by Rev. Bill Bichsel, S.J.
Recently I visited Jeju Island of South Korea and had my deepest experience of a faith community in daily resistance to the forces of militarism. I had never heard of Jeju Island and that the U.S. was building a naval base there against the wishes of the people of the island especially the people of Gangyeong Village where the base is being constructed. Much less had I heard that priests and nuns along with villagers were in daily resistance and that the Bishop of Jeju was an inspiration and motivator of the resistance.
This information came about two years ago from Denis Apel of the Pacific Life Community and Bruce Gagnon of the Coalition Against Nuclear Power and Weapons who were in Seoul doing a documentary showing priests in albs and stowels and nuns, in habit, along with villagers blocking the gates to the construction site. This scene made me want to join in with them. Thoughts of going there kept penetrating my heart and head, but there was no ability to go at that time. Then a check came in the mail directing me to use the money for any work of peace that I felt a need for. The first thing I thought of was that this would cover the cost of a round trip ticket to Jeju. That was the sign.
Rev. Gilberto Perez, a Buddhist Monk of the Nippozan Myohoji Order was also moved by the documentary to support the people of Jeju. Together we took off for Jeju Island on September 23rd and landed in Tokyo on the first step of our journey and then left for Seoul.
We were met in Seoul be a young Jesuit scholastic and he drove us to the Jesuit residence for scholastics doing their philosophy studies. We were warmly received by them and the priests. I learned how to leave my shoes outside and at times I would forget, but got a gentle reminder.
“The priests and scholastics mixed so well that there were no hierarchical strains. They wanted to know all about us and were particularly interested in Gilberto’s Buddhism and how he lived out.
The next morning our scholastic driver drove us to the airport to take off for Jeju Island. It was a short land trip and 60 miles over the south sea. Once landed we were met by Fr. Huh, from the chancery office and Fr. Kim Seong-hwan, S.J. our host at Jeju. Fr. Huh came as a representative and greeter from the Bishop who let us know that the he wanted us to visit him during our visit. They took us to lunch, though I was still full from breakfast. After lunch, Fr. Kim drove us to the guest house where we would be staying and gave us an idea of what the next day would be like. He explained that the guest house was rented by the Korean Jesuit Province for visitors coming to work with the resistors. Across the street was a much larger guest house and a hostel that housed visitors coming to learn about or join the resistance. This facility was rented by the Diocese of Jeju. The facility had rooms with computers and an office of the Mayor of Gangyeong Village.
After we were settled Fr. Kim took us to his small house where he lives with three other Jesuits. All of them have their apostolate to care and support the villagers and the resistance. Brother Park, S.J. was serving a 10 month sentence in prison for entering the naval yard being constructed along with Dr. Song Kang to assess the environmental damage. Jesuit Fr. Lee was arrested four times and was presently on trial. Fr. Kim, whose Christian surname is Jos was the first Jesuit to be arrested and had served time in prison. During our time there he was daily blocking the gates to the construction site. Fr. Kim Seohg-hwan introduced us to Fr. Mun a 78 year old diocesan priest. He is considered the father of the resistance on Jeju and has for 40 years has been standing against militarism. He is an inspiration to all and close friend to the Jesuits who follow his lead.
After settling in we got a plan and schedule from Fr. Kim. The next morning we headed down to the construction site with a young lady from Berkely named Iffka, who helped us greatly. She hopes to initiate a boycott of Samsung when she returns, because it is the prime contractor for the naval base. The walk to the base, at my speed, took twenty minutes. Our day started at 7 am at the gate to the base. A ceremony of 100 deep bows led by a Gangyeong village woman, Jean darc, began the day. She has been doing this for 1 1/2 years. The bows are accompanied by music and prayer intersessions at each bow. All the participants went to their knees from the deep bows, but I did mine from a chair. It was a very centering and reflective type of prayer. After this there was an option for breakfast in a community kitchen about a quarter of a mile away. It was open to anyone of need, which was another sign of a faith-filled community. A small path leading to it was bordered by green-houses and intermittent views of the construction site.
After the bow ceremony Gilberto and I often opted to remain with the resistance group at the main gate. Immediately across the street was the main tent where daily mass was celebrated. It began at 11:00 am with the nuns, priests and villagers sitting in chairs blockading thegates of the construction site. The Eucharist would be broadcasted while the police assembled to remove the resisters. They would lift them, in their chairs, to the side of the road. After the cement trucks and the other big rigs were let into the site and the empty trucks out the resisters would return and take up their blocking positions again. This event took place many times a day. The communal rciting of the rosary followed the Mass. Sometimes in the afternoon after many removals the words and music and singing began accompanied by a lively Korean dance. It keeps alive the joy and hope of the resistance.
After the activities the two Fr. Kims would take us to different restaurants to experiment with different foods from Kin chi and seaweed to shredded jelly fish with cucumbers. I grew to like their food, but failed in mastering the chop sticks.
I was surprised by the size of the island and its population. There are 500,000 people on that island. Jeju City is the large metropolitan area and Gangyeong village, where the naval base is being built, is about a 45 minute drive from there. The island is tropical, pristine and similar to our Niagara Falls for Korean newly-weds and a top tourist attraction for Koreans.
Agriculture is the main source of income and employment in Jeju. I was amazed at the immensity of the agricultural production. It’s done in greenhouses and they cover the island producing fruit, vegetables, tangerines and a host of other foods.
All of the islanders are not united in visible opposition to the navy base. There are those profiting from the construction and those who tend to go along with the government and then the silent group. There are definitely tensions and at time the people from Gangjeong are often criticized by fellow villagers. However there is a curious statistic in the mix that might speak more tellingly about the opposition to the base. It comes from the aftermath of a typhoon that hit Jeju last year. It carried away a good portion of the construction work at the base and found a lot of people rejoicing in that fact. While I was there there was a report of an on-coming typhoon in early October and from what I heard, 90% of the island, including the farmers, who would be the most affected, were praying that it would hit the naval base again. I heard, after I left, that it did hi the island, but didn’t affect the base at all.
My trip to Jeju Island was the deepest experience I’ve ever had of a faith community. They worked together in resisting American militarism. It’s not just a David facing Goliath story; it’s the story of a committed village and supporters who feel small and insignificant against a gigantic tidal wave of American militarism. Yet they continue their resistance and the heart of the resistance is the Eucharist, which Bishop Peter Chasng has encouraged. He is a servant leader who believes and follows Jesus who walks in the market places and the roadways where the poor and the outcasts live. His daily calling to peace and non-violent action to these forces that deprive humanity of life and livelihood has been the foundation of this on-going resistance. He and Fr. Mun, the 77 year old revered diocesan priest along with the nuns, priests and villagers have brought about this Eucharistic resistance. I’ve been very touched by this fountain of strength and faithful resistance and do believe that this strength to stop this base is here. Not only that, but here is the well from which spiritual strength might come to roll back American Militarism in the Pacific.
Never have I been more proud of the Jesuits or affiliated with a Province that is so involved in the works of Social Justice. Not only have Jesuits been assigned full time to this apostolate, but the entire Province is behind it.
As a result of my visit to Jeju, I hope to support the on-going resistance by getting the word out and hope to follow through becoming a full-time sign of resistance through the Eucharist. I feel that the works of war and the constant actions of U.S. interventions are continuous and without interruption, where as our collective actions for peace and abolishing war are spasmodic, and infrequent.
It seems to me that the power of the resurrection is here in Jeju that can generate full time peace keepers and resisters. Step out in faith and visit Jeju!