Times Past

Arroyo Grande minister, a North Korea refugee, relates cultural divides past and present

Rev. Mark Moon and a youngster share lunch at the Sandridge Missionary Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama, during the church's rebuilding.
Rev. Mark Moon and a youngster share lunch at the Sandridge Missionary Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama, during the church's rebuilding.

Arroyo Grande Rev. Mark Moon, 87, has confronted the issues that divide our world since he escaped Anjoo, North Korea in 1950. Moon’s family, communities and nations have suffered because of contention throughout his adult life. Throughout his ministry he has worked to bridge different worlds and sets of belief.

The modern civil rights movement was just beginning when Moon came to the U.S. to begin his studies for the ministry. He read about America’s racial divide and protested over the conflict in Selma, Alabama, on Bloody Sunday in 1965 when police attacked peaceful demonstrators with dogs, billy clubs and tear gas.

Moon was pastor of a tiny church in Whitlash, Montana, on the Canadian border. He increased the congregation and helped unify it with a small church across the border.

In 1985, Moon became pastor of the Susanville United Methodist Church. The church was painfully divided on issues of recognizing gay Christians. The Methodist Church visitor from Fresno warned about the impact of this division.

Moon didn’t speak on social issues for two years. He went out on home visits, getting people to trust him and built up the sagging church membership to a respectable 230.

Two lumber mills had closed in Lassen County, and rural hunger followed. Moon initiated the Hunger Walk, raising funds for the Salvation Army, involved the local churches in ministries addressing hunger, homelessness and more open discussions of issues concerning the dignity of all human beings.

His first wife, Merlene, who had taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Whitlash, developed ovarian cancer. The community in Susanville took great care of her. The couple needed to be closer to hospitals specializing in cancer treatment.

Moon took a sabbatical and moved to Santa Maria to be closer to Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara. The bilingual Japanese speaking pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Santa Maria retired, and Moon was asked to fill in.

One Sunday, Cal Poly Soil Science Professor Del Dengus and his wife, Yoshiko Tachibana, who was born in Japan, announced that there would be a fundraiser for the burned churches in Selma, Alabama. They would help rebuild seven burned churches.

Moon “signed up for a volunteer work trip. Though I had no prior carpentry skills and I was the oldest person in the group, I could still climb ladders and tasks like measuring and nailing were no problem at all. The Sandridge Missionary Baptist Church members provided lunch for us every day and each day the menu was the same: deep fried catfish, spicy beans, and bread.”

Moon says that some of the homes in the still segregated black neighborhoods of Selma “reminded me of the shacks in Seoul after the Korean War.”

While they were rebuilding their church, the Sandridge congregation met in a neighboring church.

Moon remembers, “The services were Southern style, long and emotional with much shouting and praising the Lord. One Wednesday evening service, I was asked to share my faith journey. I shared about the persecution we had experienced under the North Korean Communists. I think it was the first time an Asian pastor had spokes in their church. After I shared my experiences, some congregants expressed their racial struggles and how they continued to this day.”

Following Merlene’s death, Moon married Youngsa Lee. The couple live in Arroyo Grande. Their home embraces both Asian and American cultures with a Happy Buddha holding an American flag. He still preaches once a month at Christ United Methodist Church.

He never forgets his refugee status, fleeing from North Korea with only a sack of rice. That’s why at noon, Saturday, July 14., Moon, along with other Korean-Americans from the Central Coast, will host a Korean-style lunch in honor of veterans of the Korean War in Preisker Park, 330 Hidden Pines Way, Santa Maria. The public is invited to attend without charge.

Images: (1.) Rev. Mark Moon and a youngster share lunch at the Sandridge

Missionary Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama during the rebuilding. (2.) Rev.

Mark Moon today.

Postscript: As we were completing this column, we received word that the Rev. George Ake, a veteran of the 442nd Regiment and longtime minister at San Luis Obispo’s Congregational Church just passed away, two months short of his 104th birthday, in Claremont. Rev. Ake and Rev. Moon had a great deal in common.

Liz Krieger is a retired children’s librarian. 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.