I missed the Super Bowl and also BWA Day.
Well, not exactly. I expected that I would be celebrating the annual Baptist World Alliance Day, and watching the Super Bowl, somewhere.
That “somewhere” turned out to be in Pyongyang, North Korea (DPRK), and I did manage to have one Baptist with me. Bela Szilagyi from Hungarian Baptist Aid and I were in the DPRK again checking on some Baptist World Aid programs.
On Sunday morning we made our way to the Pongsu Church, where a Protestant form of worship is offered every Sunday. I have also been told that there is a Roman Catholic Church in the city, and a Russian Orthodox Church is now being built following a visit from the patriarch. I wonder how long it will be before we open a Baptist church again in North Korea.
There were four international guests in the service, two South Korean Christians, Bela and I. A new bilingual combined hymnbook and Bible is available for international guests, while the Korean members of the congregation have separate Bibles and hymnbooks.
The choir sang as beautifully as ever, and there were other musical items. An older lady led the congregation in prayer, with as much fervor as I have heard in South Korea. With the help of a translator we were able to listen to the sermon.
My first visit to the DPRK was exactly six years ago, and much of the change going on in this country was seen in the worship service. Six years ago most of the congregation seemed emotionless, with no eye contact or greeting their guests. This time they sang “God be with you ’til we meet again,” as the guests were escorted down the aisle at the end of the service. Some smiled at us and others shook our hands. There was a warmth of fellowship. At the end of the service the congregation flowed out through the front doors, almost making contact with us, unheard of even two years ago.
So, Bela and I did celebrate BWA Day, even though it was not mentioned. We sang our hearts out and prayed for the work of the Alliance, especially in this time of turmoil. And though I know that some of my BWA colleagues will be sad with me, we did not take up a special offering for the BWA, either.
There are many changes taking place, with official and unofficial markets, the distribution of land for small farmers and the mass production of a North Korean car. There are certainly more cars on the streets, and smiles are returned by people in stores and on the street. Words such as “market economy” are creeping in.
I am not denying the daily struggle that the vast majority have in North Korea, and two or three churches does not compare in any way at all with the over 2000 at the beginning of the war. But change is taking place.
We spent the rest of BWA Day in the city of Sariwon, to the south of Pyongyang. Here BWAid, HBAid and others have been supporting the work of the provincial hospital and a neighboring children’s home for some years. What a difference from our first visit! The used hospital beds and equipment we sent are bringing added comfort. Surgical and other aids were appreciated, and the pharmacy was reasonably well stocked. Quite a comparison to the empty shelves we had seen before.
In the orphanage we saw clean and tidy babies and toddlers, being cared for in a warm and loving environment. The industrial washing machine we had sent was being put to good use. The problem of clean water still remains, and Bela and I discussed how we could raise the funds to ship two water purification tanks, tablets and pipes, etc., from Hungary to Sariwon.
As we left the city we were taken to the pediatric hospital that we had not been able to help. Here another NGO had built a block with two surgical theaters, but the money had run out before the building had been equipped. The renovation of the hospital wards had brought cleanliness and warmth, but still the old broken hospital beds were being used.
Baptists must know of hospitals that are re-equipping wards, theaters and equipment, and here’s an avenue they can take. BWAid needs the funds to ship these goods, and other agencies we can work with to find them.
Contact me if you think you can help or want to send a donation for our work in the DPRK.
Oh! The Super Bowl? Well, in this isolated and closed country, and two days after the game, I still do not know the score, and actually believe that I am having far more fun here in North Korea!
Paul Montacute is the director of Baptist World Aid in Falls Church, Va.