Hee-Kyu Heidi Park
Department of Christian Studies
I returned to Ewha after twenty some years of sojourning in another country. As a new theology professor and a university chaplain, I quickly learned that my job includes sustaining and living out Ewha’s founding spirit. Thus started my search for Mary, Mary Scranton, Ewha’s founding mother.
She was the first missionary woman from the Methodist Church in America, but I didn’t know her home church was in New Haven, Connecticut, the third city I lived in the States. For me this is a city of romance, where I met and dated my husband fiercely. I say fiercely, because we were in such love without much money that we simply roamed around the city and claimed any secluded space as our own, where we first held hands, first hugged or kissed. Or maybe we dated fiercely, because we were both painfully lonely. New Haven became our new heaven.
Mary Scranton’s husband was a business man and a member of the city council of New Haven. Their son William was a student at Yale College located in the city. Settled in 1600s, the Scranton family was a significant member of the community. Born into a pastor’s family and married into the Scranton family, Mary was a well-educated upper-class lady, an insider of the mainstream New England culture. I know the church she attended and the street she lived on. I know the green square facing her house. Yet, I’m quickly reminded that where she was and where I was as a foreigner in the city cannot be more distant. There, I learned the intricate fabric of the American highclass , the subtle and sometimes blunt pride woven into the intelligentsia and wealth that I had no access to but was forced to gaze upon. What motivated her to leave comfort and go to Korea?
Mary lost her husband in their early 40’s. In the late 1800s, Chosun dynasty was going through a social turmoil stemming out of economic failure of NeoConfucian idealism and rapidly changing global power structure fueled by industrialization and western imperialism. Located between China and Japan, Korea was a hot spot lurked by China, Russia, Japan, Britain, Germany, Frances, Italy and Denmark. After a period of protective closed border policy, there opened a tiny window of opportunity when Chosun’s royal government offered Western educators and medical people to provide their service in the land. Mary persuades her son, a doctor, and his wife to start mission work with her in Korea, a country unknown to most. She was 53 when she entered Korea.
Stepping into Korea, what did Mary see? The story goes that she built the school and the health center to receive patients, but nobody wanted to send their daughters to these foreigners. After days of waiting, Mary and William took a stroll in the city and found a man who had fallen down on the street. They took care of him until he healed. Mary, with her newly acquired Korean, persuaded him to send his daughter to her. She became the first Ewha student. Commemorating this first student, Ewha Womans University still carries a deliberate misspelling in its name, using womans instead of women to signify Ewha started with one student. With this small beginning, orphans, concubines, girls sold as housemaids, girls with no place to go gathered and began to learn when they were valued only as child-bearers and house-keepers. They were given names and loving care, and the opportunity to grow in their intellectual journeys. Ewha community grew.
Back to my story, let me tell you one thing I hated in New Haven. I hated coffee hours. You hold a cup of coffee in your hand and talk ‒ that was, for me, a recipe for disaster. It goes like this: I wait for someone to approach me, as I do not have the gut to approach others. When someone finally finds me and talks to me, the conversation begins to stall when I tell him my name as it brings up the dreaded question, “where are you from?” Once I say I’m from Korea, this person searches for connection point, as in “my uncle fought in the Korean war. He says it’s a beautiful country.” Then the awkward pause. Behind “where are you from?” was the fear that my country is cast as a poverty-stricken place, where a dirty Korean child stands in rugged clothes with sad eyes blankly staring at the camera, enlisting the pity of the onlooker. If I go any further in this conversation, my desperate effort to prove Korea to be otherwise turns into a poorly nuanced comparison of Korea and the States or an over-exaggeration that left me feeling smaller. In this effort, I struggled not to be that dirty orphan girl deserving pity of onlookers. With an awkward pause, the two of us will stare at our coffee for a while, then one of us will say, “it was nice meeting you. See you around!” and walk away. I ask again: what did Mary see? Was Mary’s gaze similar to the gaze behind the question, “where are you from?” If it was, should I, as the university chaplain embody such pity in my gaze? I can’t. I searched for Mary’s gaze at her first student. Then I found an interesting motto that she used: “to make Koreans better Koreans.” If one can see beyond this national identifier language, there hides Mary’s gaze. Pity needs an object of pity ‒ you feed it, you clothe it, you house it. All very necessary things. But in the phrase “better Koreans,” I hear something qualitatively different from pity. I hear the affirmation that being Korean is already valuable. An affirmation of potential. In the poverty stricken unhygienic looking girls, she saw potential for growth ‒ a revolutionary insight that goes against the cultural expectation and possibly the seeming reality at the time.
In this Mary, I hear another Mary’s voice. I hear Magnificat (Luke 1), the song that Jesus’ mother Mary sang during her pregnancy. Note that her pregnancy was out of wedlock, punishable by death at the time. She learns from her ever-changing body and sings this bad-ass song that defies the notion of the “nice girl” who obeys the social norms. Somehow, she knows that God will “scatter the proud in their conceits” and “cast down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly.” She sings, “You have filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” This Mary, whose lowly socio-economic status only allowed her to marry a carpenter of the town, sings that the kings will be overthrown and the poor will be lifted up. Where on earth does she get it?
We find another gaze: she says, “for you, Lord, have looked with favor on your lowly servant.” In this gaze she finds the affirmation that Mary will be a better Mary, a way better Mary. When Mary said “I am nothing” God said, “Nope, you are something and you will see.” In this gaze, she sees the whole society changing: if this is happening to me, the world will change. The objectification of women continues but I also see the Ewha family’s resilience that believes in radical change of the society like these two Marys did. Whenever pain is met, I seek such liberating gaze. Often, I find such gaze in the Ewha community. I soak in such gaze; the gazes of our Marys and God who are affirming and nudging us into better us. Mary’s radical confession was a claim that upsets the social fabric, lifting up the forgotten, marginal people to the highest place. Women being empowered was as radical. I conclude: to embody the Ewha spirit is to soak in this gaze.