Living among those you serve

September 27, 2022 by Kevin Park

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?” Luke 15:4, 8

Jesus knew the lives of the people to whom he taught and ministered. He lived and walked among them. He told stories using everyday examples and imageries familiar to his hearers: lost sheep, lost coin, wedding banquet, sowing seeds, and so on.

This July, I had an opportunity to teach a two-week intensive course at the Central American Theological Seminary (SETECA) in Guatemala City. The course, “Theologies of the Cross,” examined various theological interpretations of the cross of Christ from Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, to contemporary theologians. I taught from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. with an interpreter for 10 days. After just the first day I didn’t know how I would teach another nine days of five-hour classes! But thanks to my excellent interpreter, we found a rhythm and good momentum.

The seminary is a gated community located in an unsafe part of the city and although faculty and students commuted freely to and from the seminary, I stayed in my guest apartment for most of the two weeks. I was comfortable and enjoying my developing relationship with my students.

Then something happened on the second to last day of class…

On that day I gave a lecture that emphasized that the cross and resurrection of Christ is the decisive demonstration of God’s incarnational, self-giving love and commitment for the suffering world. I also emphasized that the corollary to this central truth is that our Christian life also must demonstrate God’s self-giving love for those who are suffering.

After the class one of the students, Hector, a local pastor, invited me and my interpreter for a tour around the area where his ministry was located. Hector ministers to people who lives by the basurero, the Guatemala City dump. He ministers to people whose lives depend on processing mountains of garbage deposited by myriads of dump trucks daily. They live in shacks across the street from the basurero in cramped, labyrinthian neighborhoods.

People rummage and process whatever they can salvage from the dump: plastic, aluminum cans, bottles, glass, broken toys, furniture, electronic components, etc. Hector told us that individuals may earn about $1 a day picking and processing garbage. I was dumbfounded by the poverty and at the same time I was taken aback by the dignity and the warmth of the community. As soon as we entered the neighborhood, children recognized Hector and greeted him with delight, shouting, “Pastor, pastor!” Hector greeted them with joy and blessed them. Hector doesn’t have a church building. He holds worship services on Sunday afternoons in an open space in the basurero neighborhood and his church community provides lunch for hundreds of children during the week.  I was humbled and speechless throughout the tour. Here I was, a foreigner, teaching a course on theology of the cross to people like Hector. I learned from him that day what a ministry of the cross looks like.

Jesus did not parachute from heaven and teach some courses and fly back home. Jesus knew the lives of the people to whom he taught and ministered because he walked and lived among them, and he gave his life for the world.

Thanks to Hector, I am still pondering these questions: “How well do I know the lives of the people to whom I am ministering in my community? How is my church community walking and living among the larger community and demonstrating Christ’s self-giving love? Or am I perpetuating a comfortable, self-contained, fish-bowl like church community and ministry?”

Rev. Dr. Kevin Park serves as English Ministry Pastor of the Korean Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. He is interested in emerging Asian North American theologies and various expressions of theologies of the cross. His current research includes critiquing what he calls “Ornamental Multiculturalism,” and articulating a theology of divine beauty as a key theological resource for multicultural theology and ministry for the North American context. He holds a Ph.D. and Master of Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary and Master of Divinity from Knox College. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from University of Toronto