Taking hold of the vision and vocation of global leadership development to which Columbia Theological Seminary remains committed, Rev. Dr. Syngman Rhee, the Former Moderator of the PC(USA), has graciously accepted an invitation to join our staff as administrative faculty. His appointment, a first for Columbia Seminary, is as the Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Practice of Global Leadership Development. Dr. Rhee is also serving as Acting Director of Korean American Ministries while Dr. Paul Huh is on sabbatical this fall. This is not only a great honor for Columbia Seminary to have a former moderator, renowned for his ministry of global leadership development on our staff, but especially for our increasingly diverse student body, whom Dr. Rhee seeks to serve as “pastor-teacher-mentor.”
“For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” 2 Corinthians 5:14-15.
Syngman Rhee was born in 1931, a son of a parish minister Rev. Tae Suk Rhee in Pyongyang, North Korea. In 1948, Rhee was thrown out of his high school in Pyongyang, because his father was a Christian minister. His father was martyred in North Korea after being imprisoned in 1950, and later buried in a mass grave with other Christian leaders.
After his father’s execution, and with the arrival of Chinese troops to join the Korean War, Rhee’s mother who was a teacher at a Christian mission school was fearful for the lives of her two sons, 19 and 17. She arranged for them to be evacuated and walk with hundreds of other refugees in the freezing cold toward South Korea. The boys never saw their mother again, but they also never forgot her last words. She told them that amidst the difficulties of war and hardship, they should continue to pray to God wherever they went. And if they were never to see each other again, then they would surely see each another in their prayers.
Dr. Rhee joined the South Korean Marines during the Korean War. He was fortunate to have learned English from his father at home during a time when most of his friends in North Korea were learning Russian in school. He was selected in 1953 to come to a United States Marines school in Quantico, VA because of his English. He returned to South Korea and was discharged from the Korean Marine Corps in 1955. With the help of a close Christian friend and a classmate at Quantico, Lt. Gunner Hanson, he was sponsored to come back to the United States for further education in 1956. After graduating from Davis and Elkins College, he finished his MDiv at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. He began his campus ministry at the University of Louisville. He also received his STM at Yale University, and Doctor of Religion degree from Chicago Theological Seminary.
“But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:33
During his tenure at the University of Louisville in the early 60’s, the United States was actively engaged in the Civil Rights Movement. “Jim Crow Laws” were being challenged throughout the South. Blacks were banned from entering restaurants, hotels, and other public places. Dr. Rhee served as the first faculty advisor to the Black Student Union and marched with them to pass the “Public Accommodations Ordinance.” During the protests, whites would openly confront him about why he was involved as a Yellow in a Black and White issue. Dr. Rhee replied “Because racial justice is an issue for all of us.” One man struggled to come up with some way to insult Dr. Rhee saying, “You…yellow negro!”
Dr. Rhee participated in the Civil Rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and learned that the Civil Rights Movement was not only for the liberation of the blacks, but also for the liberation of the whites from their prejudice, and to create a new society of justice and freedom. King told him that the oppressed, rather than the oppressors, have the initiative to create a new and just society. The oppressed have a choice: to seek revenge for their hurts or to forgive and seek a new relationship. For years Dr. Rhee had felt enmity and hostility for the North Korean regime, but Dr. King’s words challenged his heart with forgiveness and reconciliation for a new vision of Korea and he has contributed much for reconciliation of a divided Korean people. He confessed, “I do not think that human suffering is a gift from God, but Christian faith to overcome suffering is indeed a gift from God.”
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you”. Matthew 28:19-20
Dr. Rhee was called to the World Mission Department for the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA or the Northern Presbyterian Church) starting in 1973 for the next 25 years. For the first seven, he served as Mission Coordinator in the Middle East including: Israel, Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt. He had applied to serve in Asia, but was told, “We need some new insight for our mission in the Middle East. Your experience in Korea with conflict and war, persecution and suffering will be useful there.”
Later he coordinated Presbyterian mission work in East Asia: China, South and North Korea, Japan, Philippines, and Thailand, for 7 years. For 11 years he was the Associate Director for the Worldwide Ministries Division and established mission partnerships with churches around world. His passion, of course, was for North Korea and he helped to rebuild churches there and led efforts for North-South reconciliation.
Dr. Rhee retired from the General Assembly in 1998 and was appointed as Distinguished Professor of Mission and Evangelism and Director of the Asian American Ministry and Mission Center at Union Presbyterian Seminary for 15 years before retiring last year. This past July, Acting President and Dean of Faculty, Dr. Deborah Mullen invited him to consider coming to Columbia Theological Seminary to become the first Distinguished Visiting Professor for Global Leadership Development.
Among his other accomplishments, Dr. Rhee served as the President of National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America (NCCUSA) in 1992 and 1993. During that time, President Bill Clinton invited him, along with other religious leaders, to be part of a Religious Advocacy Group where they were asked for advice on domestic and global policy issues. When asked about North-South relations in Korea, he told President Clinton, “There cannot be another war in Korea. Military solution is no solution.”
Many years ago Dr. Rhee, along with his mother, was led to the site of the mass grave where his father was buried. They retrieved his father’s body and were able to give him a Christian funeral and burial. At his father’s funeral, Rhee had asked God with anguish, “Why are the righteous people suffering, while evil seems to prosper?” A small voice came to him saying that as his father was not able to complete his task as a young pastor of 49, “Shouldn’t you continue in your father’s work.” These thoughts have guided his work ever since.