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    candle burning in a jar among notes and flower petals

    The Grief of Itaewon

    How do you respond to a tragedy when there is nothing much you can do?

    By Trudi Brinkmann

    November 29, 2022
    • Denise Williams

      How incredibly moving and relevant in todays hurting world. We can ask God to help us be prescient, to know others suffering, to share in their suffering . Then we can be of use . Thank you for this article

    Carnations, cup noodles, soju, chocolate. Candles, flags, teddy bears, a cross. In and around the growing piles, letters, poems, pictures, and thousands of Post-it notes, these items bore witness to the loss of young lives. Days earlier, a massive Halloween party in Seoul’s nightlife hub, Itaewon, had turned deadly, leaving 158 people crushed to death by the crowds. Now the once-lively streets were a makeshift memorial.

    candle burning in a jar among notes and flower petals

    All photographs courtesy of the author.

    A voice broke the hush. Sobs exploding from a deep place of grief. The young woman sank to her knees on the sidewalk, letting her tears flow. Who had she lost? Yehjin, a young Christian who had come to the site to show support, didn’t know the woman. She didn’t really want to approach a stranger, who might not appreciate interference. But the woman needed something to wipe her tears with, at least. Yehjin walked over and offered some tissues. Timidly, she placed a hand on the woman’s shoulder. She could only guess the cause of anguish, but it seemed that her supportive presence was a help. The woman leaned into her, and Yehjin, not knowing what else to do, held her.

    Four weeks after the tragedy that took the lives of so many of her peers, I met with Yehjin and a few of her colleagues at the Samaritan’s Purse office in Seoul. Inspired by the Samaritan’s Purse slogan “Helping in Jesus’ Name,” they had volunteered and received training in responding to natural disasters. Here, it seemed, was an opportunity to do just that. But how?

    “It still feels so close,” Yehjin told me, “It’s something we have to process and maybe we don’t want to because it’s difficult for us to understand.”

    man playing flute in front of a pile of flowers

    In the days after the horrific Halloween crowd crush, Yehjin and her coworkers hadn’t planned to go to Itaewon. Pray, yes. But go there? What could they do? In the aftermath of a fire or typhoon, there is something to “do,” and volunteers pitch in and help clean up the mess. Here was a different kind of devastation: How could they enter a mess of broken hearts, shattered dreams, and fresh trauma? Rapid Response Team chaplains encouraged them to go anyway, not as heroes but as followers of Jesus going to “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15). They went. Their ministry would be one of presence.

    “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them” (Matt 9:36). Compassion means to “suffer with.” Yet at Itaewon, it was difficult to know how to show compassion. Yehjin remembers realizing, “I have no connection with these people. I don’t know how to approach them or if it’s even appropriate to do so.” Another staff member added that in Korea, perhaps more than other cultures, help offered by a stranger might be perceived as rude or offensive. Elsewhere in the world, Samaritan’s Purse volunteers “loving on” strangers might be appreciated. Not here. When people withhold from offering help, it’s not due to callousness but rather due to an assumption that strangers “don’t want you to get involved.”

    pile of flowers and photos

    These reservations made ministering at Itaewon difficult. Ministry of presence is simple in concept, but asks us to step out of our comfort zones and be present for people we do not know. SooYeon, a staff member who had gone to the memorial reflected, “You’re just there; you don’t understand what they’re going through. You could go through the same thing but understand things differently.” He added that if one tries to offer words, ministry of presence often becomes ineffective:

    Christians fall into the trap of trying to understand. There is always going to be a need for understanding, but there’s a thin line between understanding and arrogance. When you understand someone, you understand them in the context of your experience, not theirs, and you put them in your box. You don’t know what they’re going through.

    SooYeon’s insight was echoed by the others as they discussed what effective ministry might look like. They hadn’t been the only Christians at the memorial. There were others with megaphones blaring salvation or damnation. Itaewon is known for its bars and nightclubs, a place some Christians avoid and frown upon. Yes, the Christian message is needed there too. But how to bring that message, especially to traumatized and hurting souls?

    young woman playing violin under a streetlight

    The author plays her violin at the site of the Itaewon tragedy.

    SooYeon pointed out that to non-Christians, the preachers have no more effect than the Buddhist monks with their drums and bells: both are taking center stage, their actions drawing attention to themselves. “People are smart,” he said, “they know if we have an agenda.” MinSung, another staff member, said she always prays before going to do ministry work. “If God then gives me the heart to do it, I’ll obey.” If we go in the right sense, SooYeon added, “people will notice the way we are and might turn to us.” Christ didn’t raise his voice in the street, but he grieved with the grieving, and asks us to do the same.

    Yehjin went back to the memorial this week. Fallen gingko leaves added their bright yellow where carnations had turned to brown. Policemen stood at attention here and there. Seoul was bustling with life as usual, but here it seemed quiet. People still stood by the memorial. A man stood gazing at one place for a long time. Yehjin wondered if he had lost someone. She hoped that the thousands of Post-it notes were giving him comfort: prayers and shared pain written by anonymous hands, in many languages. The notes were a ministry of presence in their own way.

    Contributed By portrait of Trudi Brinkmann Trudi Brinkmann

    Trudi Brinkmann lives at Yeongwol, a Bruderhof community in South Korea.

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