Standing side by side with a sweet Catholic nun, I scooped Kimchi into a little plastic cup as I did my part in a box-lunch assembly line on a Tuesday in South Korea. Every week our Seoul, Korea, missionaries tighten up their masks, don plastic gloves, and bright orange aprons, and volunteer at Anna’s House -a charity that serves 600 box-lunches every day to the homeless. We completed the assembly process and went outside to the adjacent parking lot to pass out the food.
It was bitter cold and hundreds of people were waiting, 6 feet apart, for the distribution to begin. Our missionaries consider this service to be a highlight of their week. They know that even through a pandemic, people need to be served, they deserve a hot meal, they need a warm coat, they need to know that someone cares. Perhaps that’s what we learned more than anything this past year. We all need to know that someone cares.
The charity is run by Father Vincenzo -a Catholic priest who moved to Korea from Italy 30 years ago. I love Father Vincenzo and his goodness. I have loved Italy ever since I served my young mission there 40 years ago. Now I love Korea too.
As Mission leaders over the Korea Seoul Mission for the past 2½ years, my husband and I have worked with both the missionaries and the people here. COVID-19 turned 2020 into a crazy roller coaster of a year for all of us. But as we reflect on all that has transpired, we see nothing but small miracles that have occurred and rich learnings that we will take into the new year.
In January, we starting hearing mumblings of a deadly virus in China.
In February, Korea became headline news around the world and we were instructed to go into isolation that we thought would last two weeks.
In March, we were shocked as our foreign missionaries were suddenly evacuated and we dropped overnight from a mission of 120 missionaries down to 30 native Korean elders and sisters. The temple closed. The church was canceled. We wondered, what do we do now?
We hunkered down, moved missionaries into centers of strength, and gathered virtually through meetings held on Zoom to figure out how to move forward. Even though we never could have seen this coming, we were miraculously prepared. Missionaries already had smartphones, they were already finding ways to work online, and we had already utilized Zoom meetings to cut down on travel. Now it was time to take it to the next level. Our missionaries increased their efforts to teach the gospel through video calls, often including their evacuated foreign companions who were sitting in isolation back at home. We pushed our young missionaries to think outside the box, try new things, be creative, let your light shine!
They created new Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, and YouTube channels. They started live “radio shows,” “rooftop live” virtual concerts, and online English classes. YouTube, in particular, is incredibly popular here in Korea. We have literally reached millions of new people through this media alone. We were amazed by the creativity of our missionaries, their positivity, and their ability to adapt, endure and lift each other through such a stressful time.
One of the greatest challenges for missionary work in Korea has been misinformation about the church on the internet, a problem we have been trying to solve since we arrived in 2018. With so much indoor time and armed with our 100% native Korean mission, we pushed our missionaries to take time every day to post good stories about the church, our beliefs, the members, and their testimonies.
President Taylor and I started holding Zoom firesides with all the stakes in Korea as well as LDS Korean congregations around the world in places like New York, New Jersey, Utah, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Hawaii, inviting them all to join in this effort. The results have been nothing short of miraculous as the most popular Korean search engine “Naver,” has now changed from a negative influence into an incredibly positive tool. Additionally, it has provided wonderful uplift for the members in this time of isolation to read so many inspiring posts.
The tide has turned and people are now finding us versus us always having to find them. It is a David vs. Goliath-type of miracle, that we couldn’t have dreamed possible even one year ago. The virus has connected our world in a way like nothing else as we have watched it skip over continents and across the seas. We have prayed together, mourned together and missionaries are working together like never before.
Korean missionaries originally assigned to other missions around the world were brought back and reassigned to serve here in Korea. By July, we had 38 missionaries with only one-third of them originally called to serve in our mission. As we added in missionaries from more than 18 different missions we were able to incorporate new ideas and connections from around the globe.
One sister who had an especially hard time growing up in Korea has shared with us that being brought back to her native country was heartbreaking at first, but as she has served her fellow Koreans she has developed a deep love for her homeland that she had previously lost. Two of our elders are currently teaching a young man who is from Russia. A sister, who previously served in our mission but is now home in Russian-speaking Moldova, joins through technology regularly to help teach this young man in his native tongue. He also uses Zoom to join in her Russian sacrament meetings from his home in Korea.
The opportunity we have had to develop deep personal relationships with this small band of missionaries has been an indescribable blessing. We have watched them not just survive this storm but thrive. Their increased opportunity for leadership, caring for each other, and reaching out to both members of the church and others in the community is preparing them to lead here in Korea for years to come.
In Korea, 2021 is the Year of the Ox. People born in the Year of the Ox are “industrious, hold their faith firmly, and are always glad to offer help.” I think this perfectly describes the aspirations of the Korea Seoul Mission for the coming year!