These days, Pastor Lee Dong-whan of the Glory Jeil Church doesn’t prepare for Sunday sermons or report to work at his church in Suwon, South Korea. Instead, he goes up an hour north to Seoul to stay with some colleagues who are researchers in church and social reform. They have some office space in a crowded five-story building situated in the capital’s downtown area. He now worries about his appearance, with hair always tangled and beard unshaven. Lee is currently on probation from all ministry duties under the Korean Methodist Church, as he faces the denomination’s court.
Clad in a white robe and a rainbow-colored stole and throwing flower petals, he caught national attention over a year ago for blessing the LGBTQ community at a queer parade in the city of Incheon. Other Methodist pastors reported him and the Church’s Judging Committee charged him of “supporting or agreeing with homosexuality,” which is against the denomination’s “doctrine and disciplines.”
“When I was blessing people at the Queer Culture Festival, I was merely praying for their good fortune and being a friend to them as Jesus was friends with people who were abandoned by society,” Lee told VICE News.
This is a part of his plea in court, as his defense task force — made up of nine social lawyers and 34 members from the Methodist community — try to make the case that Lee did not violate any Church rules. What he did was an act of love and kindness, they say. Lee hopes for drastic changes in the Church’s outlook towards sexual minorities.
Incheon’s first Queer Culture Festival in 2018 came to an abrupt close following verbal and physical abuse from a group of 1,000 anti-LGBTQ protesters, many from the Christian community.
“Among them was a pastor from our denomination who was dragged away by police after shouting things that I could never put in my mouth,” recounted Lee. “I wanted to let people know that there was another voice from the Church that represented support, love, and blessing to anyone and everyone.”
Even as Seoul’s own queer festival celebrated its 21st anniversary in September, the LGBTQ community continues to face a hostile atmosphere in a society that remains intolerant.
To this day, South Korea’s anti-discrimination bill, which seeks to ban all discrimination based on gender, disability, age, language, country of origin, and sexual orientation, has not been passed. The minor liberal Justice Party is now on its seventh attempt to pass the bill in the National Assembly. Previous attempts failed as conservative Christian groups have been lobbying against it since 2007. Lee believes that the bill’s passing is long overdue.
Like other Christians, Lee admitted that he too had very conservative views, but eventually had to confront his beliefs when a churchgoer came out to him in 2015.
“I was a conservative guy all around when I started out as a pastor. So, when a member of the youth group came to me a couple of years ago and came out of the closet, I didn’t know what to do,” Lee recalled. At the time, all he could think was “how can someone from our Church confess something like this?”
Today, he has become an advocate for diversity in the Christian community. His Facebook page is filled with messages and posts of support from members of the LGBTQ community and others who have been sidelined by Korean society and Churches. But Lee’s actions and words have also led to adversaries in the Christian community. The Korean Methodist Church’s website was swamped with negative comments about Lee in September last year, and the pastor personally got similar messages on social media. If his denomination’s court finds him guilty, he could lose his pastoral job at his Church.
Choi Hyung-mook is a Presbyterian pastor and a part of a minority of Church leaders in South Korea who openly share Lee’s support of the LGBTQ community.
“When Churches started to feel a sense of crisis due to their falling congregation numbers beginning in the 2000s, they needed a common enemy as a rallying call,” said Choi, the chairman of the Justice and Peace Committee in The National Council of Churches in Korea. “They would eventually form unions and rally against the three big adversaries: communism, Islam, and homosexuality.”
Large conservative Churches regularly attend mass protests against the LGBTQ community and liberal administrations.
“Because the news only highlights Christian groups protesting the anti-discrimination law, it’s easy for people to assume that the Church is largely opposed to the bill,” Choi said. “Yet, a big part of this public image comes from the fact that most of the spokespeople or leaders in Churches are men in their 60s or above. So, most of the conversation surrounding the topic of discrimination and homosexuality does not include the thoughts of regular churchgoers.”
In a new survey by the Christian Institute for the Study of Justice and Development, 42.1 percent of South Korean protestants surveyed were in favor of passing the anti-discrimination bill, while 38.2 percent were against it. The remaining respondents said they “didn't know.”
Some pastors worry that the law would prohibit them from refusing to officiate same-sex marriages, while Christian theological schools, or graduate-level institutions that prepare students for Christian ministry, are concerned about how to approach LGBTQ students or faculty members.
According to a 2017 article from online Christian website iGoodNews, 30 percent of Church congregation members in South Korea thought “homosexuality should be accepted as a peronal sexual preference,” while only 5.4 percent of pastors answered the same way.
Choi believes there are even more Christians who support the LGBTQ community today.
“The Methodist Church is failing the reputation of the Christian community by saying they don’t want a debate about the issue but a trial,” he said. “It’s similar to how people put cults on trials during the Medieval Ages.”
Seven people sat in a small meeting room inside a book cafe in the hip region Sinchon, famous as a hub of college campuses in Seoul. Each person in the group goes by an alias when they are in public, in fear of being associated with a group that advocates for the LGBTQ community.
Onull*, 26, left his traditional Christian campus after facing disciplinary action for protesting against the administration’s decision to limit the admission of LGBTQ students.
“We decided to leave the school to find a new place where we could freely learn and interact,” he told VICE News.
The son of a pastor, Onull has since teamed up with others who are also dissatisfied with their Christian schools or Churches to start Rainbow Seminary, an alternative theological school that aims to spark conversations about queerness and feminism.
“All of us here see the absence of diversity in today’s Churches as a need to call for change,” said preacher Soh Joong*. “It could be the disappearance of conversations on women’s rights, disabled people, or the LGBTQ community.”
Unlike Soh Joong who still goes to church, there are also members who have left Christianity altogether.
“The day I left was when the pastor said that ‘there would be no domestic violence if the wife is obedient to the husband’,” said Sye*, who also attended a theological school in the past.
Sye believes the Church is abusive to women by pressuring them to conform to conventional family ideologies.
“People at church used to offer me blind dates to ‘fine’ or ‘good’ men without asking about my opinion,” the 24-year-old recalled. “But when I walk to class holding my partner’s hand, classmates ask me to confirm if the person I was holding hands with was actually another woman.”
She said she can never feel safe talking about social issues while still being part of the Church.
“And I know that I am not alone in leaving the Church,” she said. “Whether or not they were queer like me, there were others who left the Church because they could not connect with it anymore.”
Pastor Lee has become a refuge for people who feel like they have no voice in the church pews, with many reaching out for advice and solace.
“I have also been getting a lot of support in the form of phone calls and messages,” said Lee. “People have been telling me that I have been a source of encouragement to them.”
Like Rainbow Seminary, Lee advocates for continued dialogue between different generations and groups within the Christian community. Instead of a trial, he welcomes a debate between Church leaders with liberal and conservative views.
“I think it’s important to be open to listening,” he said. “It’s so important to always have the mindset that ‘I might be wrong about something,’” just as he was wrong about the LGBTQ community five years ago.
Pastor Hwang Gun-gu, 65, considers Lee’s case to be “unfortunate.” Just four years away from retiring from his position at his church in the central province of Chungcheongbuk-do, Hwang recognized Lee’s intention to help those who have been struggling, but still thinks it was wrong of him to bless the LGBTQ community.
“Church should be a place that can welcome anyone inside its doors, but not everyone who comes inside the church building is considered a member of the Holy Church,” said Hwang. “As the owner of the Church is God, his words in the Bible need to be the center of the Church.”
He maintains that homosexuality is a sin that prevents one from going in front of God because it disclaims God’s creation of “man and woman.”
“Therefore, someone who believes in such gender identities cannot become an official member of the Church,” he said, reiterating rhetoric from other Christian communities around the world.
These deep-seated beliefs prevent Lee from practicing as a pastor. He attended his second and last trial under the Church court on Tuesday. In mid-October, the court will decide if Lee can keep his pastoral position. Unlike Hwang, he doesn’t believe being LGBTQ is something that should be “fixed.”
“As in the United States, there are Christian groups in the country that have the goal of converting gay people to become straight,” said Lee. “These efforts are irrational and anachronistic.”
“For me, it’s hard to see homosexuality as a sin,” Lee said.
“God doesn’t make mistakes and it’s a fact that he created those who are sexual minorities just like he created everyone else.”
Supporters have advised Lee to keep a low profile if he does keep his position as a pastor. But he has no plans of doing so.
“I don’t plan to be quiet at all,” Lee said. “I am going to visit any festival or any place in the future that is known to have people who are discriminated against by society and its institutions. It’s what Jesus would do.”
On Thursday, Oct. 15, the Gyeonggi Association of Methodist Churches suspended Lee for two years for blessing the queer festival.
*Names have been changed for privacy.
Update 10/15/2020: This article has been updated to reflect recent developments.
Correction 10/06/2020: This story originally said that Seoul’s queer festival celebrated its 20th anniversary in September. It was actually the 21st edition of the said event. We regret the error.