Rev. Lee giving a blessing at the Queer Culture Festival
A Methodist Minister in Korea Faces Church Trial over LGBTQ+ Ministry
By Taeha An
The following interview with Rev. Donghwan Lee, a Methodist pastor and LGBTQ+ activist, was conducted on July 20, 2023 in Korean. The purpose was to highlight the current situation of religiously motivated LGBTQ+ activism in Korea and the ongoing conflicts regarding related issues within the Christian churches in Korea. Lee was recently put on a denominational trial for blessing the queer participants at the 2019 Incheon Queer Culture Festival and for repeatedly disobeying the exhortation not to direct his pastoral works against the canon law of the Korean Methodist Church.
In Korea, same-sex union is not criminalized. However, homosexual couples cannot access several benefits that “normal” couples enjoy. Since legal recognition of marriage does not include homosexual union, homosexual partners are not eligible to be legal dependents of each other. It restricts them from having equal access to health insurance, lease funds for housing, and inheritance upon the death of the partner. Adoption is not legally possible for homosexual couples.
The Christian denominations in Korea have a large spectrum of opinions regarding sexual minorities. Only the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK) and Anglican Church of Korea postponed declaring their official denominational stance concerning this issue. Other denominations are indifferent or maintain their old anti-homosexual stance. Chances of schism within any of the denominations are slim because there are not yet enough voices to support LGBTQ+ Christians.
Taeha An (THA): Thank you for accepting my request for this conversation. I wanted to chat about your active involvement in LGBTQ+ ministry in general and the backlash from other Christians about leading a queer-friendly Christian movement. My impression is that there has been at least a decade-long explicit enmity between Christian ministers and the people who identify themselves as members of the LGBTQ+ community. Thus, it appeared to me that it is very uncommon for Christian ministers in Korea to specialize their pastoral works in interacting with sexual minorities.
Rev. Donghwan Lee (DHL): It would be difficult to disagree with your observation that it is not common to see a Korean minister involved in queer-related ministry. The Christian position regarding homosexual marriage (or related other discourses on sexual minorities) in the public sphere is represented to be adherent to Biblical teachings. However, I have observed from my experience in this ministerial context that many ministers and Christian individuals are quite indifferent to this issue. But the conservative viewpoints are overrepresented in public because the current Church leadership positions are mainly held by male, elderly, anti-Communist, and pro-America ministers. Their voices are more audible and more powerful. Their voices form “the” Christian opinion on LGBTQ+ movements. In fact, for the past few years in my ministry, many pastors expressed their support for me. Many of them confessed to me that although they wholeheartedly agree with my vision and sympathize with my struggles, it is difficult for them to manifest their honest viewpoints in weekly Sunday services or other pastoral events. Silence is forced and it disables forming an explicit public opinion that would disagree with the consensus that the current Church leadership has solidified.
THA: You recently went through a denominational trial. I believe many Korean Christians heard about you for the first time when the news that you gave a blessing at the 2019 Incheon Queer Culture Festival and that you were reported for going against the Korean Methodist canon law appeared on several YouTube channels run by major broadcasting companies. Could you tell us more about what happened after that? I heard that you had another trial not too long ago. Was it related to the previous trial regarding the Incheon Queer Culture Festival?
LGBTQ+ allies protesting inside the main building of the Korean Methodist Church
DHL: In 2016, the Korean Methodist Church enacted a canon law stating that they prohibit any ministerial attempt to “show agreement with (chanseong)” or “take sides with (dongjo)” LGBTQ activism. This whole process was a reaction to the legalization of same-sex union in the United States.. Then I became a target after what I did in 2019. In 2020, the denominational court decided to suspend me from my pastoral duties for two years. After I got back to my ministry this year, they filed another case in June, and it is still going on, as the Judicial Council delayed their final decision.
THA: What drove you to orient your ministry toward the LGBTQ+ community in Korea?
DHL: At first, I was indifferent to anything related to the LGBTQ+ movement. I am straight and married to a woman. But my concern for the issues that LGBTQ+ individuals face within the Church and society started as a pastoral task. About six or seven years ago, a member of my congregation confessed to me his sexual orientation. He was a sincere churchgoer striving to find his place between the dialectical and mutually alienating identities: being queer and Christian. Hearing this for the first time came to me as a shock, but then I dedicated some of my time to studying the current position of queer believers in the churches in Korea.
I had some sympathy for the queer members of the Church, but I was not very active in advocating for their voices in the beginning. It was not my deliberate choice to speak and give a blessing at the Queer Festival in Incheon. I was asked to be present because something happened to the pastor who was supposed to come that day, and he could not make it.
When I was put on trial for the first time, I received much support from other pastors, as I have already mentioned, and also from other believers. For my recent trial, 48 pastors signed a petition in support of my ministry. Then I got the courage to speak up for what I have learned through ministry and against what was going wrong.
THA: It appears to me that many Christians in Korea would argue that they “respect (jonjung)” the queer individuals, but it is going against their belief to “support (jiji)” them. Your pastoral engagement seems to be oriented toward “supporting” queer individuals. Why would you go beyond “respecting” them and give them “support”?
DHL: I think the word “respect” (jonjung in Korean) is misused together with the word “love (sarang).” We often hear Christians saying they are trying to correct what LGBTQ+ people are doing out of respect and love. Respect and love become a justification for their hate speech and paternalistic intervention to regulate other people’s behavior. On the contrary, the way I understand the word “support (jiji)” is accepting the person without any attempt to alter their way of life. Accepting the presence of another person is not conditional. To support someone is not questioning or judging their being and behavior as a “failure” or “sinful,” even without actual encounters with that person.
THA: I would like to hear more about “accepting other people as they are.” Perhaps, it could be a very Calvinist ramification in the Korean churches to believe that what is inherent in and given to us is sinful and must be overcome by faith. However, it still seems to me that conversion (metanoia) plays a big part in our relationship with God because having faith in the Incarnated God in Christ and being guided by the Spirit presuppose an ontological conversion.
DHL: I also see the importance of conversion and believe sin must be repented to restore the relationship with God. However, degrading sexual minorities as if they do not belong to the creation as well as the object of redemption seems more problematic than discussing whether homosexual behavior is a sin or not. In my view, homosexuality constitutes one’s being and precedes any choice or self-determination. It seems to me that the lack of hospitality for them and the negation of the dignity of God’s beloved creation are more sinful than anything else.
THA: Would it be correct to say that your social and political engagement is an extension of your faith and your position as a pastor? You recently founded a non-profit organization called “Q&A (Queers and Allies).” I would like to hear more about the mission and work of this organization.
Rev. Lee and his supporters holding a banner saying “Blessing is not a sin”
DHL: Indeed, my expression of solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community in Korea is in line with my faith in Christ, who came down to the world to be “with (-wa hamkke)” the people. The fact that I was brought to trial just for giving a blessing implies that the people who identify themselves to be queer are forced to remain silent and alienated from any pastoral care and recognition. Our organization, Q&A, is long-term oriented. We do not intend to bring about immediate visible changes, although we try our best to support the queer people in need directly. Rather, we are preparing for the time when our society and the communities of faith need resources to restore the broken relationship with the LGBTQ+ community in Korea. We are preparing ourselves to be ready to respond when the world needs us. What we can do now is give a voice to the silenced and actively waiting for the right time. We are trying to reach out to two main groups through our organization’s activities. We create and distribute manuals for ministers who meet queer individuals among their congregations. At the same time, affirming and giving attentive concern for queer Christians is what we are doing and aim to do continuously.
THA: Do you collaborate with other LGBTQ+ related organizations?
DHL: Q&A works in solidarity with other non-profit organizations for human rights outside the Church, such as Gagoonet (Korean Network for Partnership and Marriage Rights of LGBT), South Korean Coalition for Anti-discrimination Legislation, and Center for Military Human Rights Korea. We also work with individual churches that express themselves as “rainbow churches.”
Taeha An is a lay member of the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea and is currently based in New Haven CT, pursuing a master’s degree in Ethics at Yale University.
Image credits: Taeha An