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Oil-spill brings change of heart in Korean churches

By Rev Jan M. Fogg

In May I was fortunate to attend a small workshop in South Korea, brought together under the banner of the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA). The workshop arose out of the growing concern Christians hold for the consequences of global warming in the earth, which will force us to change our values and our lifestyles.

In the face of an environmental tragedy Korean churches have come together and developed a bigger sense of mission.

One day of the four day workshop was given to a field trip out to the Taean Peninsula on South Korea’s west coast to participate in an oil-spill clean-up operation. On December 5th, 2007, disaster struck off-shore. A barge towing a crane in rough seas rammed into a single-hulled oil tanker waiting to off-load its crude oil to a refinery. 10,500 tons of crude oil was spilled into the ocean before the leak could be stopped. In the high winds, thick black oil quickly washed up along the beaches. Eventually 150 km of coastline and 26 beautiful beaches were covered with oil. The tragedy was about a third the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska.

This coast line had been highly valued by tourists and holiday makers. But now no one wants to visit a beach where dark oil continues to seep up through the sand and rocks, despite the valiant efforts of 1.2 million volunteers to clear it. The coast line is also an important fishing area for South Korea and there were more than 200 marine farms in the area. But who wants to purchase fish or sea food that has been bathed in crude oil? This coastline is also a site for many migratory birds, including the godwits from New Zealand that call in on their way to Alaska.

The lifestyles and economies of villages and towns along this coast have been destroyed, at least in the short term. Regrettably, no compensation from either the government or the responsible company is so far forthcoming.

What was forthcoming however, was a changed heart by many of the churches and church leaders in the area. Whereas previously, by their own account, the churches emphasised head counts, size and success as mission goals, now that has turned round completely. Our field day began in a church at the centre of one of the affected villages. We were shown a video entitled ‘Dark Sea – the Day of Despair.’ The minister told us, "Our village is beautiful but we have had a hard time because of the oil spill; yet this hard time has caused us to praise the Lord more."

Within a few days of the disaster, as volunteers came into the area to try to help, the churches made a decision to work together and co-ordinate the restoration effort so it would be more effective. The Korean Church Volunteer Group was born.

As a result, 2000 Korean churches from 25 different denominations have worked, prayed and re-thought their theology – on mission, on stewardship of God’s creation, on practical action, and on how to be a genuine neighbour to people who are suffering in a disaster. They have faced the reality, through this disaster, that the Korean Church is called to be a steward with responsibility towards all creation. And what they have discovered is that the disaster has brought their churches into a unity in faith which they hadn’t experienced before.

They are praising God for this new unity and what it has achieved! Now their mission goal is going ever wider, reaching out to Myanmar and Sichuan in the time of their own suffering. Hearing their story encouraged our workshop to rethink our understanding of development, stewardship and our accountability to one another and God’s creation.

What is most powerful about this story is that the response to the oil spill didn’t remain at an individual level. The individuals in the different churches came together to address the problem collectively, and thus they now have more clout. A feature of the environmental crisis we all face, is that our individual responses are being called for. These are great, but they won’t save the world. Corporates are happy for individuals to take both the blame and the responsibility. Rather, corporates and governments must change. The Korean Volunteer Group is now pushing both the Korean government and the company responsible to front up to what they have done or not done. From our small workshop we wrote a letter of support to the volunteer group and also a letter to the company calling them to their responsibility.

Jesus continually fronted up to the leadership of his day with the error of its ways. As Church, surely we must do the same today, for the sake of tomorrow.