Sunday, December 15, 2019

City Notes Magnificat Special '19 | Vintage Saints + Sinners: Mary Paik Lee: Taste the Bittersweet



"God must surely be leading us in the right direction." + Mary Paik Lee


In honor of Mary and her Magnificat (see previous Advent + The Magnificat posts: A Divine Disruption for GoodThe Bold & Courageous First Christmas Hymn, and Exalting God Reveals the Power to Fill Us and Transform Us), I wanted to highlight 4 other women during these 4 weeks of Advent to showcase how others have followed in Mary's footsteps in giving up their lives and opening their mouths to sing a song of resistance that shines in the darkness: that Jesus Christ seeks to be born in us to share and show the Good News of God's Kingdom of mercy, justice, and righteousness, bringing flashes of heaven to earth when the world seems at its darkest.
The first was African American Baptist Fannie Lou Hamer:


City Notes Magnificat Special '19 | Vintage Saints + Sinners: Fannie Lou Hamer: Stand Up, Sing Out!


Next is Korean Presbyterian Mary Paik Lee. 

Mary Paik Lee's Quiet Odyssey, originally titled, Life Is Bittersweet


"Mary Paik Lee: Taste the Bittersweet" excerpt adapted from Karen Marsh's Vintage Saints and Sinners: 25 Christians Who Transformed My Faith


Mary, born Kuang Sun Paik, was born to Korean parents who lived as a scholarly, prosperous family. Then one day, Mary's father welcomed into their lives an American missionary and taught him the Korean language — the same man who, in turn, translated the Bible into Korean. By rendering the Bible into a very simple alphabetical system, Western missionaries appealed to Koreans excluded from wealthier classes; Bibles were among the first written materials to be distributed among the common people, spreading both literacy and Christian belief.

The Paiks joined the expanding ranks of new Korean believers in Jesus. Christianity introduced transformative principles. Readers discovered unaccustomed notions of freedom in the Bible. Korean women, in particular, zealously embraced Christian teachings that challenged traditional Confucianism's bonds of female subjugation. Whereas respectable women had been forbidden outdoors during daylight hours, evangelistic "Bible women" traveled unimpeded to share their faith. Leaders in the Korean independence movement, many educated in missionary schools, would be emboldened by Jesus' liberating words as they sought to break free from long Chinese and Japanese domination.

Mary's Christian parents and grandparents flourished as teachers, business owners, and ministers until the day invading Japanese military forces commandeered their home and forced them onto the street. Under threat of war and violence, Mary's parents hurriedly gathered their small children and set sail for Hawaii, where Mr. Paik was promised work on a sugar plantation. Looking back, Mary wrote with esteem, "Such strong quiet courage in ordinary people in the face of danger is really something to admire and remember always."

Courage would be required, great courage, for decades of interminable hardship were to come. Conditions in Hawaii were miserable: the family slept on the ground of a fruit plantation without a nickel to buy bananas. The Paiks moved on to California in 1906, a time when there were no more than seven thousand Korean immigrants in all of North America. Walking down the gangplank of the ship in San Francisco, Mary wrote, "We must have been a very strange-looking group." They were accosted by a gang of young white men who spit in their faces, kicked up Mrs. Paik's skirts, and shouted incomprehensible insults.

Why would we come to a place we are not wanted? the alarmed six-year-old girl asked her parents. Mary's father told her to remember the very first Christian missionaries to Korea, those strangers who'd traveled far across the sea only to be harshly persecuted as "white devils." As people of Christ in a new land, the Paiks would endure too, for God had led them there. They'd study hard and work hard and show Americans their true worth. Even little Mary had to prove her strength. On her first day at Washington Irving School, Mary was surrounded by girls who hit her neck as they mocked her with a song, "Ching Chong, Chinaman, sitting on a wall. Along came a white man, and chopped his head off." Over the years, childish cruelty was matched by adult disdain, expressed in exclusionary laws and everyday offenses. Shut out of neighborhoods and public spaces ("For Whites Only!") and continually derided ("Dirty Jap!"), the Paiks struggled to simply stay alive. Legal codes barring Asians from most businesses codified the racism of fearful white Americans, citizens who didn't bother to see the differences between Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people who say only nameless Asians, foreigners, outsiders. They certainly didn't care that the Paik family had suffered from Japanese aggression too.

Without money, the Paiks subsisted on flour and salt. Mary recounts how, for months, her mother served them one tiny biscuit and a tin cup of water three times a day. Nonetheless, when the family sat down to eat, Mary's father always prayed, thanking God for all their blessings, something that never failed to irritate Mary. After one more starvation dinner, the child confronted her dad and asked how they could possibly be grateful. Mr. Paik responded with a question of his own, "Don't you remember why we came here?" The rest of their family back in Korea was suffering even more under the brutal Japanese occupation. They would thank God no matter the circumstance. Mary names this moment when, for the first time, she saw beyond her own discomfort and awakened to "the realities of life" and the suffering of others. She drank water to fill her aching stomach, slept, and then got up to hunt for a house-cleaning job. Mary found work with a family who required her to come before school, after school, and then all day Saturday and Sunday — a job for which she was paid one dollar a week.

The young Korean girl trembled at the injustice of her situation. She was tormented by churchgoing Americans: white people who never knew that her family had taken pity on hapless American missionaries in Asia, taught them the Korean language, joined their Presbyterian church, and gone house to house to spread the Gospel of love. As Mary spent another Sunday ironing from morning until nightfall, the eleven-year-old asked herself: where was their loving God now, in lonely California? Not in the well-appointed Presbyterian sanctuary on Main Street, apparently. When a friendly high school classmate learned that Mary was Presbyterian too, she invited Mary to meet her at the church one Sunday morning. Mary's father, "always the optimist," gave her permission, saying, "Why not? Maybe times are changing." When they arrived early for the worship service, the four Paik children were blocked at the front steps by the minister who snarled, "I don't want dirty Japs in my church," and sent them away, shouting, "Go to hell!"

And yet the Paiks always found their own ways to create Christian community. Whether they lived in an improvised shack or an abandoned barn, on Sundays they invited other immigrant families to come over for a time of worship. Everyone sang hymns and prayed, Mr. Paik preached a short sermon, and then Mrs. Paik shared whatever meager food they had for lunch without ever passing around an offering plate. Somehow, together, they always had enough to share. Mary would always remember her parents as the handsome, forward-looking couple who left Korea in 1905, confident that God would lead and provide, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. They held fast to the promise from Hebrews 11: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." In her own time, Mary took up her family's strong faith and the risky hope that it demanded.

Mary believed that life was bittersweet — and she didn't let the sweet go by unnoticed. She married H.M. Lee, a Korean man who'd emigrated to Mexico. The two made a life together in California, planting rice and selling fruit. In their rental house, an old building with no bathroom and no hot water, Mary said, "I felt rich with so many things for the first time in my life," even a toothbrush and toothpaste. When the oldest of their three sons, Henry, attended Georgetown and earned his PhD, she saw it as the fulfillment of hope for things not seen. Mary's husband died in old age (with a big smile on his face, she notes) but he left her with a priceless legacy: "a feeling of great solace that makes life worth living."

For all of Mary's experiences of toxic anti-Asian prejudice, she lived long enough to see oppressive laws change and a new cultural landscape emerge. In 1990, at the end of her life, she was gratified to note that "(Asian Americans) are able to work almost everywhere now," demonstration of a patiently awaited miracle from heaven. She saw her personal sacrifices as "nothing spectacular but a good firm foundation ... on which our future generations will find it easier to build their dreams."

Even though blatant racism is a recognized evil and discrimination is against the law, ours is not a "post-racial" society. Human hatred abides. People are sinful, broken. The United States fails to live up to its promises of equality, success, amity. But Mr. and Mrs. Paik followed God in trust and hope. Mary and H.M. Lee worked hard, studied hard, and honored Christ their whole lives long. And yet they suffered so. More than a few comfortable church people speak blithely of enjoying God's loving care, divine provision, protection, blessing, favor, while caring little for the material needs of brothers and sisters close at hand. Complacent Christians tell tales of sacrifices divinely rewarded, dreams come true, heroism, and happiness. But our plot lines come straight out of the American storybook, not the biblical narrative.

In what Mary calls "the realities of life," the righteous do suffer. She recounts her life story because she "wants young people to know the hardships that Asian immigrants have faced, so that they can appreciate their blessings today." Mary and her family didn't assume that God owed them a life of material security. They didn't interpret their suffering as a sign that God had failed them or that their faith was faulty. They just carried on, repeating that God must surely be leading them in the right direction. Out of their mouths, this is no soothing bromide, no entitled demand. It's a declaration of assurance in God's sufficient abundance.


Here are links to previous City Notes books:

Soli Jesu gloria.




Christ is all,



Rev. Mike “Sully” Sullivan



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