The spiritual yearnings of Koreans can be difficult to fathom. Just as K Pop has taken off from Tokyo to New York, Korean spiritual movements draw adherents worldwide over seemingly insurmountable barriers.
movements draw adherents worldwide over seemingly insurmountable barriers. That was sense one received after witnessing the “World Peace Festival” in the Olympic Stadium in Seoul’s Jamsil district on September 16. The audience had come prepared for a few hours of singing and fun. They could not have envisioned 100,000 people filling every seat in the stadium, including thousands more on the playing field, marching in elaborate formations, dancing and enacting various traditional and cultural performances.
The program, a “culture and sports celebration of restoring light,” wound up with men and women’s soccer games, a track meet, basketball, judo, and tug of war matches. In addition, on stage in front of the reviewing area, magicians and ballroom dancers and jazz musicians and a host of other entertainers were performing as well. This World Peace Festival evoked memories. Was it an improved version of the Olympic Games that opened in Korea 24 years ago at this very stadium? During those games in 1988 we saw performances as amazing as the prancing and dancing of thousands of performers against a backdrop of tens of thousands of people in the stands flipping flash cards of scenes and messages of whatever the South Koreans were selling, from happy school kids to verdant fields. History was repeating itself, perhaps, but on a much bigger scale.
As during the ‘88 Olympics, many people were on the field at the recent peace festival. Young people from all over the world dressed in their traditional colors filled the stadium, flipping cards on cue, forming slogans and scenes. This whole performance lasted for more than eleven hours, from morning until after dark when the rain was already falling and pinpoints of lights replaced the cards.
Much of the inspiration comes from the Honorary Chairman Mr. Lee Manhee, who is also the founder pastor of Shinchonji Church of Jesus Christ. Mr. Lee is viewed as one of the most renowned spiritual leaders from Korea by Christians all over the world. Despite his busy schedule he sat through the whole program alongside Ms. Kim Namhee, Chairwoman of MANNAM Volunteer Association, which collaborated with the church on the mission of putting on “an unprecedented event in Korea where people from all over the world will gather.” Shinchonji means new heaven and earth, and MANNAM means meeting, implying a gathering of diverse figures In today’s Korea, Shinchonji Church and MANNAM are among the most active organizations in the fields of culture and the arts. In the recent past they have undertaken many projects and activities benefiting the downtrodden in both Korean society and abroad. Thus, it was no surprise that thousands of foreigners were seen attending the event, both as participants in cultural programs and games as well as guests of honor. Not many associations in Korea can claim this level of support from foreign communities.
To an outside observer such outbursts of astounding fervor as those on display at the World Peace Festival represent a significant aspect of Korean life and spirit.
One real question which comes to mind after watching such a grand show is how Shinchonji and MANNAM – one being a religious group, the other a volunteer association – were able to attain such an extraordinary array of talent on the tracks, fields, stages and stands of the event. The organizers call it “the world’s biggest peace festival in modern times.” They may be right. Millions of people were able to watch the event on live telecasts and Internet streaming all over the world. Also on display was the famed Korean hospitality as most dignitaries viewed the whole show from seats along side the honorary chairman Mr. Lee Manhee and the chairwoman Ms. Kim Namhee in a specially designated enclosure.
For their respective contributions to the day’s proceedings, both host organizations did extraordinarily well. Shinchonji’s contribution – the biblical performance – was most impressively depicted, being enacted on the field by massgame players with cards and flags, and by a 12,000member flashcard team in the stands. The athletic aspect of the events, called the Olympiad, pitted athletes from foreign countries against one another in peaceful and friendly competition. Indeed, the entire theme of the Olympiad was one of world unity, centering around the idea of Korean reunification. There were also various cultural performances by MANNAM members such as cultural dances by groups from the Middle East, Latin America, China and India, singers, bands, and magicians.
Incredibly, these events seemed to be going on simultaneously. Men’s and women’s basketball teams were playing in courts at both ends of the field. While runners were circling the surrounding track, performers were going through their acts in the middle of the field. Flash cards held by thousands on one side of the stands depicted scenes and slogans, and all the while mammoth television screens captured and replayed action, ensuring that everyone got a chance to see what was going on. The effect was that of a masterpiece of organization, planning and rehearsal that had gone on for months before the day of the festival. The imagination of the planners showed not only their true desire for international peace, but also the undying ‘cando’ spirit of the incredibly hardworking Korean people. In preparing for the event, they extracted themes from popular and traditional culture in a reflection of the national and religious spirit of the Korean people. “One of the most impressive moments was the constant waves that rolled through the stadium stands as thousands actively took part in the show,” said one spectator; “The unison and precision of the performancer moved all who were watching.”
The massgames were envisioned by the planners “to demonstrate the unity of all cultures and the capacity of people to create peace.” Mannam was responsible for bringing thousands of volunteers not only to attend the festival but also to volunteer their time, expertise and enthusiasm in the months prior and in the times needed for rehearsals. The campaign for volunteers was all in the name of peace, of helping people in dire straits. Nothing seems to have been overlooked in conveying this message.
“The campaign’s purpose was to raise awareness for peace that is achieved through understanding and appreciation of diversity,” says Mannam. In pursuing that aim, the festival began with the dedication of a photo project in which a globe was unveiled made of “thousands of pieces with 3,913 photos of individuals and their sentiments on peace.” The idea, says Mannam, was to form “a representation of individuals joining together for the peace and restoration of the world.” The program ended in driving rain “with the lighting of a hundred thousand lanterns during the live performance of the 1988 Seoul Olympics song ‘Hand in Hand,’ accompanied by fireworks.”
The emphasis on global understanding was visible everywhere. “The World Peace Festival was not a gathering of nations but of people from all different ethnicities, religions and ideologies that strive towards an achievable peace,” says the brochure. The alliance between Mannam and Shinchonji deepens the sense of purpose. While MANNAM is a secular organization, its partnership with Shinchonji strengthens the message of nondiscriminatory acceptance of all cultures, faiths, ethnicities and nationalities while providing a religious overlay that attracts devotees looking for new hope and a renewed sense of purpose in a world of conflict.
The union of MANNAM and Shinchonji, represents how two different organizations working in unison can achieve wonders. Many other religious organizations who were otherwise not part of the festival were eager to extend their support after seeing the sheer force of spiritual energy displayed by members of Shinchonji and the volunteers of MANNAM.
After the show many South Korean media reports quoted a number of foreigners about how excited they were to be part of this onceinalifetime event. Many felt they had seen something that they would not see again in their lifetimes. The event was also wellattended by foreign media groups, all of whom wrote interesting reports on the event for publication in their own countries.
Even though Shinchonji’s leader, Lee Manhee, is the honorary chairman of MANNAM, the two organizations are entirely separate entities that operate on entirely separate mandates. The World Peace Festival was “a joint sporting event.” No sooner had the festival ended than the blogosphere lit up with comments about the true nature and impact of the event, both good and bad. One blogger found that, “despite the grandness of the event, its long term impact may not be as big and long lasting as proclaimed by the organizers.” However, the majority of bloggers were appreciative of the effort made by everyone to do their bit to pro Most foreigners who attended the festival came away with feelings of having participated in a great international, intercultural experience – a oneofakind event – something truly unique. Many confessed they were not expecting such a grand cultural treat.
MANNAM has become very wellknown for its celebrations of patriotic holidays, including the national day on August 15 marking the surrender of the Japanese forces occupying Korea at the end of World War II in 1945 and Korea’s freedom after 35 years of occupation. These celebrations are typically marked by a deep sense of patriotism and national pride. MANNAM members, on such occasions, dress up in shirts displaying the yin and yang symbol of the Korean flag, a symbol that represents the ideas of unity, balance and harmony. Typical of the reception that the movement is getting from Korea’s other religious originations, there appears to be a certain jealousy over the rapid rise of Shinchonji. The church, founded in 1984, has gained members with a basic message of love and humanity. According to the church, Shinchonji members “pursue and practice love, forgiveness, and acts of kindness toward others.”
“Currently, Shinchonji spreads the message of God in more than 300 churches all around the world and does diverse volunteer activities.” MANNAM’s rise has been no less phenomenal. Since its founding nine years ago with a mere 700 members, the MANNAM Volunteer Association now claims 70,000 members. “It has emerged as a major force of peace all over the globe, organizing many peacepromoting activities,” claims the history page of a MANNAM leaflet. For the love of Taegukgi, the Korean flag, and the national flower Mugunghwa (the Rose of Sharon), Mannam has emerged as an organization that not only glorifies volunteerism but also inspires world peace as the most active Korean NGO on the world stage. Some have accused MANNAM of being the front organization for Shinchonji to collect funds and recruit new members. But this is not the case, as the nature and scope of MANNAM is very different from that of Shinchonji. Shinchonji has its own strong base and thus does not need help from any other organizations to attract new members. Pastor Lee’s strong spiritual leadership is the real reason for the fast growth of the church.
Pastor Lee relies upon his own distinctive teachings to imbue his church with the dynamism needed to win hearts and minds. The most captivating message is that of peace for all mankind. “Let us love the global village which gives us light, rain and air of the sky,” said Lee at the World Peace Festival. “Love is able to make world peace and restore true light.”
Mr. Lee sometimes reminisces about his service during the Korean War as a young man. “I know well the reality of war as I had joined the army to avoid hunger,” he said. “I know very well what mankind wants and needs. I hold this festival to pray for the realization of world peace.” That is, without a doubt, a message with a universal appeal. A message that not even the most hardened skeptic could deny being relevant to our world.
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