Thursday, August 02, 2007

1 God, 23 Korean Missionaries

23 Korean missionaries were recently captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Two of them have been executed, including the pastor who led the group (mainly women) into their fatal adventure. It’s hard not to wonder “What the hell were you thinking? That God would protect you?”
And it’s equally hard not to feel an immense sorrow that this group of naively well-intentioned souls may all meet their premature deaths on such a futile mission.

I used to coach Korean students though the application process for the Ivy League Schools. They lived in Vancouver's wealthiest enclaves, in grotesquely overbuilt houses that cast shadows on resentful neighbours. They had the most expensive computer gear and Prada pencil cases. They spent four to five hours a day studying with an assortment of tutors. They joined school sporting teams that didn’t require much athletic affinity, such as golf, ping pong, and bowling. They all played classical musical instruments. Most of them told me that they didn’t enjoy the sports or music. They did it so that their university applications would look good. Ditto for the near-mandatory volunteering in local senior centres and hospitals.

These young people were scheduled from the moment they woke up to the moment they collapsed. Video games were their only down-time, usually sneaked in when they were supposed to be studying. Few of them had friends, because there simply wasn’t time for friendship in the schedules created by their parents. Trying to get my students to write the creative essays that the applications called for was like pulling teeth with a spoon. The term “automaton” regularly crossed my mind during our interactions. 90% of them would list some luxury car as their "dream" (one of the regular questions on almost all the application forms).

The only area where there was any spark of life was when they talked about church and God. Most of them belonged to a Pentecostal church, which is a fairly wacky and mystical variant of Christianity. Here is where they experienced mystery and freedom, albeit with some pretty stringent riders, in terms of what God wanted them to do. The weekly church outings were their escape into a life beyond the relentless drudgery of studying for the degree that their parents had chosen for them.

I’m an agnostic (and would call myself an atheist if I didn’t think that it is equally a matter of faith to absolutely say that there is no higher power as it is to say that God exists—neither can be proven). But I was happy that my students had at least one outlet for joy and pleasure in their school-stunted lives. Anyone of them would have leapt at the chance to go to Afghanistan on a mission. Their faith in their pastor and their God would have been absolute. For their sake, and for those young Koreans who must have been very much like them, I hope against my own beliefs that there is indeed a heaven for the two who have already been slain and a wondrous miracle for the rest of them.