Challenging meta-narratives and breaking barriers: Boyung Lee finds a home

Russell Schoch

There were no women teachers or preachers while Boyung Lee was growing up in Korea, and she decided to leave her country in part because, as a woman, she could not be ordained. She became the first Asian PhD candidate at Boston College, and then the first person of color (and second woman) to pastor the United Methodist Church in Bolton, Connecticut.

And now Boyung Lee has broken another barrier: She is the first woman of color to receive tenure at PSR, where she was appointed associate professor of educational ministries last fall. “It’s a long overdue process,” she says, “and now that this has happened for me, I hope that it will quickly happen for a second, third, fourth, and many more women of color.”

Lee was born in Pohang, a seaport in southeast Korea, where her father served as an officer in the Republic of Korea Marine Corps. She says that growing up on a military base gave her an early taste of a multidenominational approach to ministry. “Our rotating military chaplains came from a wide variety of denominations,” she says. “Different branches of the Presbyterian Church, Methodist, Pentecostal, Baptist — I was exposed to them all.”

She had a call to ministry in her early teens, was very active in church, and took her spirituality seriously. In college, she chose to attend the nearest church, which was a very conservative, reformed Presbyterian church. She began to teach Sunday School, whose teachers took turns presiding at the service. When it was her turn, she was told not to go to the podium. When she asked why, she was told: “Because you’re a woman. Women shouldn’t be in the holy area.” Soon after, she became a Methodist.

At Yonsei University in Seoul, while she was earning her degree in theology, Lee had two “conversion experiences” outside her normal studies. The first took place during her freshman year, when she was recruited to join an educational underground — the chiha (“basement”) circle — composed of pro-democracy students who were seeking knowledge beyond the sanitized textbooks and classroom lectures. In Korea at that time, the 1980s, Lee says that representatives of the secret service disguised themselves as students, personal satchels and purses were searched for contraband texts, and some chiha students were tortured to death.

“In this circle, we read Paulo Freire, Che Guevara, and Latin American liberation theologians,” Lee says. “I learned about how Koreans suffered and were persecuted by the military government because they spoke the truth and stood up for their rights. Coming from the middle class — and an army base — to be exposed to all of this was an awakening, a culture shock.”

A second awakening occurred as she continued her active life in the church. She served as a youth group teacher at a church located in a very poor district, where the parents of her pupils were day laborers and domestic maids, some of whom could not afford to heat their homes in the winter. As a junior at Yonsei University, she worked at least three days a week at this church as a volunteer. “To me it was like having another conversion experience,” Lee recalls. “I felt that I needed to give back what I had received from my family and comparatively privileged upbringing.”

She moved to another church, where she worked more closely with adults, mostly poor women who worked in transnational textile mills. “Life was extremely hard for most of these people and their children. This was in the late 1980s, but some of them didn’t have running water at home. They worked 10 hours a day six days a week, but on Sundays they were just so happy and fully present. They tried very hard to put what they learned at church into practice, so everything I said was taken very seriously by them—which meant that I couldn’t just teach them what the textbooks said. I really had to understand their lives.”

On Sundays that began for her and the church at dawn and concluded with a 7 o’clock worship service, Lee was exhausted by mid-afternoon. “Every Sunday, some older woman, of my mother’s generation, would take me into her home, force me to rest, and then wake me up when dinner was ready. It was a very simple meal — a big pot of meat or chicken, then rice and kimchi. We all ate from the same pot. And that is the true meaning of communion. These poor women were the ones who transformed me.”

Some of her poor parishioners lived on leased government land. When it was proposed that luxury apartments be built on this land, dispossessing the women and their families, they fought back against the government. The church condemned their protests as “unchristian.” Working with and coming to know these groups of women and their perspectives, Lee says, gave her first-hand experience in critical thinking. “These women at first were suspicious of me. I looked to be too middle class; but they cautiously and graciously embraced me and taught me the importance of justice, compassion, and community for spiritual formation.

“When you become an ordained minister and a scholar,” these women said to Boyung Lee, “please remember us. Please remember our struggles.” “They were cautioning me,” Lee says today, “lest their plight be nebulized by my career advancement. I continue to reflect on whether my theology brings justice to people like them.”

It is not surprising then that Lee’s scholarship reflects her passion for these people: she is a postcolonial feminist religious educator, and she says that “post-modern ideas, which I discovered later, gave me language to name what I had been doing and experiencing in Korea: challenging the dominant culture and its meta-narratives.”

She was first introduced to these radical ways of thinking at Yonsei University when she read, in translation, such feminist theologians as Rosemary Radford Reuther (who later would teach at PSR at the same time as Boyung Lee). “I wanted to explore these ideas further. And I wanted to be ordained and be able to marry, which was not permitted in the Korean Methodist church. So I decided to come to the United States.”

In 1991, the dean of the Claremont School of Theology and his wife, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Moore, a prominent Christian religious education scholar, visited Korea and Yonsei University. Lee knew her work and managed to meet with them for 40 minutes. “I just fell in love with her, immediately,” she says. “They took my application back with them to Claremont, and about two weeks later I was admitted to the school.”

At Claremont, Lee earned her MDiv in 1994 and then went to Boston College and found a different atmosphere. “Being a Korean woman and a Methodist at such an Irish Catholic School, “she says, “I felt isolated and lonely, especially at first.” She contacted and befriended Kwok Pui Lan, the pioneering scholar in Asian feminist theology at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, who would serve on Lee’s dissertation committee. That committee was chaired at Boston College by prominent Christian educator Thomas Groome, one of whose translated books was the major textbook in Lee’s theological study at Yonsei University. “When I was in college,” she says, “I used to daydream that if I could go abroad and study Christian education, I would study with Dr. Groome — I’ve been extremely lucky to have such great teachers!”

As she neared completion of her PhD in religion and education, Lee began the ordination process in the United Methodist Church and was ordained before she wrote her dissertation. Sent to a struggling church in Bolton, Connecticut, it was there that she began to focus on what has become one of her specialties, popular culture and theology. She was a single, young minister, and her house was open to the church’s youth group, which grew in number from five when she began to more than 20. “We became very close, but I was puzzled because whenever I wanted to talk about some serious theological issues, all I got was a very text-book answer or ‘I don’t know.’

“And then one day we all went to a shopping mall to buy toys for children in shelters. As we entered the mall, Joan Osborne’s ‘One of Us’ was being played on the loudspeaker. All of a sudden, these kids were very animated and singling along: ‘What if God is one of us/Just a slob like one of us.’

“What an incarnation of theology! The next time we met, I played that song and asked them to discuss its theology. It became a rich conversation.” Lee says she realized that popular culture is not merely an appendage but a vital core for young people today. “This means we need to approach our ministry differently for the 21st century,” she says. Lee’s course on media culture and theology is one of the most popular today at PSR.

Back in Connecticut, Lee feared that, without her dissertation (and PhD) in hand, she was out of the academic job market. But her name was being put forth as an up-and-coming scholar, and a job offer came her way. Then a call came from Fumitaka Matsuoka, chair of a search committee, asking if she would be interested in talking to PSR, even though she had an offer elsewhere.

“Without a doubt in my mind,” she says, “I wanted to come to PSR. While I was in the PhD program, with my background and my theological trajectory, I once asked myself: ‘If you could make your life come out any way you wanted to, where would you want to teach? And my answer was: at PSR.’ ” Lee recalls that her college advisor, who was the top person in Christian education in Korea, received his ThD from PSR. “So I had known about PSR for a long time, but I didn’t know about the bold directions the school was taking until I came to Claremont and Boston College. And then, all of a sudden, I got a call from PSR!”

After successful interviews, Lee was hired and moved here in June 2002, months after marrying another Methodist minister, Archer Summers, from West Virginia. Two years later, Lee finished her PhD. Three years after that milestone, she received tenure. Associate Professor Lee says today that she definitely considers PSR to be her home, for many reasons. “I feel at home here intellectually because I’m not the only one taking a post-colonial feminist approach. On a more personal level, if you’re in a good healthy family — as we on the faculty are at PSR — your family members let you know when you’re not doing the right thing. There is more than enough trust among us so that we can speak truthfully. That makes this a home.

“Another thing I like about PSR is that we take our faith very seriously. A lot of mainline and even liberal seminaries are very good at saying ‘No’ to the hardliners but don’t offer any alternatives. But at PSR we take our Bible and our Christian traditions and history very seriously, and we provide life-giving messages form a liberal perspective.”

Boyung Lee was recently named one of the “One Hundred Future Women Leaders of Korea,” and her scholarship and teaching remain on the front line of contemporary theology. She is working on several book projects in her subject areas, and one of her most recent articles was the first published article on Asian and Asian North American women’s pedagogy. Another first for PSR’s newest tenured faculty member.