The entrance to Yoido Full Gospel Church
Last week, David Yongi-Cho was convicted of embezzling $12 million in funds from the Yoido Full Gospel Church. He was given a three-year suspended prison sentence (meaning he has five years until he actually goes to jail) and ordered to pay nearly $5 million in fines. The Yoido Gospel, which David founded, is the largest Pentacostal Christian congregation in South Korea, making him an icon—and not just in South Korea—the guy even has a his own celebratory name day dedicated to him by the church of New York.
In recent years, Christianity has blossomed in South Korea. The first Christian missionaries arrived in 1794, and by the 80s, it managed to surpass Confucianism as the country's top religion. This contrasts greatly with China and Japan, where Christianity largely failed to gain popularity. According to Myoung-Kyu Park, the rise of Christianity in Korea owes partly to its association with Western prosperity.
In Seoul today, the streets are adorned with more neon red crosses than McDonald's arches. But of all the churches, Yoido reigns supreme. In 2009, it had almost one million members. Needless to say, an excessive congregation makes for extravagant contributions.
The Yoido Gospel was opened in 1973 to accommodate to the ballooning number of followers that Cho had amassed. The strongest distinction of Yoido from any other church is its "Threefold Blessing." Cho preaches that not only will members be spiritually cleansed, they will also grow healthy and wealthy. Quite an offer.
Unsurprisingly, some people don’t buy it. Critics have labeled the Threefold Blessing as a selfish faith that contributes nothing to society. To make matters worse, Cho is regularly in the headlines for accusations of pilfering the church's money. In a piece published by the Economist, one pastor from another Seoul church remarked, “When you’re looking at assets that huge, human greed comes into play."
Growing rich and healthy does indeed appeal to me, but I was more curious to see how the churchgoers would react to the news of David's sins, so I decided to attend the Sunday service myself. The entrance to the rotunda building, though impressive, resembles more of a baseball stadium than a church. I arrived an hour early for the first sermon, so I decided to interview the crowd, even though I was slightly reluctant (I had heard that members of the church had been been present for Cho’s sentencing, and that they’d started a riot, attacking the media who were present.)
To my relief, I was spared from being bashed with Bibles. Kang Myeong-Ju told me she’s been coming here for more than 30 years. When I asked her what she thought about the charges, she said she was “shocked and distressed” to hear the news. And when I asked if she still supported him, she said, “So long as he repents his sins deeply, then yes.” She went on to tell me that the “church won’t lose members over this issue, as people are coming here to see God, not the pastor.”
In-Ho Kim, who’s a three-year member, said Yoido reached this size “because people really trust David Cho.” When I asked whether he did, he told me, “I’m not sure what to say about his private issues. But yes, I do trust him, and I will continue to give to the cause.”
Two of many ATMs located inside the church
Everyone I spoke to had heard of Cho’s indictment, and yet all were still going to donate. I was growing very compelled to see Cho’s sermon, and exactly how persuasive the enigma must be. Inside the building, it was difficult not to notice the abundance of ATMs, which were like passive-aggressive reminders to keep donation money on hand.
I was ushered to the international section on the upper balcony. Here, they offer headphones playing translations of the sermon. From my vantage point, I could appreciate the immensity of the building—it was like sitting inside Madison Square Garden. Pretty soon, every seat was occupied. The choir began an admittedly awesome performance, and the pastors took to the stage. I recognized Cho, and his shiny little head, in an instant. The first speaker the Senior Pastor Young Hoon Lee (a subordinate position to Cho's, which he has since forfeited in the wake of the scandal). Lee made an apology for the conduct of the church, then dived straight into the most ironic topic possible—corruption. In a mystifying ramble, Lee proclaimed that “money is the true source of true evil," and “that following money is the path to corruption." At that moment, he stopped and said it was “time for the offerings."
Reverend Cho performing a sermon
An army of white-jacketed henchmen suddenly appeared, weaving through the crowd with large red baskets. I tried to make hopeful eye contact with someone around me who might also have recognized the absurdity, but alas, all of them were reaching for their wallets.
When all of the baskets were full, the collectors marched to the stage and piled them on top of each other. I didn’t want to think about how much was in it, and luckily I didn’t have to—it was David Cho’s turn to speak his piece. Dressed in a polka dot red tie, he began what can only be described as an altogether verbose discussion about suffering. He finally mentioned that the past few years have been an “ordeal for him” and that he “no longer wished for money.” But then, lo and behold, he announced it was “time for another offering.” My head was spinning. Was this actually happening? He had neglected to actually apologize for anything—he was going to jail for swindling their money, and here they were, reaching for their second wave of donations. The choir resumed, and I managed to break away to speak with one of the donation collectors, Isaac Ha. When I brought up the future of the church, Isaac assured me that "although David used some of the church money for personal use, he acknowledged that it was wrong today, and because of that, everyone will forgive him."