I arrived at the Korean Roman Catholic Church at 10:50 a.m., 10 minutes prior to the start of Mass. The small building looked unimpressive compared to the monstrous Assembly of God megachurch just across the street. However, as soon as I opened the front door, I felt as if I had stepped into an entirely new world.
The entrance hall was dark, dank and abandoned. I stood around awkwardly for a few minutes, fingering through the pamphlets on a table, all of which were in Korean. At this point, I was sure that I was at the wrong church, but then I saw someone around the corner in a small kitchen preparing vegetables. This person, a woman, shouted something at me in Korean and then hurriedly ushered me into the chapel.
The moment I entered the chapel, the deacon stopped speaking and stared at me for a few moments. Then the entire congregation turned and watched me as I slowly crept into one of the pews in the back corner. I was obviously interrupting something, but I wasn’t late so I assumed that the Mass hadn’t yet started. Once everyone had gathered their composure, the deacon began the sermon. To my surprise, however, he was speaking Korean.
After discovering that I was in for an entirely different experience than I had imagined earlier that day, I took a moment to collect myself and take in my surroundings. The chapel was familiar. It was comparable to any number of small Catholic churches that I had seen in the past. There was a crucifix hanging over the high altar, a high ceiling and clergymen in white and red robes. All of this was familiar, and indeed, very Catholic.
Most people were wearing dark and muted colors, and the women also wore bright white veils over their heads. Apparently, it was not a good day for me to wear a bright blue shirt, even though I dressed as I would for any other Christian service.
The rest of the service went smoothly and without further interruption, aside from communion, which I respectfully declined since I’m not Catholic. After the closing words and prayer, most of the congregation filed out of the chapel, eyeing me curiously as they walked past. When it was nearly empty, I went back into the entrance hall to see if I could speak with the deacon.
The deacon met my eye as I left the chapel and asked me (in English) if he could speak with me. He was wondering if I was new to their church and if I was Catholic. I told him that I am not Catholic and that this was my first time at a Korean Mass. He then asked me why I chose to attend a Korean Mass instead of a traditional Catholic Mass, and I told him that I was trying to experience a new culture as a part of a class assignment and had intended to come to the English sermon. He looked puzzled and then told me that they do not offer English Mass.
The deacon assured me that I was welcome anytime and commended me for branching out and experiencing a new way to engage in the faith.
I’m not sure who I spoke to when I called the church the day before asking about the English service, but there must have been a miscommunication because I had the wrong information. Despite my mistake, I think that I learned more during that service than I could have ever learned from its English counterpart.
After I had some time to reflect on one of the strangest hours of my life, I came to a conclusion that did not feel right: I am blissfully ignorant. Even after a full year study abroad experience in Italy—one that required dedicated immersion into all aspects of a foreign culture—I felt as if I hadn’t learned anything from seeing the world from a different perspective. I basked in the majesty and might of legendary and historically significant cathedrals weekly while in Italy, and when I saw the unimposing interior of the Korean church, I suppose I wasn’t impressed.
Before this experience, I saw Catholicism through the lens of a middle-class white man, and dismissed what I had learned about Catholicism in Italy as ancient history. But after an hour of awkward staring and silence, long-winded sermons in Korean, and some of the best barbecue pork and rice that I’ve ever eaten, I learned that it does not matter if you study the same books, abide by the same creeds and love the same God. Religion is dynamic for everyone, everywhere. The one-size-fits-all approach to the Christian faith is no longer something that I believe in. I see now that there is so much about the world that I don’t know, and I look forward to learning as much as I can from other cultures and apply what I learn to my own life.