About Pilgrimage: South Korea
May 13-23, 2013

Pilgrimage: South Korea is an intensive 10-day travel seminar that will explore issues of religious pluralism, social justice, and conflict resolution in a country where Christianity and Buddhism share an almost equal percentage of the population. The Korean Peninsula provides a backdrop where the residual effects of the Cold War are still evident and many Koreans continue to work for peace and reconciliation. Our pilgrimage takes place throughout South Korea with stops in Ganghwa Island, Sudeoksa, Gwangju, and Seoul. We will meet with numerous organizations and issue experts to explore religious practice, political movements, and social activism in the region. Looking through a multifaith lens, we will visit major religious sites — from the oldest Episcopal church in Korea to a two-day stay at Sudeoksa Temple — and explore the modern culture and beauty of the region.

Who We Are
Caroline Chandler, '14
Miki Doan, '14
Tim Gruber, '16
Stella Han, '15
Kim Laney, '15
Margaret Legerton, '16
Amanda Lineberry, '14
Samantha Lint, '14
Alex McDilda, '14
Pooja Patel, '15
Emily Cobb, Director of Multifaith Initiatives
Craig Kocher, University Chaplain
Kevin Heffernan, Zen Buddhist Campus Minister
Monti Datta, Assistant Professor of Political Science
Catherine Amos, Web and Editorial Manager

Looking back, and learning

August 1, 2013 1:00:00

Out of context, we were just riding on a bus along a rural road. Fields, both farmed and wild, flanked either side. We were eager and anxious about where we were headed. But it was hard to ignore the threat of land mines in that weedy terrain, the armed soldiers, or those few empty, awkward high-rise buildings we could see in the distance. We weren’t just on a bus in the middle of nowhere; we were minutes from North Korea.  

Of course we didn’t actually cross the border — we stood a few feet from it, gawking at the concentrated military presence — but so much of our pilgrimage to South Korea was characterized by boundary crossings. We flew around the world and traversed international borders, facing a language and cultural barrier that was at times inspiring, other times disheartening. We stepped into other faiths, learning about and accepting them, while growing in our own. We let our walls down — some of us a few notches, some completely demolished. But we all grew in our relationships, in our connections with each other, and in our desire to do good.  

Back in the United States with a few months’ distance from our journey, it’s those moments of intense impact that come to mind first: standing in the DMZ and looking into secluded North Korea, our hike up 1,080 steps to Sudeoksa Temple's mountaintop, and the warm glow of the multicolored lanterns on Buddha’s birthday. But what built the pilgrimage were the nuances of what and how we learned — through the group discussions on the bus between stops in our packed itinerary, the graciousness of the South Korean people we met, and the immersion into a monk’s life.  

With the western idea of instant gratification engrained in our psyche, we learned a little bit about what it meant to face challenges and not get answers. Seeing conflicts in South Korea through the eyes of its people, we explored the political and social issues that accompany the ongoing war with the North. Most people we met either supported reconciliation with North Korea or were actively working toward it. Nonprofit groups and religious organizations taught us about working for peace and social justice — rather than fighting against something — though given the current political atmosphere between the governments, they are often limited to humanitarian aid and small-scale change. We talked about the spectrum of political activism and what motivates or inspires people to work for peace, even when there is no solution in sight. Every day, after every visit, each of our group leaders helped us unpack the questions and issues we encountered.

Monti, a political science professor whose specialties include anti-Americanism and U.S. policy toward North Korea, gave us the political context we needed for our pilgrimage. He taught us about the democratic uprising and subsequent massacre in Gwangju and the current tensions with North Korea. His research into anti-Americanism gave us perspective into attitudes we encountered and questions we had. Having lived and taught in Korea years before, he was able to navigate the culture and language with us. At the end of our trip, Monti said he felt reaffirmed by the people we met and the connections we made: “There’s tremendous opportunity for what we can become … I feel excitement that there’s more work to do, and I feel motivated by that.”  


After our stay at Sudeoksa Temple, we talked about the spectrum of religious practice and what faith and religion look like in a modern Korean society. We questioned the value of removing yourself from society and living on a mountain to meditate, or the value of prosperity-driven Christian churches, but we also learned about the importance of varying forms of faith and how they fit into society. Kevin, the Buddhist campus minister, guided us through our temple stay and led our discussions about the practice of Buddhism and meditation. He kept us grounded in modern Buddhist practices — such as sustainability efforts or meditating with prisoners — and those conversations framed our exploration of modern faith. “Being a [relative] ‘newbie’ to Buddhism encountering ancient tradition, it’s a new dimension of the present moment,” Kevin said. “Even though we’re here with this ancient form, we’re also turning to face the world. We’re embracing newness and tradition and change. The present moment is where we practice, and where we respond.”  


Juxtaposing our temple stay with Christianity in Korea, we compared the underlying motivations behind practicing faith traditions. Why do we practice faith? Is it for our personal prosperity? To help others? For our own well-being? What does it mean to be a Christian? Craig, the University’s chaplain, lead our explorations of these questions, whether anyone was struggling with his or her own faith, or with the contradictions we sometimes find within Christianity. We met with church members, volunteers, and staff from nonprofit organizations whose faith drives them. Craig encouraged the group to find that calling for our own lives. “We met some people who have a fire in their soul,” he said. “They have a calling to be peacemakers … Where does your deep passion intersect with a real need in the world? If you can find that place, that’s a calling.”  


We came to Korea with many questions. We left with many more, but with a better understanding of a country and the issues that surround its political conflict, its two dominant faiths, and whose people work toward peace. Emily, who leads multifaith initiatives at Richmond, pushed us to explore our own questions and those that were difficult for us to answer. We faced themes — and meditation mats — that made us uncomfortable. And although it was difficult at times, we grew in our own convictions as a result. We found peace in uncertainty. “Our exploration is frightening for others,” Emily said in our last discussion. “But our authenticity will make a difference in the end.”