide between working class and academic people in our countries.
Academics like me will, of course, think they have something of great value to contribute to their home churches.  My confession below witnesses to the way Christians who wander from home can be held accountable by their home churches.
I returned home from university with the strong pacifist convictions that the Mennonite churches I grew up in had abandoned, as well as the analytical ability to back up and teach my new-found convictions.  I was given a chance to share what I learned, by teaching a series on pacifism in Adult Sunday School and preaching several sermons.
I discovered that, quite opposed to the impression I received from university seminars, blue collar people often have very pointed, common-sense criticism of philosophers, who perhaps, at times get caught up in their webs of abstract reasoning.  As I taught my church about pacifism, one such criticism that kept coming up was “Yes, but what does this mean in practice?”
It was, and remains, a good point. I had failed to present pacifism as more than merely an abstract ethical argument.  Yet Christian pacifism presumes Jesus is king over the world, and that he will show up when we follow his example of nonviolent love.  This does not mean that we will always be successful in the short-term; rather, just as Jesus who was crucified is now alive, so too, if we are faithful to Christ’s example, will be included by God in bringing about his renewal of all things.  
So, we read in Revelation 6 about the fifth seal opened by the Lamb, where the martyrs, whose blood has collected under the altar, wait for the coming of God’s kingdom.  Their deaths are not in vain but treated by God as significant for the inauguration of his kingdom (vs. 9-11).
At least, that’s how I – the academic – would say it.  But, in short, my church was right.
So, now I am on a plane headed to South Korea to see what I can figure out about peacebuilding.  So, I think, if we academics are presumptuous enough to think we have something of interest to contribute to our churches (and in writing for TTC, I think I, at least, am that presumptuous), we should also be humble enough to understand that our churches can make us more faithful witnesses to Christ’s nonviolent love on the cross.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Some Links

Some readers may be interested in these links.

Here is the Dandelion Community's blog.  It is in Korean and I am not sure how well Google translates it:

And the school where I will be teaching:

Although I will be serving with the Dandelion Community, which is established and run by locals in South Korea, I received this opportunity through Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and am still under their umbrella.  Here is a link to MCC's homepage:

And the specific program I am a part of, called SALT, which stands for Serving and Learning Together:

I have my own page on MCC's website, where I describe what I will be doing in more detail.  This page also tracks the funds I raised to support my volunteer term.  Thank you to everyone who supported me!  As you can see, you went well above and beyond what was required.

While I was considering the possibility of spending a year at the Dandelion Community, I came across a blog written by someone who had done this before.  Rebekah Puddington's account of her year with the Dandelion Community is both profound and, in my opinion, high art.

What a privilege to have been able to get such an articulate view into life in the Dandelion Community before deciding to go there.  I will try my best to imitate her in this blog:

And here is a link to the website, Thinking Through Christianity, that I contribute to on a monthly basis.  It has some excellent pieces on theological and cultural topics.