GOSHEN, Ind. — When 27-year-old SangMin Lee, a Mennonite conscientious objector from South Korea, was sentenced to 18 months in prison, the global Mennonite church community provided support in the form of letters and prayers. In early December, Lee met and talked with a fraction of his supporters in person.
Lee visited the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and Goshen College on Dec. 8. He discussed his time in prison and the lasting effect of the international support he received.
On Dec. 13, Lee shared his story at College Mennonite Church.
“God gave me the great opportunity to be here today in person,” Lee said to more than 100 members of the congregation.
Lee, who was released from prison in July, said being a conscientious objector in South Korea helped him to understand and practice peace “in a more concrete and tangible way.”
Lee spoke in Korean, with translation by SeongHan Kim, who lives in Goshen and, with his wife, HaeYoung, attends College Mennonite. In January the Kims will return to Korea after three years in Goshen. They were instrumental in starting Grace and Peace Mennonite Church in Seoul, where Lee is a member.
After growing up in a Christian home and attending a Christian college, Lee came across conscientious objection in an article in 2007. At first, he thought it was an odd concept. But as he learned more about the Christian faith, the article kept coming to mind.
“The article talked about how God so loved the world,” said Lee, “but then I asked myself, ‘How can we care for each other in the name of God?’
“I began to ask myself the question, ‘Can I kill someone?’ ”
When he shared his struggle with the members of his church, he did not receive a positive response. He needed support to continue. So in 2009, Lee transferred to Grace and Peace Mennonite Church.
Since the Korean War began in 1950, military service has been required of all able-bodied men in South Korea. Although there is an alternative service option, it requires four to six weeks of military training, and when service is finished participants are considered reserves in the military.
Nearly 93 percent of imprisoned COs worldwide are South Koreans, according to a report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2013. About 660 COs are jailed each year in South Korea, most of them Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“The Mennonite population in South Korea is very small,” Lee said. “They aren’t as concerned with COs because for a lot of people the cost is too great. Here in the U.S. there are more options and not as much pressure to participate. In South Korea, it’s military or prison.”
It took seven years for Lee to go through the conviction process after refusing military service. In the months leading up to his trial, Lee’s story was publicized through Mennonite World Conference, and letters came rushing in. When he was convicted and sentenced to 18 months of prison in April 2014, Grace and Peace Mennonite Church reached out to the global community for support out of worry that Lee would feel isolated during his time in prison.
In response, John D. Roth, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism, connected with Jenny Neme, the director of Justapaz, a Colombian Mennonite peace and human rights organization. They decided to organize a letter-writing campaign and reached out to Elizabeth Miller, communications coordinator and administrative assistant at the institute, in hopes of using one of its initiatives, the Bearing Witness Stories Project, as the platform.
The Bearing Witness Stories Project is a space for people around the world to tell their stories of suffering and faith. Because there is still mandatory military service in Colombia, the Colombia Mennonite Church established Justapaz in 1990 to support conscientious objectors there. Together, these two organizations provided Lee with a constant flow of support through letters and prayers.
Lee kept all the letters he received while he was in prison. As the pile of letters grew higher and higher in his cell, one of the guards challenged Lee: “Who are you? Why do you get so many letters from outside of Korea?”
The letters that meant the most to Lee were the ones sent to him through Justapaz from conscientious objectors in Colombia. Although there is a legal conscientious objection option in Colombia, the legal process is unreliable, and to Lee, the conditions are significantly worse than those found in South Korea.
“Receiving their support and encouragement was very moving and meant a lot to me,” Lee said.
A ‘simple answer’
Lee worked as a barber during his prison time, cutting the hair of fellow inmates, guards and administrators. As he worked, Lee would often share his story, and in return he was encouraged and heard his clients’ dissatisfaction with the current system.
“They all showed me sympathy along the way, despite their different backgrounds,” said Lee.
On July 30, Lee was released three months earlier than planned and quickly faced a different set of harsh realities outside of prison. His prison conviction had closed off professional pathways. Lee studied childhood education but will not be able to find work as a teacher. He said he hopes to find work as a mechanic at a bike shop in Seoul.
“The relationship with my parents has been the most difficult,” Lee said. “In Korean culture, the relationship between kids and parents is very strong. My parents expressed anger and harsh words at first, but they have come to better understand and appreciate my view on what it means to follow Christ.”
Lee is often asked about his future.
“I’m trying to live a normal life, find a more simple answer to how to live,” he said. “I try to be thankful for every day and make each day as important as the last.”