Korea's Missionaries Charge Ahead

Part 2 of 2 See also: Korea's Filipino Missionary Mania

Korea’s aggressive Christian missionaries, sowing almost as much irritation as they do the word of God, have been spreading across the Filipino island of Mindoro with more zeal than sensitivity, their critics say.

"One must understand that there is no single authority when it comes to the Korean missionaries,” says Thai economist Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

“Many churches compete with each other so to win public support," he said in an email interview.

"For the Korean missionaries, the only way to win hearts and minds in this traditionally Catholic society is [to] combine the issue of religious faith and the standard of living... [I]nstead of promoting the value of their religion, the Korean missionaries use money to buy the devotion of the people. It is a corrupt practice to me because in buying the people's faith, this can change the whole landscape of the local culture, belief and customs, which could be detrimental to the country as a whole," he added.

The spread of Christianity a la Korea has dismayed many in Southeast Asia, Chachavalpongpun continued. "In the Philippines where the majority of the population commits to Catholicism, Korean missionaries try hard to break through the protective wall and attract the locals to their Protestant denominations, an endeavor viewed by local religious leaders with suspicion."

Others are even more forceful in their denunciations. One of Korea's most experienced NGO experts, with nearly 40 years experience but who didn't want his name used, said he is "angry and fed up" at the way Korean missionaries conduct themselves in Southeast Asia, accusing them of being in competition with each other, especially over building churches and buying land.

The NGO worker said he had come across similar complaints in other parts of Asia directed at Koreans in the corporate world, especially from people working in factories managed by Koreans. He said people in grassroots communities are suffering and that there should be a debate about the way Koreans conduct themselves in other cultures that might be vulnerable and poor.

Critics say the problem lies in ignorance and a lack of cultural sensitivity.

According to the Korea Research Institute for Missions, a Seoul-based organization that studies Korean missionary activity around the world, there are 700 missionaries in the Philippines alone.

Yet very few have the kind of training needed for working in intercultural situations overseas. In fact, any Korean citizen who wants to be a missionary doesn't need any training at all. There are cases of Korean missionaries working with some degree of success, or so it would seem, with the eight tribes that make up Mindoro’s indigenous Mangyan.

But there are persistent rumors that some missionaries are actually businessmen in disguise. The key, Mangyan spiritual and secular leaders say, is to listen to what people want rather than impose a system from outside.

Steve Moon, the institute's executive director, said more than 160 missionary agencies in Korea regularly dispatch missionaries overseas, but there is no central regulatory or quality assurance body. Each has its own methods of selection, training and certification, which might range from the very good to the woefully poor. The upshot is that some missionaries head into potentially dangerous regions filled with zeal to spread the Gospels and the teachings of Jesus Christ but can be met with opposition and resentment.

The most notorious case involved the 23 evangelical Christians from Sammeul Community Church in southern Seoul who were kidnapped by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. Rumors persist that the Korean government paid a huge ransom to win their release.

"Filled with zeal, the missionaries' passion to win converts and to spread the gospel can be overwhelming. [Korean missionaries] sometimes smash idols of other religions due to their ignorance and cultural insensitivity," said Moon, whose job involves visiting missionaries in the field overseas and researching the kinds of challenges they face, information that can be used to help train new recruits and improve methods.

This lack of training was witnessed first-hand by Andrew Kim, a long-term missionary based in Baguio, northern Philippines. Currently on sabbatical in Canada, he agreed that most Korean mission agencies do not offer or require field adjustment training, which can cause the kind of cultural insensitivity that the Mangyan people complain of.

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Culture clash

A recent interview with Park Un-suh, a former Korean government minister and former CEO of LG Dacom, who is now in the Philippines on a missionary visa, encapsulates much of the misunderstanding and communication breakdown between Koreans in the Philippines and indigenous people. Park has no missionary training, according to a spokeswoman for the Korean missionary group Moriah Mission for Self-Support, a group that Park chairs, yet he is in the Philippines on a missionary visa, a situation that some Mangyan people are not comfortable with.

Not only that, even though Park said he was on a mission from God to help the Mangyan, a story that has been covered in the Korean language media, he doesn't appear to have much knowledge of their culture.

Asked for his reaction to Mangyan claims that when Korean missionaries try to buy land that lies in their ancestral domain, they are potentially disrupting local traditions and culture, Park said, "They have no culture. I've never seen their culture. What do they have?" He said the only evidence he had witnessed of Mangyan culture was "dancing."

The interview took place in Park's luxurious 2,556-square-foot villa, easily the biggest house in the area, set in 17 hectares of prime arable land. In the gated driveway sat a pristine sport utility vehicle and in the yard was a large satellite dish.

"This is God's property," Park said. "God assigned me. I'm just the manager."

But as Park described his plans to buy 720 hectares of land inside the ancestral domain of the Hanunuo-Mangyan people and build a new community, with churches, a hospital and schools, all for the Mangyan people, it was obvious that Park was unhappy working with the Mangyans. Not only did they have no culture, he said, but they were also lazy, always hungry and had no skills.

There is no reason to suppose that Moriah Mission doesn't have the best of intentions and genuinely wishes to help the Mangyan people, who are generally poor and lacking the resources for education and development, but the lack of connection is poisoning relations between this particular group and Mangyan activists.

"I feel very lonely and upset," said Ponyong Kadlos, 40, a Hanunuo Mangyan who was present at the interview with Park. Kadlos has been the coordinator of the Kapulungan Para sa Lupaing Ninuno (KPLN), which translates as the Federation of the Mangyan Peoples Organizations in Oriental Mindoro, for the past five years. He is also a politician, a poet like his parents, and gave a recent workshop in Seoul on a pre-Spanish writing system used by the Hanunuo tribe and taught in several Mangyan schools in the municipalities of Mansalay and Bulalacao.

In response to Park's comments about Mangyan heritage, Kadlos said Korean missionaries should take time to study Mangyan culture and integrate with the people if they wanted to really have an impact on the spiritual life of the people on Mindoro.

Misunderstandings and phony missionaries

Much of the distrust brewing between the Korean missionaries and the indigenous peoples can be attributed to failure to understand each other's needs and intentions. Joshua Kim of the All for Christ Theological Seminary in central Mindoro, said his organization would never offer free rice to win over converts, as some Mangyans have complained, but it is clear where that misunderstanding originates.

"If a missionary conducts a worship service in the church, of course, the missionary prepares some food exclusively for the service attendees, not [for the] whole community," said Kim, who has worked in the Philippines as a missionary for nearly 20 years and whose seminary has produced many graduates.

He also refuted the claim that missionaries subverted local traditions and justified church building in remote corners of the island.

"We respect indigenous people who live in remote parts of the forest and mountains. We believe that they are also precious children of God. For that reason, missionaries are bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to even remote parts of the mountains," he said.

However, he acknowledged that Korean churches were abandoned by missionaries and pastors when funds ran out.

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But even Kim acknowledges that some Koreans are probably abusing the system by posing as missionaries, which blackens the name of each missionary organization in the Philippines. He said that in the past it was relatively easy to get a missionary visa and the tax exemptions made it an attractive proposition. However, Kim said the Bureau of Immigration in the Philippines has tightened the visa requirements and specifically asks for missionary "credentials," though this does not translate into proving qualifications and training, since Park Un-suh has no missionary training, according to Moriah Mission's office in Seoul.

But Julius Inocencio, 25, who studied at ACTS and is now the pastor at the ACTS church in Batangan in central Mindoro, is adamant that businessmen from Korea pose as missionaries.

"If you want to come to the Philippines and do business it is difficult, but if you say you are a missionary, it's easy. Some guys come in as missionaries but their aim is to do business," he said on the steps of his church [in November].

Fluent in the [local] Mangyan dialect, having grown up among the Buhid Mangyans, Inocencio commands the respect of the Batangan villagers and the ACTS church there is a mainstay of the community. But he remains disillusioned with other Korean groups, fed up with hearing tales of missionaries who drink and gamble. If he thought his organization ACTS was in any way corrupt or if he thought his church was upsetting the local community, he said he would quit.

These are not empty words since if his congregation turned on him, the church would not be able to sustain itself. A portion of his salary depends on donations from the Buhid Mangyans who live in the community.

Number crunching

Perhaps the last word should go to Ernst Diggelmann, 56, a missionary who has spent half his life in Mindoro. He has a very negative view of the Korean missionaries and feels that their activities undermine the work of his organization, the interdenominational Overseas Missionary Fellowship.

"The Koreans are very results-oriented and very competitive," he said, whereas his group is far more hands off. "We don't say their beliefs are wrong. Our purpose is to empower [the Mangyans]." His group doesn't build churches or try to convert people. "We only teach the Bible."

A glance through the literature published by ACTS about their missionary aims backs Diggelmann's observation.

The ACTS mission statement is to train up to 10,000 pastors, recruit 100,000 "cell leaders" and establish headquarters in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. It's aiming for 100 Bible schools and 100,000 churches for "millions" of members, and wants to send out 10,000 pastors and "235 faithful and fearless missionaries for the whole world for winning souls for Christ."

No doubt these kinds of objectives compel government officials like Reynante Luna, the provincial officer of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) for Oriental Mindoro, one of two provinces on the island, to say Moriah Mission's activities were "highly questionable" and that he had come across numerous examples of Koreans buying land in the ancestral domain of indigenous people on Mindoro. He called on the missionaries to observe the laws of the land in the Philippines, and says he is worried about Korean missionary activity.

The NCIP is the primary government agency for the protection of the rights and well-being indigenous peoples.

"Many of the Korean missionaries are not adhering to the law and not coordinating with agencies like the NCIP. Most of all, they are not talking to the indigenous people on Mindoro," he said.

See also: Korea's Filipino Missionary Mania