Anytime that I interview someone, I always try to let the conversation go wherever it takes us, but I do have a list of questions to help shape the discussion. The day that I sat down with David, I don’t think that I looked down at my questions once. His story is unlike any I have ever heard. After our time together, I don’t think I will ever look at hardships, perseverance, or God’s provision the same again:
David was born in North Korea in 1936. He was born into a fourth generation Christian family. His mother would read him the Bible when he was a child; ultimately not only bringing him closer to the Lord, but also helping him to learn Korean when their country was under Japanese control:
“When I entered first year elementary, the teacher said “Try to use Japanese, not use Korean language.” Second year, “If you say Korean, we charge you a fine”. Three years I studied in the elementary school that way. After liberation so many classmates do not know the Korean letters because they did not teach it. But I knew because my mother taught me in the house. My mother used to read the Bible and I understood how to write.”
David explained that right after liberation, Korea was divided in two, and North Korea was under communist control. Christians were persecuted during that time, and a number of Christian leaders were jailed or killed. Even though he was just a child, being a Christian in that environment wasn’t easy for David. He was expected to attend school activities on Sunday mornings, and when he did not show up, his teachers began to realize that he was attending church:
“You must confess. They ordered that you must confess. You come out in front of the class, “I such and such, I did wrong. I do not do again.” Which means, “I attended church last Sunday, in the future I am not going to attend Sunday service.” Something like that. But I didn’t say that. And then was beat.”
David was almost not admitted to middle school because of his Christian beliefs. He had received poor marks on his record for bad behavior due to his faith, and only by a miracle was he permitted to continue with school. When he was thirteen it was determined that it would be safer for him to leave Korea. His family was not able to leave together, and he had to say goodbye to his mother and sister:
“After I left from hometown, I couldn’t hear any information. Still I do not know whether they are alive or not. I guess my mother already passed away because she would be over a hundred. Never saw, never hear any information, so that’s a tragedy. So many years have passed, so its hard to imagine my mother’s face and my sisters face. I do not have a picture, nothing. So I try to imagine, “What shape is mommy’s face?” but I cannot imagine.”
David and a number of other refugees were taken by boat to an island, where they stayed for six months in harsh conditions:
“It was a very difficult time to survive. So many people died. The hunger, disease. By God’s grace I was protected from the disease. So many epidemics. I think about five months we stayed at a warehouse, no heating, no air conditioning. Just a warehouse. The floor is a cement floor and in the winter time is very cold. We had no carpet, just cement. We brought wheat and spread it on the cement, no blanket. We set the stove in the warehouse. Almost seventy people sleep in one warehouse.”
It was difficult for me to imagine what this experience would have been like for a thirteen year old boy. I asked him if someone took him in during this time and watched out for him:
“At the time it was very difficult for everyone to survive, so they cannot help me. Independently I have to solve my problems by myself.”
I can only imagine what a difficult, lonely time this must have been for David. I couldn’t even imagine how he got through it. He described for me the “spiritual weaning” that helped him put his dependence on God:
“I used to take time to pray in the early morning. I would climb up the mountainside at five o’ clock, before dawn. I collected a big stone, and this is my place to pray…I was very lonely and nobody to help me. So I just depend on God. I prayed. Later time, I interpreted that as spiritual weaning. That’s my definition. At the time I didn’t think about that but later, oh, it was spiritual weaning. Physically I departed from my mother at an early age, I understood that I had no parents to help me. So I depend on God.”
Ultimately, David and 4,000 other refugees were taken by ship to South Korea. He described for me what he remembered about this journey:
“It took several days through the LST, which is Landing Ship Tank. It’s a huge ship. It’s almost 4,000 refugees. One boat. So we left from the North Korea side, an island, to the South Korea harbor. So it was about one week on the ship. Normally it took maybe a couple days. But accident, we hit rock. And then the front door is broken, cannot open. So even though we arrived at the harbor, cannot open the door. So we stayed there another day and then we climbed down through the rope, a big net. Everybody, almost 4,000 people climbed down.”
After arriving in Korea, David continued to confront hardship, continuing to live in less than ideal conditions, and doing manual labor in the harbor. Ultimately, however, he connected with the pastor of a church who once knew his grandfather. David was given a job as a custodian at the church, a small room in which to stay, and was sent to high school through the kindness of this pastor.
David went on to receive his B.A. in philosophy, an M.Div. in theology, a Th.M. in biblical theology and a doctorate in ministry. He, his wife and their five children moved to the United States in 1981, where David pastored churches all over the United States.
It was clear to me that through God’s grace, David was spared from his circumstances, and God used him in a mighty way. Throughout our conversation, David continuously went back to the term he mentioned earlier, “spiritual weaning”. He shared with me that this is what he most wants people to understand. That parents should encourage their children to transfer their dependence to God.
“My own spiritual weaning was not smooth. My physical separation from my mother and losing my father from an early age. But because of that tragedy I could transfer dependence to God.”
At the end of our time together, it was apparent to me that David’s life was nothing short of a miracle. He summed it up best in his own words:
“That’s what I recall about my life. My total life is an amazing miracle. God guides us.”
– Want to read more from David? Check out the Living Lessons page