Korea's American Saviors

For one year from 2007-2008, Amar traveled around the world reporting on how people from all walks of life view the United States through text and video.  The following is one of a number of posts from South Korea. For more, click here.

Seoul - “He is a sensation,” my taxi driver says when I tell him I'm heading to interview Dr. David Yonggi Cho, founder of the largest megachurch on earth. We drive through Yeouido, a business district in Seoul where the roads are wide and the buildings tall, past Cho's religious TV channel, his two newspapers, his 600-person global missionary outfit, and his stadium-sized church.

Finally, we reach the sleek media center where I am to interview Cho. When he emerges, he is joined by an entourage of three cameramen, five aides, two secretaries, and a woman with a comb who flattens Cho's wisps of black hair. Cho walks steadily to the interview chair and lowers himself down with his back perfectly erect. He stops his right hand from twitching, and then makes eye contact. I tell him we are to talk about America, and he begins:

“America has made this possible…It has been the main influence on my life up until now.”

Cho was born in 1936. At age ten he watched America evict the Japanese colonial power from Korea. At age fifteen he fled the communist guerrillas who attacked his landowning family in the north. They fled, destitute, to Busan, Korea's second-largest city, where "the Americans were our saviors.” Cho got a job moving boxes for the U.S. army; he learned English, and soon became a translator for the Americans.

America also saved Cho by bringing him Jesus Christ. At seventeen, Cho was dying of tuberculosis. But a mystery missionary gave him a Bible. Cho decided to stop praying to Buddha, who didn't do anything, and try Christ instead. It worked: Christ appeared in a vision and healed Cho.

That's when he saw the difference between the religions: you must "work to become Buddha through hardship," but "Jesus the Living God is your friend, mentor and guide here and now."

In return for healing him, Cho promised Jesus he'd devote his life to Him. Again, the Americans helped provide a way. A former U.S. marine named Abner Chesnut returned to Korea as aPentecostal minister and gave Cho a scholarship to the newly-opened American Full Gospel Bible School.

Cho studied there, helping the U.S. missionaries translate. When he graduated in 1958, he started his own ministry in a tattered U.S. army tent he bought secondhand. That's when his meteoric rise began.

He started preaching in the slums of Seoul, often to communities other missionaries had neglected. He honed his speaking skills by sitting at a mosquito-ridden mountain retreat until the Holy Spirit began speaking in tongues through him. After this experience, Cho claims he achieved the ability to inspire crowds.

Over the coming decade, his Pentecostal Church of four members grew to several thousand. To maintain his congregation's growth, he pioneered a cell-based strategy in which every minister trains a successor to start his own congregation once the current one reaches a critical size.

His strategy worked. Korea hosts five of the world’s ten largest megachurches (defined as a non-Catholic congregation of 2000 or more worshipers per week). Hostile toward Christianity a century ago, Korea's population is now 30% Christian (20% Protestant, 10% Catholic). Its new president,Lee Myung-bak, is an elder at a born-again Christian church. This pleases Cho, who believes Christians must carry their faith into politics to prevent the moral decay of society, In Korea and in America.

A conservative man, Cho warns his congregation of North Korea’s continued attempts to spread amoral communist thought among the young. He blames North Korea, in part, for fostering anti-Americanism among South Korean youth. For the young, he says, “Benevolence is written in water, but malevolence is carved in stone.”

His church tries to resist, but he presses on. “I love America and the American people,” he says, for bringing him Jesus, delivering Korea from Japan and the communists, and assisting its economic growth. "I preach this to my congregation," he says, "I tell them, 'Don't ever forget what America did for us.'"

South KoreaAmar Bakshi