By Sarah Carey
The choice lay before me: I could take the bigger bus, or I could take a smaller van. The big bus would take me to a local Methodist church. The other van, with only two teachers, would travel to a local Catholic parish. It was my first Sunday morning in Korea as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. I was 7,500 miles from my home and I needed to make a decision.
Ultimately, I chose to attend the local Methodist church with the larger group of teachers. I was born to and raised by lovingly devout Protestant parents. At my little rural church, I was educated in Christian orthodoxy, was baptized, and participated in communion every week. As I grew older, I discovered an unusual pull towards the Catholic faith, a faith that some in my little church warned me about. Before I even arrived in Korea, I envied my friends in college who attended Mass and participated in Lent. I devoured the writings of the saints, I developed an affection for our Blessed Mother. I wanted the fullness of the Faith.
During the Fulbright orientation, I returned to various Protestant churches in the small community. Each time, I was greeted with love and free meals of cold noodles and kimchi after the worship service. Yet, I wanted to be with the teachers who went to Mass. I wanted what those teachers had: I wanted to meet Jesus in the Catholic Church. I wanted the liturgy, even though I knew a smattering of words in Korean. I was at a crossroads of faith, thousands of miles away and with a language barrier. I was still afraid of my desires to enter the Church.
As orientation ended, I bade farewell to the tiny town. I was assigned to live with a homestay family and teach on Jeju Island, about fifty miles south of the Korean mainland. As the plane barreled over the Sea of Japan, I was nervous. Would I find chemistry with my host family? What about teaching my new all-girls’ school? Would I find a church to attend? All of these questions and anxieties welled in my mind as the island approached closer from my view out of the plane’s window. I thought about what I had hinted to Heaven earlier, “Lord, if Catholicism is for me, place me with a Catholic family.” We landed, gathered my luggage, and I was whisked away to the southernmost shore of Jeju.
My host family was loving, and accepting: everything I could have asked for. Within a few days, my host father located a Presbyterian church with an English-speaking assistant minister for my Sunday mornings. The new school welcomed me warmly. At the beginning of my tenure, when I was home alone, I would wander around my new home. What I had failed to notice in a rush of anxiety was my host mother’s wall décor. There were a few crucifixes and a statue of Mary in a curio cabinet. I found more rosaries in the house, coiled on bookshelves or hanging from the car and house key holder.
I thought about my prayer: “Place me with a Catholic family.” Though, I balked. The whole family wasn’t Catholic, just my host mother. Even then, I never saw her attend Mass on Sundays. I was the only person in the house that attended church. Were my prayers answered? Did a “partial” answer count? I remained confused, but I clung to the hope that maybe I could find my home in the Catholic Church.
As the year progressed, my host mother’s faith dotted the calendar. On the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, my host mother made special effort to make crepes in her skillet, which we smothered in strawberry jam. On the Fridays of Lent, I remember she faithfully abstained from meat, eating only fish while we continued with beef and pork. After Easter, she resumed a “normal” diet. Even five years later, her religious practices, the crucifixes, and the faded statue of Mary all linger in my mind. Looking back, I wish I would have asked to attend the local Catholic church with her, but I didn’t.
You would assume that after a year in Korea with my Catholic host mother, I would have immediately sought out conversion upon returning to the United States. The truth is, I didn’t. I still harbored reservations, even though the prayer from my orientation appeared as answered. It wasn’t until November 2016, over three years since my return from Korea, that I took the leap of faith and enrolled in RCIA. During the Easter Vigil of 2017, I professed my belief in the Catholic Church. It was a joyous occasion.
As I reflect on my year in Korea, I think about how the Lord gently led me to the Catholic faith. Despite my reservations and fears, and my inability to see an answered prayer, He never abandoned me in my journey to grow closer to Him. Often, I think about that year on the island and my religious experiences. It was as if, on that very island thousands of miles away with a loving Korean family, that I my heart heard the whispers of faith, “Come home, come home.”