Born in Korea to parents who practiced Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism, United Methodist Bishop Hee-Soo Jung met a missionary when he was sixteen. The missionary, who was working in a nearby field preparing the land to build a church, told Jung that God loved him. Before the floors were finished in the new church building, Jung was baptized and a lifelong pursuit of building bridges between his faith and his family, between the gospel and culture, between people across faith traditions, had begun.
In this conversation, we talk about those early days as a Christian, what he has learned about building relationships with people of other faith groups, and how he "relaxes" by hiking in the mountains. Join us for this wonderfully powerful conversation as we meet Bishop Hee-Soo Jung of the Wisconsin Episcopal Area.
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung
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This episode posted on October 5, 2018.
Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
On this “Meet a Bishop” episode, we’re chatting with Bishop Hee-Soo Jung who serves the United Methodist churches in Wisconsin. Raised in home where his parents practiced Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism, Bishop Jung became a Christian when he volunteered to help a missionary who was preparing the ground before starting to build a church. This started Bishop Jung on a lifelong pursuit of bridging the gap between the gospel and culture.
In this wonderfully powerful conversation, he shares some tips that will help us relate better to people of other faiths, the importance of his prayer life, and how he and his wife enjoy hiking and climbing mountains.
Let’s meet Bishop Hee-Soo Jung.
Joe: Bishop Jung, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung: Thank you. It is my honor.
Joe: It’s a privilege to have you with us today.
I understand that you did not grow up in a Christian home, but became a Christian at about the age of 16. Can you tell me that story?
Bishop Jung: Yes. That’s correct. I lived in South Korea and my family didn’t practice it, and very active in Neo-Confucianism. And my mother and grandmother, they are practicing Buddhism. So I think how it co-existed with the more male-dominant liturgical culture with the Confucianism. And also mother’s side was always devotional to the Buddhist culture. That was our family. And then I was touched by the Spirit. So I start to be church-goer since 16 years old.
Joe: How did you come to begin going to church?
Bishop Jung: That’s a very interesting story. When I begin to wrestle with my self-identity, and there is some wrestling issue in my life at that time.
My father, when he was young, he got in an accident that paralyzed one leg and one hand, he couldn’t use. Also he had seizures and in later years, when I really had been grown up, he also had a stroke. So it was struggling situation at home. So there was a severe challenge for me as a young boy. How I’m going to deal with it. How I’m going to see my future through it. And it was quite a bit of a challenge in my life.
And yes… One day during that wrestling time, I found out that next to our home, right on the hillside of the rocky hill there is a one local preacher, a local pastor who just probably committed to new start and continually begging, whisking land from the villagers. My grandfather permitted it, even though different religion. And he started digging the ground to build the church.
I saw one late evening that he is working alone. So I stepped to him, Reverend Kim, he was. And I say, “Can I help you?” So I walked into that special moment. And he was pleased that this young boy came and offered to help. So he and I worked to clean up—carrying rocks and clean up for the land of the church.
Then he hold my hand one moment. “God loves you. God loves you, Mr. Jung.” I never heard anybody call me ‘Mr. Jung,’ but it was a very honorific way for an older person to this young one, I am. So, yes, the Holy Spirit was deeply moved into. And I was caught up by the Spirit that moment. And I decided to explore and get involved, and I become a Christian.
So when church was built, ground like a floor is not done yet. But in the cold winter day I was baptized. That’s my story.
Joe: That must have been a difficult decision when your family was involved in another religion. Did that affect your family?
Bishop Jung: It is. And I started to see me as the right one and then all others are wrong. And I was very aggressive to approaching the Jesus gospel, and continue to convey to my family. Of course my grandparents and parents and brothers and sisters all saw me as a very naiveté and also, bringing trouble to the family. So yes, it was hard, and I was almost separated out and then nurtured by the Christian friends and family there.
That became actually another that my journey. When I tried to reconcile with my family as a little bit matured Christian, I started embracing my family tradition from the other side and trying to reconcile with them, especially grandfather who was Confucian scholar.
When I went into college and graduate school, I had a chance to reconcile with him. And he accepted me as a Christian. Then he say, “Well, proudly I recognize who you are and what you are doing. But even though I’m not in that religion, I want you to personally live as authentic as you are. And that was a formation moment because at that time I decided to go to study more theology, but also our own traditional religion. So bridging between gospel and culture, bridging my Christian faith into the Buddhist, Confucian background. And so I felt there is grace that I can be culturally Korean, but also claim my faith as a baptized Christian together. That’s took probably about 10 years.
But as a 16-year-old very young, hot conversion then engaging with the family background, back and forth. Later I decided to reconcile with my family, and that really been accepted by my siblings and family that if you are coming with that attitude, that humility you demonstrate, then we don’t have trouble from your faith. So the interfaith journey as a Christian, but also as theologian and as a later religious philosophy that I studied, a professor in that. And that whole journey was intermixed with this…my family faith and my faith. So that is a still my faith talk.
Joe: Okay. You mentioned in there religious philosophy and theology, and you have degrees in those things. Correct?
Bishop Jung: You’re right. I finished the PhD program from University of Wisconsin-Madison. My PhD was Buddhist studies, and minor was Islamic Sufism. So, as a pastor—as a pastor leader—I felt I needed to continue working constructively in engagement between these two traditions, multi-tradition, and how I can bring the church authentic relations with others. That was my topic.
Joe: This is probably too big of a question for this conversation. But can you briefly say what are some things that we might need to know to be better at relationships with those of other faiths?
Bishop Jung: Good question, Joe. In my case, when I engage with other faiths in dialog and conversation and engagement, through that I start to see who am I more clearly. It’s like, ‘Hmm, that’s right; that’s my formation; that’s my faith; that’s my metrics of a faith journey.’
So that engagement, dialog and conversation and relationship with other faiths really gives quite a bit of benefit for my own strengthening. And yes, I think a mirror in some ways with that relationship, that I can pursue my God and my gospel, my faith with them in a different way.
And listening better. That was my own way of sharing to others. I feel that I became a better listener since I engaged with other faiths. And also I start to respect life-honoring, life-respecting culture of Buddhist, Confucian and other religious cultures. And I continue looking at my own anthropocentric mind to more theocentric, more God-centered mind set. Like, faith to become more natural to the cosmic creation.
Joe: Wow. Humility helped you to reconcile with your grandfather and with your siblings. How has that helped you in relationships as a bishop, as a pastor, as a Christian?
Bishop Jung: Well, I think that when more and more Jesus in me has been seen as self-emptying, self-sacrificing in a moment to moment throughout the gospel teaching Jesus. Be there with the people not only teaching to them, but mutual engagement. So that Jesus being in that horizontal encounter with other humans, I see that as a humility—incarnated, embodying the truth through his life and ministry, that he has shown the difference yet in a relevant way into their life, their time.
So being a bishop of the church there is a variety of gifts, gifted in ministry, gifted in community, that stood. And there are lots of different people, background, race, all different orientations, and how do you genuinely engage with those people out there? They are gifted. They are gracious. They are great. But how can I embrace? How can I take that into more serious encountering as a leader of the church? I think that is humility that is not just my opinion, but how we see together. Or my dogmatic position. But how we see together, so that new possibilities can continue looking at it together as a sojourner.
Joe: I want to return to your story. When did you first feel called to ordained ministry?
Bishop Jung: In my time in Korea is under military dictatorship. So it is severe social oppression, injustice everywhere. So when I became a leader among the students and the groups, I was already involved with social justice and really active matter in the society. I was a student movement leader.
Then I started engaging with the urban ministry in Seoul with the young factory workers. Night school…. I was in the beginning a school teacher, but also later I become a director of that urban ministry site in the textile industry area.
At that time the calling came to me very clearly that I need to devote myself to really work for holistic salvation, the personal piety, but also the social change, social transformation because evident there is such oppression, such disgrace for all different laborers and marginal people in the society. At that time I become more clear that God called me to ordained ministry.
I think I’ve been engaged with it gradually to societal change and more holistic kingdom agenda I see.
Until I migrate to the United States, I was deeply involved in that until 1982. In 1982 I came to Dallas, Texas because I met my wife who—we were at that time students, college students, in that area.
Joe: That was my next question: How did you come to the United States? But that’s a good reason.
Bishop Jung: Yeah. People ask me, Why you came? And I say, “Well, because of my love.” It is a romantic way. But that was… Because when you got involved in social justice, urban ministry, that ministry to the poor and all, you have a deep, shared commitment there.
I’d been also seeking for what is a better way that I can think of myself. Then I met my wife. So, naturally I moved to United States. So in 1982 I came, and then I started… a new church starter in Dallas, Texas area, as a church starter, and immigrant church that I started and I served as a pastor until ’85.
Then, I felt I needed to keep doing my studies, because I finished my graduate study in Korea. And it was again gospel and culture and interfaith. How can I be engaging constructively with the multi-faith?
So I went to Berkeley, California for my graduate study again. So I finished my study, the Institute of Buddhist studies there. Then my advisor moved to Madison, Wisconsin to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. So I followed him. Then I stop. I have been really nurture by this Wisconsin United Methodist community since then.
Joe: Did I read that your wife is a pastor?
Bishop Jung: Yes. She’s…later went into the seminary to be ordained, and served about 15 years of the local church in Wisconsin. Now she’s serving as an International Director of the Upper Room Ministry in Nashville, as deployed staff. She’s engaging there happily there with the many countries that have been enhanced by Upper Room devotion and the Spiritual Formation Academy, Walk to Emmaus, and in all other programs she’s engaging with. Recently she’s working very hard with the China and Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, many former Communist lands. She also engages the Russia-Eurasia area with the Bishop Khegay and we are engaging global mission as a partner.
So she and I are jumping all over the place. When I was a UMCOR President and now I am serving a President for Global Ministry. So my capacity and her engagement and kind of mutually helping each other on focus and sharpening for Christians. Yes. That’s our life. We are blessed.
Joe: As a couple you’re very busy, and individually you’re busy. When you get a chance to relax, what do you like to do?
Bishop Jung: Oh, I think relax… That’s a good question because we are mountain climbers and we are really a pilgrim trekkers. So we love trekking for mountain Himalaya, Annapruna. And we’ve been…my wife and I journeyed to Santiago de Compostela, about a 40 day’s walk in Spain. And so we just finished a mountain in South Korea when I was there for World Methodist Council meeting, 4 night, 5 days trekking to the mountain climbing in one of the highest mountain in South Korea.
So, yes, I think relaxing, but also we will continue walking, pilgrim journeying to the more aggressive way to enjoy nature because we love naturer. That’s our commitment. We have a couple more to go.
Joe: Any place special that you’re going?
Bishop Jung: Yes. Actually in my vacation time my wife and I will go to Everest Mountain in Himalaya, trekking. It’s about 2 weeks. We’re gonna climb that mountain area.
Joe: Oh, my goodness.
Bishop Jung: So, that’s our really joyful aspiration. Relaxation is a…. You’re right, I think a more own regular, I think, we’ve been focused on this preacher formation and prayer life and more relaxation with reading and all.
Joe: One last question that you may have already answered. But let me ask anyway, more specifically. How do you keep your spirit in shape?
Bishop Jung: You know, God is in it. God is everywhere, but God in our life when we sit and meditate and sit and contemplate in our life. So the regular prayer life is even done morning prayer, and every morning prayer worship our own way. It’s a very Korean spirituality, but it’s very strong one I enjoy to be part of it. Then last about 10-20 years I’ve been exercising morning lectio divina with the Scripture reading. But my Scripture is a Bible and also some Sanskrit text like Upanishad and all different world canon in Sanskrit version that I keep reading between the two texts, and pray. And that was my daily practice. But I felt that more and more my faith and discipline has come through Jesus-centered, Spirit-centered. And that’s the life that I am enjoying it.
I think regularity is important and how you…even 5 minute, 10 minute or even half-hour or hour, how you regularly focus in on…
We’re also seriously taking regular fasting, too. That’s the way that we set aside our own so the really…the divine metric, divine grace is in our living. I think that’s the most influencing, more impacting in our soul journey. So prayer life, devotional, but also regular fasting.
Then engaging as best as you can know the whole world. Yeah, I think we’ve been blessed in this preacher journey, walking, praying, continually journeying together.
Joe: Well, Bishop Jung, I have so enjoyed meeting you in this way. Thank you very much.
That was Bishop Hee-Soo Jung of the Wisconsin Annual Conference. To learn more about the bishop, the church in Wisconsin, and to read his blog that includes a recent entry about hiking in the Himilayas, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode that we’ve titled Meet Bishop Hee-Soo Jung.
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Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies.
I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.