Korean Immigrant Pastor and Martyr in Russia
In 2014, The United Methodist Church in Eurasia celebrated its 125th anniversary since the first Methodist congregation started in Eurasia. It was in the year 1889, when a small Methodist congregation began to meet in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. For over 125 years the Spirit has moved and inspired Methodist people to live holy lives and transform their societies, to practice spiritual disciplines and receive grace, to be brave and humble, faithful and sacrificial. By preserving traditions, we are transforming the future. Today United Methodists continue to serve actively in Saint Petersburg, Russia and many other cities in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The Holy Spirit leads us to new horizons and opens up new possibilities for us.
It is very important to understand what tradition and values were in the center of ministry for early Methodist people as they developed their mission work in Eurasia. It is similar to our viewing of a family photo album when three or four generations sit on the sofa and open picture after picture. Each photo carries an amazing family story. They will make us laugh and cry at the same time. But one thing is obvious – after viewing the photo album and listening to family stories, we will become different. The Holy Spirit will renew our faith, inspire us through the example of our ancestors, and lead us to continue the traditions which will transform the future.
Going for the journey
I invite you to go with me on a journey through space and time. We will begin our journey in Moscow, Russia, where we have a Methodist House, which includes a seminary, several churches, the Eurasia UM Conference office and the Bishop’s office. We will visit different cities and countries, view photos and get inspiration from those who have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7). So, sit comfortably, buckle up and be ready to become different.
Moscow – Vladivostok
After a nine-hour flight from Moscow, going east 6,500 km (about 4 thousand miles) over the territory of Russia, you arrive in the dynamically developing city of Vladivostok. New buildings and bridges, inspirational sights and strong winds challenge you and invite you into the journey of new life.
On Komandorskaya street 11, you can visit the State Archive of the Primorskiy region, where friendly staff will give you documents to work with in the reading room. I am interested in the history of the Methodist church in the Primorskiy region during the 1920s. You can find all about it in “The thematical list of documents on the history of relationships between church and state in the territory of Primorskiy region. 20s-90s. XX century” (State Archive of Primorskiy region, Vladivostok, 2003).
In these archival documents you can learn many things about the activities of evangelical churches and their trials during the twentieth century. One thing is obvious – Methodists in the Primorskiy region in the 1920s demonstrated courage, faithfulness and sacrificial hearts in their ministry. This is especially obvious in the life of pastor Yonghuk Kim.
I heard about him for the first time from the Rev. Cheho Yu, who serves in our United Methodist Church in Primorskiy region. He told me about these archival documents and the relatives of pastor Yonghuk Kim who live in Seoul. Looking through these archival documents I have found out that this story has a personal side for me.
At some point in the second part of the nineteenth century the relatives of Pastor Kim emigrated from Korea to Far East Russia so that they could feed their family (there was a famine in Korea at that time), and this was true of my ancestors as well. So, the members of the Methodist church in Vladivostok in the 1920s had roots from Korea. At that time Korea was occupied by Japan.
In March 1923, the membership of the Methodist church in Vladivostok was 37, as recorded in the documents. In January 1925, there were already 64 members.
From the end of 1920s to the early 1930s, the lives of Methodist people, as well as many other evangelical Christians, became more difficult. The authorities confiscated church buildings, prohibited people without Russian citizenship to gather for worship, etc. Many Koreans had to leave Russia. But for them, leaving Russia meant either returning to Korea under Japanese occupation or moving to China and beginning their life from scratch.
For those who stayed in Vladivostok and continued to express their faith it was a dangerous time. But many Methodist people demonstrated courage and faithfulness as they continued to gather for worship, to praise God in singing and to serve their neighbors. I am convinced that many of them learned courage and faithfulness from their pastor Yonghuk Kim. I learned more about this story in Seoul, Korea.
Vladivostok – Seoul
It takes only a couple of hours to fly 800 km from Vladivostok to Seoul. When you visit South Korea, you would hardly believe that in 1953 this country was destroyed by war. Today it is a prosperous country with many churches in every block of Seoul. You will be astonished by the level of service, the comfortable life there and, of course, by the hospitality of the Korean people. When asking different Korean people about the secret of their success and prosperity, I have found two major reasons. These are first, early morning prayer and second, education. They are an essential part of life for every Christian in Korea. I pray that we, in Russia and Eurasia, move forward in these directions, especially since education has always been our priority in the society.
In Seoul I met with the Rev. Yansup Choi who deeply studied the life of Yonghuk Kim and published a book about him and his ministry in the Primorskiy region. I hope this book will one day be translated into Russian. Here I want to share a significant part of Pastor Kim’s story.
When the Soviet authorities prohibited people and churches to express their faith, our Methodist church people in Vladivostok had to make a choice – either to leave the country or be arrested and sent to Gulag concentration camp. Some people moved back to Korea. But others in the congregation stayed. Pastor Yonghuk Kim had a family with little children. Many people told him, "Go back to Korea, do not put yourself and your family in danger." But he replied firmly, “As long as even one Methodist remains in Vladivostok, I will continue to serve here because they are my sheep and I am their shepherd.” He stayed and eventually his wife and children moved to Korea. Later he was arrested and put in Gulag camp where he died in the 1930s, a martyr of the faith and pastor in the Methodist church. His faithfulness, and his sacrificial and brave heart, will inspire many future generations of believers.
On my way home to Moscow I was reflecting about our time in which the Lord has called us to live in. I could not help but think about one quote which I found on one of the documents in the State Archive of the Primorskiy region. It was a letterhead in English which belonged to the Methodist Episcopal Church South (USA) which was actively involved in mission work in Siberia (at that time they included the Far East as well). At the bottom of this letterhead was a quote in red letters by Bishop Walter R. Lambuth:
“The greatest missionary opportunity of this generation”
The Holy Spirit constantly reminds me of these words and their important meaning for our generation. Since we do not experience persecution and we have freedom to express our faith, we truly have the greatest missionary opportunity. As we continue the traditions of our Methodist brothers and sisters, we transform the future and build the Kingdom of God with faithfulness and brave and sacrificial hearts, which were gifted to us by Yonghuk and other past leaders.
- С Т Кимбро мл., Сестра Анна, Объединенная Методистская Церковь Евразии, г.Москва, 2014 г.
- С Т Кимбро-мл. под ред., Методизм в России и странах Балтии: история и возрождение, Издательство Уральского университета, г.Екатеринбург, 2003 г.
- Journal of the Finland and Saint Petersburg mission conference, Methodist Press, Rome, 1908.