Friday, April 10, 2009
Communion at the Korean DMZ
For Easter, a poignant story from Mama Ruth's (my mom's) life in 1991, when she and my father visited Korea. (Officers' names have been changed.)
Are you all right, Honey?"
"I’m okay," was all my chattering teeth would allow me to say.
A fierce, biting chill numbed my fingers even though I was wearing two pairs of gloves. My chin and nose felt as if they’d been filled with novocaine, but now and then when the January sun peeked through clouds, a faint warmth touched my face.
J.T. and I, with our seminary tourist group, had just climbed up to the top of the most forward army post at the border of the Demilitarized Zone in Korea. Lt. Col. Bob Bailey, Chaplain in the United States Army stationed there, had secured clearance for us to visit the post. Not everyone has a chance to visit this area. My heart beat a little faster when I realized that I was within shooting distance of the North Korean Communist forces.
We were led to a bunker where the video/radio crew live and work. Constantly, twenty-four hours a day, they monitor whatever is going on in the Demilitarized Zone itself and just across the North Korean border. Even if a rabbit, or dog, or bird moves in that area, these American soldiers see it. They are very well screened and trained for this job. The thing they hate most is the constant blaring of communist propaganda over a loudspeaker located just over the no-man’s-line.
We clambered up out of the bunker and over a narrow catwalk to the lookout room where a powerful swivel telescope, manned by several U.S. servicemen, keeps the North Korean area in view. They allowed us to look through the telescope at the barren wasteland which is the four-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone.
At that point on the line, the DMZ arced northward like a horseshoe bend, so the Communists had three perches from which to survey us—from our left, in front, and to the right of us. Studying their hard, unsmiling faces through our telescopes, we could see them scrutinizing us.
We each took a turn at the telescope, then Lt. Col. Bailey asked, "Would you all please come out and stand on the platform beside the catwalk? I’ve arranged something for you."
We stood close together, each drawing warmth from the others, on one side of a plank platform, about eight-feet square. A two-by-four banister around three sides kept us from falling onto a ridge ten feet below. Wedged into a corner formed by the banister, and serving as a make-shift tray, lay a large, stiff laminated map of the area. On the map was a small brass cup without a handle, and the canteen cup the Chaplain had unstrapped from his hip. In the small cup were Communion wafers, and in the canteen cup was Communion wine. Between them sat a small, brass cross. From my viewpoint, looking straight beyond the cross toward the watchtower north of the lifeless DMZ, I could not see the North Korean flag. The cross blocked it out.
Facing us, Chaplain Bailey said, "I have never done this before—never served Communion under such circumstances. I’ve asked Chaplain Carl Foster and Chaplain James Henry to join us."
What followed was the most heart-moving Communion any of us had ever experienced.
Chaplain Foster passed out small, well-worn laminated cards on which was printed a brief Communion Liturgy, saying, "These cards mean a lot to me. I have used them in Communion on the battlefields in the Persian Gulf and Panama. Now I use them here in Korea."
I looked at my card and seemed to feel an aura from it—an urgent, overpowering of Christ’s presence there in Camp Ouelette. I could barely see the small print for welling tears. In quavering voices we read the short, responsive lines of our Lord’s Last Supper, and stood with heads bowed while Chaplain Bailey put into each hand a Communion wafer. Chaplain James Henry held the dull, gray-colored Communion cup and blessed us as we each dipped our wafer into the wine. If the cup had been gold, it would not have been held with more reverence.
We stood in silent prayer for a few minutes. I prayed for myself that the Lord would help me forget that my fingers were nearly frostbitten, and remember only His mercy and grace which brought me there. I prayed for the American and Korean soldiers on duty—they live in this cold all winter long.
Chaplain Bailey said, "Now I want to read the Twenty-Third Psalm." His voice was strong as he began to read those beautiful words:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies ...
Bob’s voice broke and tears streamed freely down every cheek as the truth soaked into us: We were in the presence of our enemies, and we were at the Lord’s table. Bob wiped his eyes, cleared his throat and continued for the blessed promise:
Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Holy silence echoed our "Amen."
Laurie D’s sweet voice broke the hush when she began to sing, "The blood that Jesus shed for me . . . will never lose its power." Our soldiers in full combat uniform, standing nearby along the catwalk, hummed with her and I heard the rich bass of my husband’s voice accentuate the beautiful words. No one wanted to break the spell of that moment when God’s grace overflowed in each heart.
But we could not stay in that cold. So we went over to the soldiers—lonely for home—and hugged them all. I was the oldest mother, and I could imagine they were all my boys. All fine looking, standing straight and wiping their eyes as we were. Different backgrounds, different races, but we were all together in the Lord. As I hugged a handsome black soldier I said, "God bless you, I know your mother is praying for you!"
With tears on his face, he hugged me too, and said, "Thank you, Ma’am. I’m sure she is."
At that moment I wished I could say to the mothers of all those young men, "I’ve just seen your boy at Camp Oulette, and he is fine. He is thinking of you."
While we were saying goodbye to the service men, Chaplain Bailey wrapped the brass cross and cup in a piece of dark cloth, and stowed them in a bag. He poured the rest of the wine over the banister, and it spread out in a dark, crimson stain in the Korean snow. Jesus’ blood poured out for all of us. Then Joe strapped his canteen cup back into place on his hip and we were ready to go back to Seoul.
Filing stiff-legged down the narrow flight of steps on our way to the vans, we were suddenly stopped cold in our tracks with a bugle blast. We turned to see the cause and quickly understood.
Along with the service men, we stood at attention as our Flag—our wonderful American Flag flying over Camp Oulette—was lowered for the day. At 5:00 p.m. No other emotion can compare to the choking pride I felt as I watched the Stars and Stripes on foreign soil. And I thanked God that the freedom our Flag makes possible permitted the Lord’s Supper in the presence of our enemies. I prayed that some day, in God’s time, those enemies will become our brothers and sisters in Christ.
This story first appeared on Forensics and Faith on May 30, 2007.