SEOUL, June 21 (UPI) – Reverend Lee Dong-hwan still wears his secretary’s collar, but he is unable to deliver sermons on Sundays at Glory Jeil Church in Suwon, where he has been pastor since 2013.
Lee was suspended by the Korean Methodist Church for two years in October for a blessing he gave at a queer festival in 2019.
The 40-year-old pastor appealed the ruling and has since become a central figure in a movement hoping to transform the church in South Korea, where conservative Christian denominations have long been at odds with lesbians, gays, bisexuals. , transgender and queer community.
âThe problem of discrimination in Korean society, especially in the Korean church, is very serious,â Lee said. “For the awareness of human rights in Korean society to advance further, a change in the church is absolutely necessary.”
Lee was invited to give a blessing at the Incheon Queer Festival, which was held in August 2019 in the port city west of Seoul. He agreed, reciting a prayer and scattering flower petals at the event while wearing a rainbow-colored stole.
Lee knew he was challenging the official doctrine of the Korean Methodist Church.
In 2015, this church took a tough stance on homosexuality, revising its rules to say that someone can be punished for accepting or supporting.
âI was worried that going to the queer festival would raise issues, but nonetheless, I thought there should be no discrimination when a pastor blesses someone,â Lee said. “I thought the love of God is equal for everyone, so I decided to go.”
Lee said his own attitudes gradually changed after a member of his church told him he was gay in 2015.
“At first, I had a very negative perception of LGBTQ [people]”he said.” Since I was a child I was in a conservative church atmosphere. But when a member of our church came out I started to think [that] it’s a person, the same as me. ”
Lee said he looks at references to homosexuality in the Bible like products from an ancient era, not to be taken literally in today’s environment. He also said he started to think about the messages of Jesus, who supported the most vulnerable in society, when he thought about the matter.
âIf Jesus were alive today, who would he eat and drink with? Lee asked rhetorically. “I think it would be people like the disabled, sexual minorities, struggling workers. I thought if we interpreted the Bible for today, Jesus would be with the LGBTQ community.”
Korean Methodist Church officials, however, disagreed and found him guilty of supporting homosexuality in a trial in October, pronouncing the two-year suspension in the first-ever trial of the kind in South Korea.
Lee had an appeal hearing scheduled for February, but he and his legal team protested the closed-door trial proceeding, apparently due to COVID-19 precautions.
The appeal was postponed until March, but again the legal defense raised objections as the presiding judge was the Methodist pastor who first laid the charges against Lee.
Lee and his supporters are awaiting a new date for his appeal, and in the meantime, a weekly rally and prayer meeting has sprung up around the case.
On a recent Monday evening, supporters gathered outside the office tower that houses the KMC headquarters in downtown Seoul to pray, deliver speeches and sing hymns.
At the rally, Kim Yoo-mi, 25, a Methodist theology student studying to be a pastor, said she hoped the movement around Lee would help spark change in the church.
âI am not only for the Christian church. I am for the religion of Jesus,â she said. “This is why I am trying to make my church better. I hope there will be a movement within the Christian church to make a change.”
Oh Se-yo, 32, a pastor of a progressive Presbyterian church, said many pastors fear that accepting the LGBTQ community will undermine their authority.
âAs a Christian and a pastor, it’s painful to see this,â he said. “I also feel a sense of responsibility. Maybe there is nothing we can do, but the most important thing is that we move forward. We are acting, we are not backing down.”
Lee’s case also gained international attention, such as a letter of support from Korean ministers and members of the United Church of Canada, a mainstream Protestant denomination, which called the verdict against Lee “extremely unjust.”
While Lee and his supporters hope to foster debate within the church, a conservative public attitude towards the LGBTQ community in South Korea is showing signs of change, especially among the younger generations.
A Gallup Korea poll last month found that 52% of those polled were against same-sex marriage and 38% were in favor, which is a three percentage point increase since 2019. But among people in their 20s, 73% expressed their support.
At the same time, participation in organized religion is declining rapidly, driven by factors such as changing social attitudes and a series of high profile embezzlement and succession scandals in Korea’s largest Protestant churches. from South.
About 50% of South Koreans belonged to one religion in 2014, but that number has plunged to 40% in 2021, according to an April poll by Gallup. Again, young Koreans are leading the change, with just 22% of people in their 20s reporting religious affiliation.
Progressive activists and politicians have long called for greater rights for the LGBTQ community in South Korea. Several anti-discrimination bill attempts have been raised in parliament since 2007, with the most recent effort by the Progressive Justice Party in June last year.
Lee Jong-geol, a veteran activist and leader of the South Korean Coalition for Anti-Discrimination Legislation, said the bills have consistently met strong resistance from influential leaders of conservative Christian denominations.
âA very noisy sector of the Christian church has acted as a barrier to anti-discrimination and made LGBTQ issues impossible to discuss,â Lee said.
However, he added that he felt a division was growing on the issue in the church, especially between different generations.
âYou can see that the younger generation is more open to issues of sexual minorities,â Lee said. “There is a movement growing to change the Christian church itself, and I think it will continue.”
Joseph Yi, associate professor of political science at Seoul Hanyang University, has studied attitudes towards the LGBTQ community of evangelical Christians in South Korea, and says the idea of ââall-out culture war has been overestimated.
“There is a small minority of people who are activists [within the church], who see the LGBT community as a threat, “Yi said.” But the vast majority are more in an outreach scenario. Either they don’t care about politics or they think they should reach out to [the LGBTQ community]. “
Lee said he derives hope by connecting directly with church members, citing an interview he did with a conservative Korean Christian newspaper based in Dallas.
âWe had very different positions, but we listened to each other’s stories,â Lee said. “I thought if we could at least communicate with each other, this could be an opportunity to make a difference.”
The pastor says he is determined to continue his struggle within the church rather than go away, even though he faces long chances.
âI love the Methodist Church,â Lee said. “Even if I’m fired or kicked out, I want to stay with the members [seeking change] and help change that place with them.
“I want to show that there is at least one person supporting them. That’s why I don’t want to give up.”