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Friday, May 6, 2016

A different kind of Christmas

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sgt. Cotton and Sehnert in Korea.
(Walt Sehnert)
It was 1951 -- our first Christmas as a married couple. The problem was that we weren't together. Jean was in Nebraska. I was in Korea; so far away from home that if I went any further I'd be coming back again -- in a land where they didn't celebrate Christmas anyway. And to top off the whole situation I was working the bakery graveyard shift on -- Christmas Day! I was having a bad case of homesickness.

In the mess hall, things were uncharacteristically quiet. Conversations were abbreviated that morning, and there was a great deal of staring into coffee cups, everyone lost in his own thoughts of home.

"Hey, Sehnert!" Searcy, the company clerk, had a big grin on his face, as he handed me a note. "Man, you must rate. An invitation to Christmas dinner yet. How about that?"

One Korean teacher with her many students.
(Walt Sehnert)
The note was a complete surprise -- an invitation to Christmas dinner, from a Dr. Park.

Dr. Park explained that he was the pastor of a missionary church. He had been a classmate of my mother's at Huron (S.D.) College, and through their Alumni Association, she had written to him, telling him that I was in the country. If I were free that day he would be pleased for me and a friend to join him for Christmas dinner.

The note had been brought to the front gate by a Korean who left it with the guard, then left without waiting for an answer. "What do you suppose those Koreans have for Christmas dinner," said Searcy, "KimChi and roast dog?" He laughed. KimChi, the impossibly spicy hot national dish, and the skinned dogs, ready for the cooking pot, were staples in the Korean marketplace.

"I wonder myself", I replied. I left to find Sgt. Cotton. Cotton was always game for something new.

And so it was. We had the whole day free. A trip into Seoul for Christmas dinner sounded fine.

We hitched a ride with the water truck, which was leaving to fill up at one of the water wells, across the Han River, in Seoul. We eventually got to the address in the note -- at the base of the mountains, in a pretty part of the city. We could see the church, but the streets there were far too narrow for the water truck.

After some 20 minutes of trudging up the "mountain," we made it to the church. It was a rather plain structure, but it appeared to be undamaged by the war. The morning service was just ending.

There were some 60 or 70 boys and girls in attendance, ranging from 3 or 4 years of age to high school age, and only 30 or 40 adults. The children were dressed very plainly, but their clothes were clean and they all looked freshly scrubbed. They were in a hurry to get out the door, but were orderly and fairly quiet. As they passed us near the door they smiled broadly, though they did not speak. The adults smiled also, and did speak, giving a little bow as they passed. But since they spoke in Korean, which we did not understand, we just smiled back and returned their little bow.

Dr. Park hurried over and introduced himself and his wife, who turned out to be an American lady he had met and married while at Huron College. The Parks were gracious, and spoke perfect English. They remembered my mother fondly. Mrs. Park and my mother had been members of the debate team. In no time they had put us at our ease and it was as if we were visiting someone from home. Cotton knew nothing of my mother or Huron College, but entered into the conversation with enthusiasm to the extent that one would have thought that he was a graduate of the school.

Dr. Park explained that the Presbyterians had been among the first to do missionary work in Korea, and they had provided him, as well as many other young people, with scholarships to study in the states. Many had attended Huron College, a Presbyterian College in Huron, my mother's home town.

After graduation from Huron College the Parks had married, entered the missionary service and returned to his native Korea, where they had been since that time.

In addition to the church the Parks had established the orphanage. Since the war the orphanage had outstripped its facilities, and there were now offshoots in Ascom City, Taegu, and Pusan.

The orphanage was part of the larger compound of the church, and consisted of a long, two story building on either side of the compound, with a one-story building opposite the church, the four buildings completely closing the rectangular courtyard. The upstairs of the long buildings served as dormitories, for boys and girls respectively, while the downstairs housed classrooms. The one story building at the end served as kitchen, a mess hall and large meeting room.

Mrs. Park took my arm and asked me about my mother and also about my aunt and uncle who still lived in Huron, while Dr. Park continued his conversation with Sgt. Cotton about the war and the orphanage. Together we looked over the church and its beautiful altar, which Dr. Park explained, had been carved by one of his parish elders. Then we left the church and crossed the courtyard and made a little inspection of the other buildings on our way to the dining room.

As soon as we stepped through the door, the children, who were already seated at the long tables, rose as one and gave us a little bow. We bowed in return. Then one of the older students came up to the head table and in pretty good English thanked us for coming to Korea to help his country and said that it was a honor to have us join them for their Christmas meal.

Dr. Park said the blessing and the meal began. We were served our food while the boys and girls got up quietly and filed through the food line. The Christmas dinner was somewhat different from the traditional Nebraskan dinner of turkey, dressing, and all the trimmings. The fact was -- it was pretty lean fare.

We started with a bowl of thin soup with a few pieces of cabbage and other vegetables, plus an occasional morsel of meat of some kind, floating in it. We followed the Parks' lead and fished out the vegetables with our chopsticks, which took considerable time for Cotton and me, and then, following the example of our hosts, lifted the bowl to our lips and sipped out the liquid. There were no soupspoons. When we finished the soup, we replenished our bowls with rice and a sort of cabbage salad from large bowls, which were passed. And that was it, period. No turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, or pumpkin pie.

It was a very simple meal, and it actually tasted quite good. We were very touched. These people were sharing what they had with us in a real gesture of friendship.

As soon as the meal ended, and it did not take long, Dr. Park got to his feet and spoke for a minute or so, and then the boys and girls filed out of the hall, past our table. As each passed he or she would bow slightly, the girls with their eyes riveted to a spot on the floor, but the boys with a big grin, as they looked directly at us. We nodded slightly to each in turn, and felt for all the world like visiting generals acknowledging the troops as they passed in review.

For the next hour Cotton and I visited with the Parks in their private apartment. They were very well educated and their stories of the hardships of war and the trials they had endured, moving the children in and out of Seoul while the war had raged around them, were spellbinding -- a remarkable couple; kind, resourceful, modest of their accomplishments. But they were also determined that their "children" would somehow survive the war and enter the adult world with an education and a deep love of Christ.

After a bit there was a whistle, like a referee's whistle and everyone left to get ready for church again. Mrs. Park had us go with her to the church, where we took a position near the front. We kept our coats on. It was cold in the church. I'm sure that there was no heat at all. Everything was quiet, and as the boys and girls, and some adults, took their places they bowed their heads in silent prayer.

This was to be an informal service, telling the Christmas story, mostly in song. Mrs. Park left us and went to the front where she picked up a guitar. Then one by one the various groups came to the front, and to the guitar accompaniment, sang the songs of Christmas. The tunes were familiar, though the words were Korean. Between each of the songs Dr. Park read from the Bible. Even though we could not understand what he was reading it was easy to follow the service because of the music.

Finally we came to the last hymn, "Silent Night." Everyone in the church stood and sang, first in Korean, and then, for us, in English. In that simple church, with those children singing like angels, I felt that we were hearing the hymn sung much as it had been introduced in the German church that first time, by Franz Gruber, and Fr. Mohr's guitar accompaniment.

I know that the lump in my throat prevented me from singing all the way through, and when I stole a glance at Cotton, that crusty old Master Sergeant had tears visibly streaming down his cheeks. Suddenly my homesickness was gone. I no longer felt sorry for myself.

In a few months I would be able to go home to a world that had not been turned upside down by war. Home to a loving wife and family. Home where I would be free to make a living, and to have children who could grow up in peace. So different from the situation here in Korea, for these orphaned youngsters.

Yet these people, who had almost all of life's possessions taken away from them by the war, were able to live the experience of Christ being born into their lives. They took strength from that event and now were teaching a couple of GIs, who up to that time had taken the story pretty much for granted, to do likewise.

We said our goodbyes to the children and thanked Dr. and Mrs. Park for their hospitality. I promised them that I would remember them to my mother, and we would indeed return for a visit in the future. Dr. Park told us of an MP station nearby at the bottom of the hill where he was sure that we would be able to get a ride back to our compound, which turned out to be true.

We talked non-stop on the way back to Yong Dung Po -- of the beauty of the Christmas songs in Korean, of the friendliness of the children and the Parks and how lucky we felt to have been born in the United States of America. As we neared our compound at Yong Dung Po Sgt. Cotton suddenly became very silent and fished a pen and paper from his pocket. "Just a reminder to add the orphanage to the list of institutions that get surplus bread from the bakery. Our bread would sure do wonders for that watery soup."

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By