At first glance, the scene seems all too familiar. On the fringe of a gay pride festival, a local church has set up shop. A pastor preaches about homosexuality while his followers hand out Bible passages to passersby.
But look closer. The church is not protesting. The pastor is preaching a sermon of affirmation and acceptance. He is openly gay.
Much like in America, conservative Christianity dominates South Korea’s culture and politics, and there is no shortage of fundamentalist believers who call gay culture an abomination. But as the gay-rights movement has gained traction here in recent years, some liberal Christian congregations have started welcoming members of all sexual orientations, allowing gay Christians — that unlikely but real constituency — to work from within to make their faith more tolerant. One of these churches is the Open Doors Community Church, an activist Christian congregation in Seoul whose members are mostly gay.
At a gay pride festival in Seoul’s Hanbit Media Park earlier in the year, the church mans its own booth. Nearby, a cover band on stage launches into a power chord-driven rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” Posters encouraging condom use depict shirtless men in amorous embraces. An AIDS prevention worker circulates the park, passing out business cards and encouraging people to come in for testing.
Members of the Open Doors congregation, both Korean and foreign, are working the crowd, too. Dressed in bright yellow shirts advertising the church, they pass out quizzes, offering donuts to those with the correct answers. The quizzes ask about Bible verses frequently used to decry homosexuality. For example, Genesis 19, in which the men of the city of Sodom make threats of homosexual rape — “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them” — and are later destroyed by God for their evil. Leviticus 20, which says that “if a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman,” what they have done is “detestable,” and they should be put to death. Romans 1, which deplores the “shameful lusts” of men who “committed indecent acts with other men.” According to Open Doors, these passages in the Bible — when properly translated and understood in context — do not condemn consensual, loving relationships between those of the same sex, even if modern-day Christian conservatives have twisted their meanings to promote an anti-gay agenda.
Handing out his donuts and quizzes to the festival’s multitudes is a man wearing a black shirt and white collar over a pair of jeans. This is the pastor of Open Doors, thirty-two-year-old American expatriate Daniel Payne. Six feet, five inches tall, with rimmed glasses and a perpetual scruff on his face, Payne stands out among the crowd. As the band plays in the background, Payne chats with visitors about the church’s mission, occasionally giving his partner, Lee Jun-young, an affectionate tap on the arm with a handheld fan when he needs his help.
The crosscultural couple, who met through an online Korean dating site for gay Christians, work as a team. On Sunday nights, Payne gives his sermons in English, and Lee operates the audiovisual equipment and guides the Korean-speaking attendees during the small-group discussions. Open Doors has an unconventional service, and not just because it accepts the LGBT community. For one thing, its members congregate in a bar located in Itaewon, a Seoul district popular among expatriates. Open Doors, it might be said, meets people where they are, not where stereotypical Christians are supposed to be. It offers gay Christians a room of their own, Payne says — “a place for them to be who … God created them to be.”
Payne has traveled a long way to preach from his barroom pulpit. Growing up in Pensacola, Florida, Payne attended high school at a Christian academy. He later married, graduated from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and traveled to China as a missionary with his wife. All the while he was fighting his attraction to men, something his wife understood at the time, Payne says. “We thought marriage was the answer to help me change.”
Whatever else they accomplished as missionaries, they could not change Payne’s orientation, and eventually divorced. After his marriage ended, Payne came out to his family, who still live in the South, a region that he notes is not unlike Korea in its conservative attitudes toward homosexuality. They did not understand, and years later they remain opposed to his decision to live openly as a gay man. “We’re still in contact but don’t talk about religion or politics,” Payne says.
While he embraced his new identity as a gay man, Payne found that part of himself difficult to reconcile with his faith. Payne drifted away from Christianity. He gave up his missionary work, but decided to stay in East Asia. In 2003, he moved to South Korea, following many other Westerners, young and old, who, unsure of their next career move, come here to explore the world. He spent four years teaching English in a public elementary school. For a time, Payne says, he was an atheist.
Christianity was what he knew, however, and in South Korea — a country profoundly shaped by Christian missionaries, who in the late nineteenth century founded Yonsei University, one of its three largest universities, and Severance Hospital, one of its top two medical facilities — Payne had a religious reawakening. He started to pray again. He studied the culture and languages of the Bible, and eventually concluded, he says, that the original texts actually “say nothing about modern homosexuality.”
Returning to God again after so many years adrift, Payne was reminded of the biblical story of the prodigal son, who demands his inheritance from his father prematurely and wastes it through extravagant living in a distant land, eventually becoming a lowly swineherd when the money dries up. Returning home, the son is astonished when his father welcomes him warmly, with love and acceptance.
“I realized that God had never left me,” Payne says. “I needed to be in the [pig] pen awhile.” When he had preached before, he had expressed hate in God’s name — the worst kind of sacrilege. “God is happier when you’re an atheist than a fundamentalist Christian.”
Payne left Korea and studied at a Canadian seminary. A preacher again, he returned to Korea in 2011, this time on a mission: to start a church that would welcome Korea’s LGBT community warmly, with love and acceptance.
A year later, his church has a flock of about forty. Open Doors is what is known as an “affirming church” — a church that affirms the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals in its congregation and ministry. Almost 90 percent of the church’s members are gay. About 75 percent are expatriates from America and elsewhere. An activist church, Open Doors does organizing on behalf of various causes relating to social justice, from collecting donations for North Korean human rights organizations to challenging anti-gay messages in Christianity and the broader culture. Its services are in English, though some people in the congregation don’t speak English particularly well, which is why Lee helps facilitate in Korean.
Lee, twenty-five, is thin and about a head shorter than his partner. He speaks English fluently, and has been a Christian almost all of his life. When he was three, his parents left Korea to continue their studies in America. Once there, they converted and began bringing Lee to church. Lee was eight years old by the time his family returned to Korea, and by then he had been instilled with a devout faith, he says.
But when he reached his teens, Lee realized he was gay. Eventually he told his parents. Like Payne’s family, they refused to endorse his lifestyle. While much remains unsaid, Lee suspects they still disapprove — just not enough to cut off contact with him. “We really don’t talk much about that,” he says. “I hope that they could be at peace [with my sexual orientation]. I guess they’re not appreciative of that.”
As difficult as it has been to live as a gay Christian in Korea, Lee has not turned from his faith. He points out that he has been a Christian since the age of three. “I consider religion a big part of my life.” But his identity as a gay man is equally important, he adds. “I can’t lose either side.” The problem is that too many of his fellow Koreans and fellow Christians believe that being a “gay Christian” is an oxymoron — that his sexual identity is not just inessential, but deeply sinful.
Though South Korea has a reputation for being a religious country, in a 2007 census nearly half the population declared they had no religious beliefs. Protestants were 18 percent of the population and Catholics 11 percent — compared to 23 percent who identified as Buddhists. Meanwhile, in the United States, even with a recent rise in the number of people who claim no religious affiliation, nearly three-quarters of Americans still identify as Christian.
What they lack in numbers, Korean Christians make up for in zeal. South Korea sends out more Christian missionaries than any other country except the United States. Neon red crosses dot the Seoul skyline. The country’s congregations wield considerable influence over policy, too. Earlier this year, a committed group of Christian protesters succeeded in convincing major publishers of science textbooks to delete references to evolution.
Christianity in Korea is also big business. Before his death last September, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church and a self-described messiah, created a multi-billion-dollar global empire with millions of followers (its numerous U.S. business interests include the Washington Times newspaper). The nearly one million-member Yoido Full Gospel Church, located in the capital’s financial district, claims to be the largest megachurch in the world, and its leader, the Reverend David Yonggi Cho, regularly weighs in on political matters.
In Korea, even foreign artists find themselves targets of conservative Christian ire. Last April, Lady Gaga launched the “Born This Way Ball,” her third world tour, in the South Korean capital. The arrival of the American pop star, who wrote “Born This Way” as an empowerment anthem for gays and others, drew protests in the city. The Korean Association of Church Communication vowed “concerted action to stop young people from being infected with homosexuality and pornography.” Another Christian group, the Alliance for Sound Culture in Sexuality, accused the singer of “spreading unhealthy sexual culture.” The Korea Media Rating Board barred those younger than eighteen from attending the concert.
After years of living in Korea, the constant drumbeat of anti-gay rhetoric no longer bothers Payne. “I’m used to fundamentalist Korean Christianity,” he says. “It doesn’t shock me.” (Ironically, a church like Open Doors that promotes tolerance is itself a target of discrimination: the group was kicked out of its previous building because the owner did not care for the church’s inclusive approach, Payne says.) Nevertheless, he is hopeful. He believes attitudes are changing, especially among the young and the more secular population in Seoul. His church is currently building coalitions with other affirming churches and activists groups to help speed up the pace of that change. Payne also takes heart in recent developments overseas. “Praise God,” Payne says of President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage in May. “It’s been a long time coming.”
On the other hand, the road to reform in Korea and elsewhere is daunting, as Christianity’s newest converts have tended to come from the ranks of hardliners. Liberal congregations often struggle to grow their memberships, their potential recruits turning from religion altogether. Meanwhile, Christian conservatives remain largely united in their condemnation of homosexuality. A gay member of Payne’s congregation, Lee Byeong-un (no relation to Payne’s partner), notes that these conservative groups are the greatest impediment to a more tolerant Korean society. “They are always against us,” Lee says. “Always.”
Lee should know; like his pastor, he was once a conservative Christian himself. His family raised him Presbyterian. Growing up in Seoul, he kept his attractions secret from all but a few friends. He underwent counseling and fought the urge to meet other gay men online. But eventually Lee learned there was no “cure” to be found. When he turned twenty-one, he visited the U.S. and found himself drawn to places that catered to the gay community. The trip was an epiphany. He had struggled against his nature for years, believing he could choose not to be gay. But after his trip, Lee says, he realized he was born gay.
Lee is now twenty-three, a senior majoring in theology and anthropology at one of Korea’s most prestigious universities. “I think I have two important identities,” he says. “One is Christian, the other is gay. Until twenty-one, I had not learned to take both identities as myself.”
But embracing an identity and sharing it with others are two different things. Lee has revealed his sexual orientation only to a few dozen people. His parents still do not know. He is reluctant to publicize specific details about himself that will make him easily identifiable as gay. In any case, it looks that Lee will have to remain in the closet for the time being, whether he wants to or not: next year he will enter Korea’s armed forces as a field officer to serve out the country’s mandatory two-year military service. Korea has never allowed gays to serve openly in its military. Should he meet any other gay men, Lee — who aspires to become a counselor after his service — hopes that he can help them through the experience.
As a gay man in Korea, Lee is lucky to have many resources to draw on: he is well-educated, speaks some English, and lives in cosmopolitan Seoul. He has the option, which he is considering, of moving to another nation where gays are more accepted. As a Christian, he is also fortunate to have found two affirming churches where he feels at home. Through the acceptance and community that these congregations provide, Lee says, “I have learned a new way to reconcile being a Christian and being … gay.” On Saturday nights, he goes to a Seoul congregation exclusively serving gay men, where the service is conducted in Korean. On Sundays nights, he finds another support network at Open Doors.
On one of those recent Sunday nights, Payne takes the pulpit before the bar opens to regular customers. His topic tonight is “covert curricula” — bigotry woven into the fabric of the culture, whether it be hidden messages in the mass media or prejudiced attitudes one encounters at work or school. The pastor talks about the ways these hidden messages divide people and how they might be overcome if individuals summon enough courage to confront them head on — without regard to the unpopularity of their position. He tells his congregation about his plans to have Open Doors join forces with other affirming churches and social justice groups, to change the conservative culture that stands in the way of gay rights in Korea.
At one point in his sermon, Payne reads from Matthew 17:20, in which Jesus speaks to his disciples about the value of faith: “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
The mountains, Payne says, are a metaphor. The injustices of bigotry and homophobia, these are the mountains standing in their way. They are a small congregation staring down a culture of hate, but with faith, as their savior said, they will prevail.
On this and every Sunday night, Payne and his flock are planting a seed, hoping it will grow into something much larger than themselves — large enough to move mountains.
Rob York is a freelance journalist based in Honolulu. He spent four years at the Korea Herald reporting on North Korean affairs and issues affecting the foreign community. Twitter: @rjamesyork