Have you wondered why we bring guest speakers from persecuted settings to share with our North Korean students? Our newest VOM Korea intern penned her thoughts after sitting among our UU and UT students one Saturday morning.
This Saturday morning was different than other Saturday mornings. Our UU students had gathered together to listen to Doctor Berhane Asmelash, a pastor from Eritrea, a country better known as the “North Korea of Africa.”
When Doctor Berhane first approached the podium, it seemed that he had little in common with his audience. He was from Africa. They were from North Korea. He was the speaker. They were the audience. However, as Doctor Berhane began to share the stories of his heart—stories about how he had been imprisoned, beaten, and slandered—the UU students began to nudge one another and point at him. They began to speak to one another. Then they began to speak to him. Of all things, suffering had brought Doctor Berhane and our UU students together.
Any North Korean defector can tell you stories of suffering. We have known defectors who have lost family. We have known defectors who have lost friends. We have known defectors who have lost themselves. One student had her arm chopped off while in North Korea.
North Koreans are no strangers to suffering. But neither was Doctor Berhane.
One student, KSS, was shocked to hear about the persecution Christians face in Eritrea. Often, North Korean people think that North Korea is the worst country in the world. They often think that people from outside North Korea will not truly understand the suffering that North Koreans face. But Doctor Berhane had completely understood their suffering. KSS actually admitted that in some ways, Eritrea was worse than North Korea.
Doctor Berhane had taught her empathy through a shared suffering. “In Eritrea, we say, ‘if you want to learn how to hate, you need to go to prison,’” Doctor Berhane told the UU students, “But prison was the place where I learned how to love.”
Doctor Berhane told the UU students that when he was sent to prison, he was forced to live with the very man who had sent him to prison. Everyone told Doctor Berhane that this man was his enemy and that he should hate him. When the man became sick, everyone told Doctor Berhane that God was wreaking vengeance for Doctor Berhane. But Doctor Berhane didn’t gloat over the man’s misfortune—Doctor Berhane cared for the man and tried to bring him back to health. “It isn’t enough to not hate your enemy,” Doctor Berhane told the UU students, “God tells us we must actively love them.”
Several UU students were challenged by his message. Doctor Berhane had experienced the same pain they had, but he taught that this pain was normal. God speaks through pain and suffering. Because Doctor Berhane had gone out of his way to heal the man who everyone said was his enemy, the man returned back to Doctor Berhane and asked to be discipled. Because Berhane had suffered, this man had seen the face of God.
People are often confused as to why we have a UU class. Why would anyone train North Koreans to go wherever North Koreans are found in order to minister to them? The North Korean defectors have already suffered enough in North Korea! The South Koreans and Americans should step in and do ministry for them. After all, the South Koreans and Americans have the money, the technology, and the degrees to do much better than the North Koreans.
But South Koreans and Americans do not know what it is like to suffer. South Koreans and Americans do not know how fiercely a foot burns when it carries a body tens of thousands of miles in the hopes of finding an embassy that will help you flee from hell. South Koreans and Americans do not know the blood curdling fear of being sold into sexual slavery. South Koreans and Americans do not know the desperation of a mother who starves herself but still does not have enough food to feed her son.
But North Koreans do.
In UU, North Koreans learn to embrace their suffering. They learn from the Christians who have suffered before them what suffering means and how God uses “the furnace of affliction” to bring them closer to Him (Isaiah 48:10) They learn from one another that pain is not meant to be hidden, but is meant to be shared. In Doctor Berhane’s words, the UU students learn what it truly means to “love their neighbor.”
This is why we have been inviting many Guest Speakers to speak with our UU classes. These speakers have also suffered greatly and have risen above this suffering through God’s grace. By hearing the challenges that these other speakers have overcome, our students can begin to understand that North Koreans are not the only people who suffer.
All of God’s church suffers.