Times Past

Arroyo Grande reverend's journey took him from North Korea to a remote Montana church

The Rev. Mark Moon’s church in Whitlash, Montana.
The Rev. Mark Moon’s church in Whitlash, Montana.

When Arroyo Grande’s Rev. Mark Moon fled his native North Korea in December 1950, he saw that Pyongyang, the capital, “was literally hellfire; I saw nothing but red flames.”

His life in North Korea had not been easy. In 1910, the Japanese army occupied the former Korean Empire. The Japanese authorities viewed Christians as agents of Western Imperialism, evicting most missionaries and persecuting people like Mark’s father who had converted to Christianity at the age of 17.

Mark, like all Korean children, was given a Japanese name. They prohibited the Korean language. Mark recalls that “if the teachers or officials heard students speak in Korean ... we got severe punishment, whipped with a belt or slapped with a leather slipper.”

During World War II, they viewed Christians as agents of the American enemy and increased the persecution. The shortage of labor caused the occupiers to close the schools. They sent many children into the army or factories. They sent Mark to the coal mines.

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Things did not improve with the Japanese defeat. The Soviet Union controlled the peninsula north of the 38th Parallel. Christian churches were forced to place portraits of Stalin and his puppet, Kim Il-sung, in their sanctuaries.

Mark came to understand what it was to be a member of an oppressed class, just as his status as a refugee gave him the experience of being homeless.

In 1950, fleeing south from the invading Chinese army, Mark arrived in Inchon, South Korea. He was conscripted as a laborer by the United Nations forces. He still has a “safe conduct pass” signed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Mark became a houseboy for an American military chaplain, who introduced him to the pastor of the Seoul Union Church, the main church in Korea. Mark worked for him for five years. A Temple University math professor then sponsored him to attend Philadelphia Bible College to improve his English.

Soon, he was learning expressions like “hit the sack.”

He was admitted to New York Theological Seminary for a master’s degree in Christian education. During the summers, he worked at Lawrence Beach Club on Long Island, founded when Jews weren’t allowed to join other clubs.

Mark attended San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, California. He recalls that it was “during the height of the American Civil Rights Movement. The church leaders in that city chartered an airplane to join in the 1965 March on Selma. One of the leaders was the former president of my seminary. Meanwhile, we students marched in the town of San Anselmo where our seminary was located.

"As a foreign student, I did not know about the racial divide in this country until I read two books. One was "Black Like Me" by John Howard Griffin and the other was "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee. I still have these books in my library. I learned more by studying and attending conferences on racial issues at our interdenominational workshops.”

These experiences helped Mark come to grips with America’s racial divisions. It prepared him for an assignment to one of the most remote parishes in America along the border between Montana and Alberta, Canada.

The parish was in Whitlash, Montana, where he arrived with his first wife, driving a VW Beetle that he had bought for $750. His wife taught in a one-room schoolhouse while he slowly built up the congregation, eventually merging it with a congregation in Aiden-Knappen, Alberta, to form the Border Church.

It was in Montana that Mark confronted racial discrimination personally. When caught in a snowstorm, he was denied a room in a motel in Cut Bank, Montana, just east of Glacier National Park.

Mark doesn’t know whether the desk clerk thought that he was Native American or Asian American. But it was prejudice.

To be continued ...

Dan Krieger is Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.