Making a Way to Faithful: My Journey with a Faithful God – Samjung Kang-Hamilton

Adjunct Professor of Religious Education and Children’s Ministry, Dr. Kang-Hamilton teaches and does research on the partnership between churches and families in the spiritual formation of children, youth, and adults.  She also studies and lectures on issues in cross-cultural ministry, women’s ministry, and international ministry.  A native of South Korea, she has worked with a Churches of Christ mission team there.  In the United States, she has served in churches in New England and has taught in the public schools of Newton, Massachusetts.  She provided leadership in the Korean-American community in the Boston area.  She is an active member of the University Church of Christ in Abilene.

Life is often unpredictable, full of twists and turns, requiring us to take one step at a time.  I grew up in a small village on Jeju Island in South Korea in late 1950s. Life in South Korea during the late 1950s and early 1960s was hard.  The poverty brought on by decades of Japanese colonialism and then the brutal Korean War had left much of the peninsula devastated.  Jeju Island is about seven hundred square miles of extinct volcanoes, beautiful small farms, black sand beaches, surrounded by an ocean teeming with life.  Our village at that time was made of the same black basalt rocks that constituted our island, literally life from the center of the earth.  Stone houses with thatched roofs, picturesque fields of rice and potatoes and vegetables, women diving for shells or seaweed, men walking behind an ox-drawn plow.  These are the scenes of my early childhood.

Today this all seems like a different world.  Growing up as a girl in that environment often meant finishing elementary and then hiring a matchmaker to help find a man with a good reputation to marry.  A few of the luckier girls went on to middle school and high school, but college was a distant dream for almost everyone.  In that culture, the status of the family line is very important, much more important than individual identity.  Thankfully, our family, especially my father taught us gender equality and religious freedom, which were not common values at that time in my corner of Korea.   We lived with three generations in one household because my father was the only son in our grandparents’ family.  My father and grandfather were well-respected community leaders and educators.   They were not Christians, however.

In those days, religious life revolved around whatever was thought to work in given situations. People in my village practiced many religions such as Buddhism, Shamanism, Confucianism, and folk religion within the same household, depending on situations they were facing (sickness, natural disaster, a new birth, and so on). My father summed it up by saying that religion is for weaker people begging to receive something.

In my early childhood, there was no church in our village.   Becoming a Christian was the last thing I could imagine at that time in my life. Our father, as I say, was very skeptical about those kinds of practices and religion in general.  He thought most of it was unscientific and downright silly.  But he was careful not to disrespect people.  For example, he once decided that rather than feeding my grandparents lavishly after they were dead, the customary practice of Korean ancestor worship, he would have a big party for them while they were alive and would invite their friends to come.  The provincial officials gave him an award for filial piety for that.  Not that the older practices stopped.  But at least my father found a way of honoring their intent while going his own way.

I later came to appreciate this sense of tolerance he had when I became a Christian.  That happened when the missionaries came with college students for a gospel meeting to our village at the elementary school building, which was next to our home. .  I was curious about how Americans looked.  I attended with my friends.  At that time, I heard about Jesus and saw a Bible for the first time.  Purely out of curiosity, I was baptized that night. I didn’t go to church after that for a while.  But several years later, I was invited to attend church and started going.  I discovered in the Bible that God’s vision for humanity is very different from the vision of people who were religious in our village. God’s overarching vision was to restore the human race and invite us to join that mission.  Those were the main motivations for me to join this journey.  God is loving, graceful, hospitable, and inclusive.

In those early days of my Christian life, my father did not try to stop me, but he did express serious concern because the members of that small congregation were not the respected, honored people of the community but mostly the small people.  I would go off to church on Sunday morning (when my mother thought I should be helping in the fields), hiding my Bible and walking down the back alleys so not too many people would see me.  My father allowed it because he thought girls, like boys, should have their own minds and follow their consciences.  I will always be grateful for that.

In 1976, I decided to attend an intensive two weeks of Winter Bible School in Seoul. Again, my parents were concerned about a girl in the city of millions (today the second largest metropolitan area in the world, and huge already in the late 1970s), but they gave their blessing.  “If you find some truth, stick to it.” my father said.  That meant everything to me. It was an exciting new adventure with my new faith, and it was scary at the same time.

In Seoul, I lived at first with a young Korean couple.  I tried to get a job at several places but could not.  One day, walking down a busy street, I heard a gospel meeting coming from the second floor of a building.  I walked in and heard that the preacher was talking about the will of God.  That moment, I had a sense of calling and decided to go to seminary to follow the will of God.  So I found a very low paying job working for missionaries as a secretary, also doing house sitting, cleaning, and running errands.  The pay was low even for that time, but I survived by working all day, taking a bus across town to what is now Seoul Christian University, and then returning home late at night to do it all over again. For several years, I spent most of my time preparing for Sunday worship at a newly planted bilingual church on the south side of Seoul.  My ministry involved teaching children and making church bulletin, among other things.

These years in Seoul were often challenging.  It took several years to finish my degree in Bible, and often the work for the missionaries was unnecessarily hard.  But what got me through it was my growing belief that God was present with me and was taking care of me.  The revival meeting I mentioned was one of several occasions, often seemingly random and often unplanned, which I came to believe were no accident, but were God’s way of reminding me that I was beloved.  There were many things that happened to me like that, seemingly very small, but just enough to keep me going.  Even when life is hard, it is an honor to be in subjection to a God who loves us profoundly enough to experience the Cross for us.

Early in the 1980s, I decided that I could be a better minister if I came to the United States in order to study.  So every Friday after night school, I joined church members in praying all night, and one time I went to a prayer mountain to spend a week in prayer.  Often my prayers involved planning to come to the United States in the future.  I was trying to make sense of my Christian walk.

During this time, my parents were very concerned about my plans to come to America.  I was past the normal age of marriage and female, faced language and cultural issues, difficult finances, and not knowing anyone in the U.S.  I encouraged them with my faith in God and reliance on Christian friends in the U.S.  I had saved some money and worked without any financial support from my own family, so I paid all my expenses and tuition on my own.  Of course it wasn’t easy for me, but I tried to show that we can do many things with the blessings of a faithful God.

Finally I had a chance to come to the United States, after three years of diligent prayer and work.  In January of 1985, I arrived in Oklahoma City to study at Oklahoma Christian University.  After a year, I received a second BA.  But more than that, I saw a different side of American Christianity.  I saw generous, sacrificial people who loved me simply because I was their sister in Christ, and that was what Christians did.  I will always be grateful for my year in Oklahoma.

In 1986, I moved to Abilene Christian University to study for a Master’s degree in Religious Education. I was the only female student in most of my Bible classes at ACU.  I was a minority person in many ways.  During that time, I often reflected on my future work as a female in a male-dominated community.  But I had confidence in God’s calling when we are prepare for his kingdom.   I worked in the university library, where I found many good friends – generous women and men who reached out to me with the life of Christ.  At one point, these friends collected money to help me go home to visit my parents, an act of pure generosity that I will always remember.

During this time, two important things happened.  The first was that in the fall of 1987, I went with a group of students, led by Wendell and Betty Broom, to Israel for a semester.  We lived in Saladin Street just outside the Old City.  That was a life-changing experience in its own right.  The second thing was related.  One of the students was an Arkansan named Mark Hamilton.  Mark and I started dating that semester.  I never dreamed or planned to get marry an American.  But I found a person who believes that God is at the center of every culture.  We have common goals and visions in our lives. Our first date was at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre!  And after we returned, we kept dating and finally married in August 1989.  This changed the direction of my life, and though I could not return to Korea as quickly as I had hoped, I was still able to trust in God to find new ways to serve.

Just after marrying, Mark and I moved to Connecticut.  He became the preaching minister at the New Milford Church of Christ, and I began doctoral work at Columbia University in New York.  My time of study was wonderful in many ways.  I found people of many faiths (and sometimes no faith at all) who treated each other with respect and sought to make a better world through their scholarship and its application to the key problems of our time.  Since Mark was the minister of a church, I also found time in the midst of my studies to serve alongside him in church.  He says I was a blessing to him.  My dissertation was an ethnographic study of our town and the congregation, and though I never published any of it, I enjoyed the work and have used it in many ways in my subsequent ministries.  Also during our time in New Milford, our son Nathan was born (in 1991), and he has been a blessing to our lives ever since.

After I finished my work, Mark began his studies at Harvard, while also ministering at a church in southern Massachusetts, and subsequently at the Brookline Church of Christ.  During our time at Brookline, I found many new opportunities to grow as a minister and again tried to be a blessing to people while also bringing into the world our daughter Hannah (in 1995) and later serving as an ESL teacher in the Newton Public Schools.  These times were sometimes hard.  Money was always tight, and we were under tremendous pressure, with Mark working several jobs and also trying to finish a doctorate in Old Testament.  This is part of the reason I always have great affection and respect for people who work hard and try to improve their lives.  But more than that, I learned again and again that God’s mercy extends to us especially when we have the hardest time seeing it.

In 2000, we moved back to Texas for Mark to teach at Abilene Christian University.  Soon afterwards, I began teaching as an adjunct in the Graduate School of Theology, where I have taught most years a course or two. I have also tried to be of service in the community by teaching and serving at University Church in the campus ministry and writing curricula.  I also served as president of the Friends of the ACU Library and as book review editor of Restoration Quarterly.   As a mother of two wonderful children, now 22 and 18 years old, I have always had a deep concern that young people grow to think and act like Christians.  So I have tried to bring a focus on Christian education and formation for children, youth, and adults to my students because I think the Christian life is about much more than biblical knowledge or a set of skills.  Ministry is about a way of life shaped by Jesus Christ, the crucified Lord.

Life has not always been easy in Abilene, Texas.  Adjuncts, especially women adjuncts, in most universities receive very low pay, and being a “foreign” woman is often a double strike against a person.  Some people seem not to be used to respecting or listening to people who look and talk differently.  The dominant culture emphasizes assertiveness and loudness, often at the expense of grace, justice, or solid thinking.  But at the same time, there are enough exceptions, often among other people whom our churches push to the margins, to make me try to hold on.  I try to use every opportunity as best I can to serve God, because Christianity is much more beautiful than Christians! I try to live out the fruits of Spirit in a difficult environment because I think that God has worked through me to serve the lives of people.  And God has been present to remind me in countless ways that I am not alone, and I am accepted.

In looking back over my life so far, this sense of God’s presence is the thing that stands out the most.  God has walked with me and carried me through some difficult times and some triumphant ones.  So now I can sing in the words of one my favorite hymns, “Be with me Lord, I cannot live without thee.  I dare not try to take one step alone.”  Every step I have taken has been with a divine companion, and so I am never alone.  This is how I can carry on, trying to be make a way to be faithful daily because God is faithful.