The Voice Calling from the Unknown
Two years ago, I came to Yale Divinity School to begin an M.A.R. in the History of Christianity. In my application, I wrote that my goal in entering this program was to “become a historian of American religion and military, modern Korea, and all of the contentious spaces in between.” That 20-year-old college graduate could not have anticipated the many developments, and clarifications the following two years would bring—and that, in 2023, she would be preparing to stay in New Haven to begin a Ph.D. in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale.
I too walk through the garden alone, where, in some unfathomable act of care and love, I was placed before I was even born. Beside me is the company of the one who knows.
Recently, I was moved to recall a childhood memory from the church where I spent most of my elementary school years. On one of those Sundays—I must have been eight or nine—the director of the children’s ministry presented this hymn to us. I think it moved her. I remember how she paused, trembling, before playing a recording of “In the Garden” for us,
I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses;
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.
At the time, I was a child sitting with my classmates inside the Sunday school room of a Korean United Methodist Church in northern Virginia. To be honest, I think I was bored, or at most confused. The slowness of the hymn made me restless in my seat. I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand why our director was visibly emotional. I didn’t understand what could move her so.
On paper, certain aspects of my childhood might appear the way one expects to understand a Korean American Christian child’s upbringing—and indeed, I’ve been dismissed and reduced by insensitive conversation partners who presumed to know my entire life story from conclusions they made based on how I looked to them—but my family will never sit neatly in a box. To say we uprooted and moved around a lot would be an incredible understatement. What brought us to the D.C. area was my father’s occupation as a chaplain for the U.S. Army; he was assigned during those years to Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital. The military would dictate my movements across the country and the world, snatching me out of any context as soon as it exhibited the possibility of comfort. My life as a military dependent would be crucial to my reckoning with the entanglements of imperialism, militarism, and religion. And subsequent experiences at the receiving end of abuses of power in religious institutions would also irrevocably shape my understanding of the world and the people in it.
“My father is a U.S. army chaplain who received his ordination through the Korean Evangelical Holiness Church,” I wrote in my personal statement when I applied to YDS, “one of the few Christian denominations indigenous to Korea. My great-grandfather was a layman who risked his life protecting his church property when Communist forces stormed through Jeolla Province during the Korean War. Later, he became a Baptist pastor who both demonstrated a strong sense of nationalist identity and heritage and relied on financial and spiritual support from American missionaries. My family history is a complex amalgamation of the reality of Western imperialism, positive personal relationships with Western Christians, and localized, indigenous understanding of the Christian faith.”
As a Ph.D. student, as a scholar, as a writer, my work is deeply influenced by these life experiences. And yet as my understanding of my work, myself, and my life in relationship grows, so does the undeniability of my faith, ever-transforming, ever-expanding, and ever-true.
I remember the moment, halfway through my undergraduate years, when I had a breakthrough. I screamed and cried into a pillow in my dorm room, both physically alone and feeling spiritually alone: a feeling of total, utter unbelonging. I had searched ethnic, political, and cultural affinity organizations in college and found no warmth, recognition, or acceptance. I felt out of place in my musical and artistic spaces, wrestling with little guidance on how to cultivate and pursue my fiery senses for creating political art while negotiating how faith called me to live my life. And most of all, I had spent two years pouring myself into a campus ministry in the hopes that I would finally feel accepted—only to break down on this night because it had been two years of advocating for women, minorities, and myself in that group, all the while seeking and praying for meaningful friendships and mentorship in how to be a Christian, and it still felt like no one was ever telling me the truth.
I was 18. I cried and cried, bewildered by the intensity of the depression I felt, an intensity I had not experienced since I had teetered near suicide at 14. And then I heard: Who understands being misunderstood more than the one whose life was so misunderstood that he was murdered for it?
And that was when I knew, while still swarmed and plagued by questions, questions and predicaments and the forthcoming harms and violences I would experience in spaces that claimed to be Christian, and while there was, and is, so much more to come that I did not know yet—I knew this much, and I accepted it that night: I was never going to be able to doubt the reality of Jesus Christ.
Being Known (and Loved)
There is a special place in my heart for the Gospel of John. I compare my experience of reading it to rewatching a favorite TV show. Characters appearing in the narrative incite surprise, delight, and excitement because this time around, you know they are coming. You anticipate their entrances. You clap and cheer when they appear. You know the storylines that await, the character arcs, how these people will change and where they will be by the finale—which, of course, just marks the beginning of another season. The knowing. The knowing that becomes fondness becomes affection becomes love.
Throughout the Gospels, Christ greets each person he meets with recognition and expectation. These introductions, these meetings, stand out to me in particular when I read John. And so, when I do, I cannot help but sit with the revelation of how Christ already knew their names. He already knew who they were, and who they would be. “John,” he says, the way speakers of Aramaic would, in a voice that barely contains his emotion. “Simon. Andrew. James.” His love, his care, his grief, his joy. His deep, deep knowing. Did his eyes brim with tears when he spoke with Peter, John, the centurion, the woman who touched his cloak, when they met him with fresh, unknowing eyes, and he knew? Oh, how I love you and how I care for you and how I know you, so much I cannot say. Hello. Hello, my love. It is so good to see you.
It took me a while to arrive in my academic field. I participated in two religious studies classes as an undergraduate, and entered the first one shivering with wariness and trepidation. In my mind, I beheld the image of the way to heaven as a narrow gate. When I pictured myself, I saw a body and a mind fractured across these seemingly disparate spaces—my undergraduate academics, my activities in theater and drama, and my campus ministry—barely holding together in a precarious coherence bordering on dysfunction. Five years later, after perceiving the itch and continuing along this path, almost instinctively, and guided by questions, of which I had and have so many, far more questions than answers—yet here I stand, where I am, who I am, who I am becoming. There was something true in the seeds I carried all those years ago, the sprouts I carry now, in the process of blooming. To risk following the voice of God is the only way we may actually learn to become, and keep becoming, truer selves. Even when, and especially when, His voice calls from a place unknown.
Writing this, I am brought back to that hymn, the one that had clearly, visibly moved and shaken my Sunday school director. Fifteen years later, carrying the forms of my continuing transformations, I too walk through the garden alone, where, in some unfathomable act of care and love, I was placed before I was even born. Beside me is the company of the one who knows. “Karis. 혜원. Named for my grace.” Before I ever knew, but he has always known. And that makes all the difference.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
Karis Ryu ’23 M.A.R. is a Ph.D. student in Yale’s Department of Religious Studies. As a scholar she is situated in the fields of American religious history, Asian American studies, and Korean studies by way of cultural history, art history, sensory and material culture studies, and performance studies, with commitments as well to transpacific and critical Indigenous approaches. She is also a fiction writer, essayist, and poet.