Korean Family on AirAsia Jet Found Their Calling as Christian Missionaries

Christians in the South Korean city of Yeosu on Sunday prayed for the Korean family on board the missing AirAsia jet. YONHAP/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Christians in the South Korean city of Yeosu on Sunday prayed for the Korean family on board the missing AirAsia jet. YONHAP/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

The young Korean family on board the AirAsia jetliner belonged to a group of active South Korean travelers: Christian missionaries.

YEOSU, South Korea—The young Korean family aboard the AirAsia jetliner that vanished on Sunday belonged to a group of active South Korean travelers: Christian missionaries.

Park Seong-beom, 37 years old, and his wife Lee Kyung-hwa had moved to Indonesia in September with their infant daughter to begin teaching Korean and computer skills in the town of Malang, on the eastern half of Java island.

Mr. Park was a missionary from his home church, Yeosu First Presbyterian Church, based in this fishing town of about 300,000 people at the southern coast of the Korean peninsula. Ms. Lee was a missionary sent by her church in Seoul.

Mr. Park and his wife were just two months into their new postings and still getting the lay of the land, said Kim Jong-heon, the pastor who oversees Yeosu First Presbyterian Church’s missions work, in an interview on Monday.

Ms. Lee, a native of Seoul, had already spent several years living in Indonesia as a missionary, Mr. Kim said, and she influenced the decision for the family to move there. Their daughter, Park Yuna, was born about nine months before the move.

The family was traveling to Singapore from the Indonesian city of Surabaya, where the plane had departed, to renew their visas, according to an official at Yeosu First Presbyterian Church. The church said that Mr. Park’s parents wanted privacy and were declining to speak to the media.

Mr. Park and his wife are part of a larger wave of Korean Christians who have fanned out across the continent and around the world. At the end of 2013, there were nearly 26,000 South Korean missionaries working in 169 countries around the world, according to the Korea World Missions Association, an interdenominational Protestant group based in Seoul.

Nearly 700 of those missionaries are based in Indonesia, according to the organization, making the country one of the biggest missions fields for South Korea’s Protestants, behind the country’s neighbors, China and Japan.

Korean Christians have in recent years been drawn to Indonesia, a country of about 250 million people that is 87% Muslim. While Indonesia recognizes Protestantism and Roman Catholicism and allows Christians to worship freely, it frowns on open evangelism, said Lee Jang-ho, a Presbyterian pastor in Seoul who served as a missionary in Malang between 1988 and 1996.

Malang was a particularly popular destination for Indonesia-bound missionaries from Korea, Mr. Lee said, pointing to a good system of international schools for the missionaries’ children and universities.

“When I heard the news [about the AirAsia flight], I was very sad,” said Mr. Lee, 54, who plans to return to Malang after he retires as pastor.

Yeosu First Presbyterian Church is a prime example of Korea’s missionary impulse. The church was founded in 1908 and occupies a prime hillside location in the center of Yeosu, just steps from a statue of one of the country’s most-important historical figures, Admiral Yi Sun-sin, who launched his naval expeditions against the Japanese in the 1500s from the port town.

The church supports missionaries to 18 countries, including Russia, Swaziland and most Southeast Asian nations.

Mr. Park was born into a Christian family and grew up in Yeosu. He moved to Cambodia at around the age of 30, teaching Korean and computer skills for two years at a university in Phnom Penh through the Korea International Cooperation Agency, a South Korean government program similar to the Peace Corps in the U.S.

After two years in Cambodia, Mr. Park returned to South Korea with a determination to go back to the Southeast Asian nation as a missionary, said Mr. Kim, the pastor at Yeosu First Presbyterian Church.

Mr. Park went to Cambodia as a non-ordained missionary—a relative rarity, since most of the missionaries sent by his church had been ordained. Mr. Park stayed for about five years before returning home for a sabbatical.

During his nearly two-year furlough, Mr. Park married Ms. Lee and the couple became parents.

Mr. Park’s fellow churchgoers on Monday described him as a very passionate and sincere believer. He was deeply involved in Sunday school during his middle- and high-school years, and he graduated with a degree in Chinese language studies from a nearby university, they said.

One longtime elder at the church, H.S. Kim, said he first met Mr. Park after his return from Cambodia. During a dedication ceremony before their departure, Mr. Kim recalled, Mr. Park stood with his wife and their baby before a congregation of about 350 worshipers.

Speaking before the assembled parishioners, Yeosu First Presbyterian Church’s senior pastor, Kim Sung-chun, prayed for the couple and announced that Mr. Park would change his focus from Cambodia to Indonesia.

They departed for Malang not long afterward.

Source:  This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal on December 29, 2014 and was written by Jonathan Cheng and Min-Jeong Lee