'Through the waters'
'Through the waters'
by Emily Enders Odom
Associate, Mission Communications
Presbyterian Church (USA)
Duluth, Ga. , January 23, 2009 – Although Sue Youngsook Yon is intimately acquainted with loss, she has also experienced profound rebirth, most recently in following her call to become one of the first Korean-American women to be certified as a Christian educator in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Venturing forth in 1973 from her native Korea as a young, single woman with a nursing degree and a hunger to learn, Yon could scarcely have envisioned the honor that awaits her on January 30, when she will be recognized by the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE) at their annual event in San Antonio, Texas, as one of 13 educators to be certified in 2008. Her certification, which was awarded by the Educator Certification Council of the PC(USA) on November 7, 2008, has already been celebrated by the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, of which her home congregation — the Korean Community Presbyterian Church — is a member.
A self-described “city girl” who somehow found her way to the Atlanta suburbs over 35 years ago, Yon’s initial experience in the United States was one of isolation. Not only was she immediately separated from the group of college friends who had emigrated with her, but also from the man who would later become her husband. Inspired by his witness of having been raised in a Christian family in Korea, Yon, whose own background was not Christian, sought out the church.
“My Christian journey started here in the U.S.,” she said. “I was young and alone here. The church gave me a sense of belonging. My faith grew that way.”
When Yon was reunited with her fiancé in Georgia two years later, they were married in the church. “It was a blessing that I met my husband,” Yon recalled. “He was a very faithful man, an easy model to follow.”
As part of their Christian outreach and service, the young couple nurtured and literally fed seminary students, among them David Chai, who currently serves the General Assembly Mission Council of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as the associate for Asian American Leadership. Chai, who was then a young, single student at Columbia Theological Seminary, looked forward to the weekly ritual of Korean food prepared by the Yons and other church members. In an eventual reversal of their original roles, Chai would later come to support Yon, becoming her chief encourager in the educator certification process.
As her family grew with the arrival of two sons in 1977 and 1978, Yon dedicated herself to raising her children in the life of the church. When in 1992, her husband suddenly fell ill and died, she found herself questioning the very church that had sustained her. “I had to rethink my faith,” she said. “Everything I loved was gone.”
With the encouragement of her pastor, she sought to work through her questions and doubts by entering the Georgia School of Theology while still working full time to support her two boys. “I needed the gospel,” Yon recalled. “I needed to know I would again see my husband.”
Upon completion of her M.Div. studies in 1999, Yon began to envision ways in which she could return her gifts to the larger church, sensing that her first calling was as a missionary. Already making a significant contribution at the Korean Community Church by working with the Sunday school, nursery and pre-school programs as well as a ministry for single parents, Yon first approached Forrest Palmer, executive associate presbyter for Greater Atlanta Presbytery, in 2002 to inquire about the Christian educator certification process.
“Working with Sue was transformational for me on a number of levels,” Palmer said, recalling their first encouanter. “In my nearly 30 years of care and support of Christian educators, she was the first Korean-American with whom I had worked specifically on certification. I also worked alongside her and her congregation in struggling through the issues of language and culture. She also received tremendous encouragement from her pastor, James Jung, whom I see as a visionary leader in this presbytery and in the Korean community. He was supportive of Sue and of the certification process from the very beginning.”
The certification process itself, according to Martha Miller, associate for certification and Christian vocation in the PC(USA) Office of Vocation — a joint ministry of the General Assembly Mission Council and the Office of the General Assembly — can be challenging and time-consuming for even the seasoned educator.
“One of the advantages that these experienced educators typically have, however, is the fact that the language used in the courses, readings and exam is in their native tongue, English,” Miller explained. “For Sue, this was not the case. She worked through this process in a language that was not native to her and accomplished a major goal in her life.”
Miller added that due to the high standards of the certification process as it is currently structured, it is not unusual to see educators occasionally drop out due to job changes, lack of time or the level of commitment needed to complete the steps. “Sue is an excellent example of an educator who stuck with it and pressed on,” Miller said. “She was not willing to give up.”
Concurring with Miller’s assessment, Chai observed that Yon sought guidance and encouragement every step of the way. “It is unusual that she was so persistent,” he said. “So often the language and cultural barriers are so high, especially for Korean-American women seeking leadership roles, that people eventually give up and stay in their own cocoon. In daring to come out of her comfort zone, Sue tried the certification process and made it.”
In the six years that Yon worked with the Educator Certification Council (ECC), the group that sets and maintains the standards of the educator certification process in the PC(USA), its members were also transformed by the experience.
“Due in large part to Sue’s example, the ECC has begun looking at ways of becoming more culturally proficient in its own process and work,” Miller said. “We look forward to more racial ethnic Christian educators becoming certified in the future.”
As for Yon, who designed and taught a six-hour course on Christian baptism in partial fulfillment of her certification requirements, she is continuing to explore that sacrament’s significance in her own life and ministry as well as in the Korean-American church context, where she finds that its meaning is not well understood. She now sees herself as an evangelist, eager to bring those particular teachings and her own witness of “passing through the waters” to other churches in the presbytery. She also continues to be excited about teaching young children, who have great capacity for change.
“Baptism is a sign of our belonging to God’s family, becoming a part of the church, and being adopted into God’s family,” Yon said. “In my own baptism, I was welcomed into the community of faith. When I lost everything, I found that the church members were my relatives. I hope I can use my Christian educator certification to share that experience with others, remembering Jesus’ command, ‘to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’”