Face masks are a gift of gratitude from South Korea to Atlanta-based missionaries

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

War brought South Koreans and Americans together many years ago and is doing so again now.

Only this time, South Koreans are reaching out to help Americans – including some Atlantans – in the battle against the deadly coronavirus.

Officials with Yonsei University Health System – operators of South Korea’s premier hospital – recently shipped 10,000 protective face masks to Atlanta as a gesture of thanks to the United Methodist missionaries who helped their country decades ago.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

“During the days when our country didn’t even have a concept of hygiene, missionaries built our hospitals to offer medicine,” said Do-Heum Yoon, the health system’s president and CEO. “With this shipment of masks, we can’t repay the love, but we still remember the love …”

About 650 missionaries from Atlanta-based UM Global Ministries – the worldwide mission and development arm of The United Methodist Church – helped South Korea rebuild after the Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953.

About 100 of those missionaries are still living – five in Georgia – including James T. Laney, a former president of Atlanta’s Emory University and former U.S. ambassador to South Korea.

Laney, 92, said he was “dumbfounded” when Yonsei University Health System made a gift to him and other retired missionaries of a supply of “really good and comfortable” protective face masks.

“It was a wonderful and thoughtful as well as generous gesture,” said Laney, who was a missionary in South Korea from 1959 to 1964 and later ambassador under President Bill Clinton.

Thomas Kemper, then-general secretary of UM Global Ministries, said the 10,000 face masks are “a moving testimony to the heartfelt love” of South Koreans for those who served The United Methodist Church throughout the years as evangelists, church planters, doctors, nurses, social workers, and teachers.

“The generosity of Severance Hospital (a part of Yonsei University Health System) will enable us to provide urgently needed face masks to retired missionaries who for many years served selflessly in Korea and other countries throughout the world,” Kemper said.

South Korea has been praised internationally for bringing COVID-19 under control in the first five months of the outbreak without ordering lockdowns or paralyzing the country’s economic and health systems. Masks were a critical part of that effort, as were aggressive testing, contract tracing, and social distancing, officials there have said.

Chong Hun Jeong, a chaplain at Severance Hospital in Seoul, said the South Korean government recently made a large gift of protective face masks to foreign veterans and their families.

“Seeing this news,” the hospital and chaplains “thought of the missionaries and their families, he said.

“We also wanted to express our gratitude to them,” Jeong said.

Missionaries were forced to leave South Korea during World War II but returned once Japan lost the war.

“They greatly contributed to helping the orphans, the disabled, and the sick caused by the Korean War,” Jeong said.

Severance Hospital would not have been expanded to 4,100 beds or built a reputation as Korea’s best medical facility were it not for the missionaries’ work, he said.

Laney said South Korea “looked like total destruction” at the end of the Korean War. The country was still very impoverished but showing signs of improving when he and his family were there as missionaries at Yonsei University, he said.

But in the decades since then, South Korea has been transformed. Once one of the poorest nations in the world, it is now a developed and high-income country, ranking 4th in Asia in the gross domestic product and 12th in the world.

And look who’s now offering the helping hand.

“They [the South Koreans] are doing so well with the coronavirus that they can send help to the United States,” Laney said. “I think this is an interesting commentary on life. It turned around 180 degrees in this regard.”


What inspired the gift of 10,000 protective face masks to retired missionaries of The United Methodist Church here in Atlanta and elsewhere?

Chong Hun Jeong, a chaplain at Severance Hospital in Seoul, South Korea, said his country’s government recently donated protective face masks to foreign veterans and their families in gratitude for their help during the Korean War (1950-1953). Similarly, Severance Hospital and its chaplain office wanted to thank the missionaries who played a key role in helping the country rebuild after the war, he said.

Why masks?

Says Jeong: “Korea has been emphasizing wearing face masks since the early days of COVID-19, and Korea is well-prepared.”