11 July 2005

Monday Menagerie VI

My dinner with a true hero of the faith
Revised edition posted at 5:00 pm. HT and many thanks to Noel Piper.

PyroManiac devotes Monday space to esoteric and offbeat things, in the hope that these will supply learning experiences for us all.

Cindy Swanson's recent interview with Noel Piper reminded me of someone whom I had not thought of in a long time: Esther Ahn Kim. She was one of my favorite authors when I was a manuscript editor at Moody Press. (Her Korean name was E-Sook Ahn. She liked the biblical roots of the Anglicized version.)

When Esther was a young woman, she was interned and tortured for six years in a Japanese prison. A young schoolteacher just before the outbreak of World War II, she was singled out during the Japanese occupation of her native Korea because she refused to bow at a Shinto shrine.

Esther was a committed Christian and understood that a public display of idolatry—especially under duress—would dishonor Christ and severely hurt her testimony to her countrymen who were not Christians. So in an action reminiscent of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, she boldly and resolutely remained standing alone in a crowd of thousands of people who submissively bowed on command. As a result, she was consigned to a Japanese detention camp under the most degrading and dehumanizing circumstances until the end of the war. What sustained her and kept her mind busy and full of hope during those bleak and lonely years was meditating on the Scripture she had memorized.

If I PerishHer remarkable life story (If I Perish) was originally published in 1977 by Moody Press. It was one of the first books I ever edited. (I began my career in publishing in the summer of '76, and the cover copy that was used on the dust jacket of Esther Ahn Kim's book is one of the earliest things I ever wrote that was actually published.) If I Perish is a profoundly moving story of remarkable faith and courage, and Esther Kim was a living example of the goodness of divine providence.

After the war, Esther married Kim Dong-Myung (Don Kim), and they moved to America so that he could study for full-time ministry. While students at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, they were appointed as Southern Baptist home missionaries. Together they founded Berendo Street Baptist Church in Los Angeles (still considered the "mother church" of Southern Baptist Korean congregations). Countless Korean church leaders trained there and were disseminated all over the United States. In the 1970s, Esther committed her life story to book form, and Moody Press was fortunate to publish it.

About the time her book was released, Mrs. Kim came to Chicago and visited Moody Press. I don't remember what circumstances kept Don Kim from accompanying her on that trip, but I recall that she was traveling alone and needed someone to help her with transportation while she was in Chicago.

I normally relied exclusively on the Chicago Transit Authority and my own feet for transportation in those days. But since I was officially Mrs. Kim's editor, Moody Press lent me a company car and assigned me the task of transporting her around Chicago for the day. Chicago was unfamiliar to her, but she had several longtime friends from Korea who now lived in Chicago. She had their addresses, and it was my privilege to chauffer her around the city so she could visit these old friends.

She was a very elegant woman, gracious, dignified, and Christlike. Having worked in detail through her life story, I was in awe of this truly great woman. Unfortunately, parts of the day were extremely awkward, mainly because of language and culture barriers. She actually spoke English quite well, but because of her Korean accent, I didn't always understand her the first time, and I kept having to ask her to repeat herself. On top of that, I knew nothing of Korean culture or history, so my attempts to make conversation were clumsy at best. She remained very gracious and polite, but I'll bet she was sick and tired of me before mid-afternoon.

That evening, her last stop was at a Korean restaurant not far from Wrigley Field, right in my neighborhood. She had an old friend who owned and operated the restaurant, and she would be spending the night at that friend's house. My plan was simply to drop her off, return the car, and go home.

But Mrs. Kim graciously invited me to stay and have dinner with her. She wanted me to try Korean food. At the time, Taco Bell burritos were about as far as I had ever ventured into "non-American" food. I knew absolutely nothing about Korean food. (I think that fact had come out pretty clearly in one of my bungled attempts at making small talk.) The woman who owned the restaurant was apparently such a close friend that Mrs. Kim didn't even ask if it was OK to invite me along. She more or less insisted that I must stay and have dinner with them.

Indeed, the friend who owned the restaurant seemed delighted to have me as a guest. Without showing me a menu or asking what I liked, she bustled off into the kitchen. After a very short time (no more than 10-15 minutes) she came back with about four waiters carrying an amazing feast. There were at least twelve courses. It was far more food than I could eat. It would have been enough to keep me going for a week. The best I could do was sample most of the dishes she had prepared.

And the food was absolutely splendid. There was some BBQ beef that was the best I have ever tasted, even to this day. I also had my first taste of kimchi that evening—several varieties, as I recall, all spicy and all delicious. I don't even remember everything they served me at that meal. I do recall vividly that it was all superb.

What I remember best was the soup. Mrs. Kim herself prepared a serving for me, filling a sizable bowl from a large stockpot brought by the waiters. I noticed that she seemed to be taking care to ladle out the best bit of meat and make sure that this one particular morsel was part of my portion. I thanked her effusively as she handed me the bowl of soup she had so specially prepared for me. It had a wonderful aroma. She was obviously enjoying feeding this young single guy whom she probably assumed never ate very well. (Aa a matter of fact, in those days I was training for a marathon, so believe it or not, I looked pretty malnourished.) She was visibly eager for me to try the soup, so I picked up a spoon and immediately began to sample the broth.

That's when the morsel she had so carefully selected for me floated to the top. It was a fish head, eyes still intact and looking at me with a glazed expression. My surprise must have registered on my face, because Mrs. Kim quickly assured me that the fish head was there on purpose, that it was completely edible, and that she considered it the best part of the soup. Not wanting to offend her, I ate the soup, and even tasted the fish head.

That was the moment when the cross-cultural awkwardness disappeared and Mrs. Kim became a friend for life. I only saw her a couple of times after that, but we had forged this unbreakable bond, and it was clear she genuinely liked me. The feeling was mutual.

It was an important lesson about breaking down cultural barriers, and I have often put it to good use on the mission field. Almost every culture has some delicacy or another that the typical American will politely turn his nose up at. I've found if you are willing to try new things, and show a sincere interest in whatever aspects of culture or cuisine your instincts might tell you to turn away from, you can quickly sweep aside the awkwardness of clashing cultures.


Alex Crocker said...

I loved this story and I can picture it quite vividly, right down to the fish eyes. It reminds me of a when I was in Central America and the locals served up "Cabesa" which I later came to find out was monkey brains served fresh! When our hosts served it I felt like my throat were going to come out! After the wonderful meal, the barriers were down and gone. Ever since the blessings we have shared with each other's families has been great!

Noel said...

Great story, Phil. I had the chance to talk with some women who knew Esther Ahn Kim, including one who was a college student at the time Esther and Don were beginning their ministry at Berendo St. Baptist in LA. She remembers their living room floor covered at night with students' sleeping bags. Their home was like a hostel for Korean young people.

Esther Ahn Kim died in her 90s, and her husband is still living in California.

Phil Johnson said...

Thanks, Noel. It's amazing what time does to your memory. I would never have been able to retrieve Don's name out of my head, but when you mention it, I now recall that I met him once, too. He was a Southern Baptist pastor, as I recall. I'll do a little Googling and revise that part of my post.

theinscrutableone said...


Your closing comment about the usefulness of being willing to sample a culture's peculiar delicacy is right on. A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to fellowship with a group of international students, mostly Chinese from Southeast Asia. I ate it all: curries of all kinds, squid, seaweed, pig tongue, pig intestines, soup with whole (albeit miniature) fish, etc., etc., etc.. Needless to say, they loved me for my enthusiastic willingness to eat new things, and came to treat me as just another member of the group. One guy did me the special honor of naming me an "honorary Chinese," quite an honor for a plain ordinary European-American. Through all this I was able to do some spiritual good for some members of the group even in spite of my then-adherence to charismatic error. Now that God has brought me to the Reformed faith, I'd love to have the opportunity to befriend another group of Asians or any other strangers who happen to be lurking around.


david said...

Now it's probably quite foolish of me to question an editor like you, but did you really mean "interned"? I was thinking "interred" was a good option, but perhaps "interned" means other than an overworked but hardly paid lackey such as myself.

Phil Johnson said...


in·tern, in·terned, in·tern·ing, in·terns. v. tr. (also ¹n-tûrn“) 1. To confine, especially in wartime

in·ter (¹n-tûr“) in·terred, in·ter·ring, in·ters. v. tr. To place in a grave or tomb; bury.

I like my choice better than yours.

Remember, home-school moms with dictionaries and grammar books are reading.

Not to mention my mom, who is a retired schoolmarm, and my wife, who is a fastidious spelling expert.

Let's all be on our best behavior.

Joe said...

I'm sure glad Apelles asked that question and not me.

Are there uniquely American foods, mores, etc. up at which other cultures turn their noses and find just too obnoxious?

Cindy Swanson said...

Phil, that story is so cool! You know, I'm learning that in the Christian realm, there are "six degrees of separation" between any given person and Phil Johnson. :)

As I told Noel in our interview, Esther's story probably impacted me the most. I kept using the word "amazing" in the interview--way more than I should have, but it's difficult to find an adjective to describe these women.

Of course,I realize that it was God who really did those things through them, but what made them unusual, and so worthy of emulating, was their extreme yieldedness to the Lord. It humbles, inspires and challenges me!

John Haller said...

Six Degrees of Phil Johnson? That's not very hard really. He's becoming like the Art Bell of Christendom with the blog and trodding hither and yon to speak.

How about Two Degrees? I can actually do it in one myself...

I can see a whole host of blog entries coming: people I have eaten with...

Jason Robertson said...

Phil, I just preached on the necessity of mentors this past Sunday from 2 Timothy 3:10-13. I wish I would have had this story. I may use some of it in my intro-summary next Sunday. THANKS.

david said...

rats, i knew i should have tread more carefully. the bright spot of my ignorance is that the revelation does give me some new ammo for discussing my status with Nate B. and the Fellowship.

my mom, a homeschool mom of about...15 years, would join with your mom and your wife and the countless other grammarians frequenting here and give me the drubbing i deserve. thanks for the correction, and i'll raise no more grammatical objections in the future. at least, not without consulting some sources.

Char said...

What a lovely post.

As for foods that others turn their noses up at; my uncle (who has travelled all over) told me a story about some friends he had years ago who were, I think, from somewhere in Europe. They had supper together and one of the dishes had corn in it. They refused to eat it saying 'that's what you feed to pigs.'
I don't know if he was pulling my leg about that or not. :)

Paula said...

I just came back from Alaska where we were greeted with fresh ocean salmon (drool) and caribou stew. I loved both but one young lady ate everything AROUND the caribou meat. She had this "it's icky" look on her face.

Unknown said...

chauffer? sp.?