Mary Scranton's Legacy of Leadership

Mary Scranton's Legacy of Leadership
Irene Kwon, left, Scranton Center associate director, and Young-ran Kim, KWSCS staff, take a break. Jennifer Kutz McCallum

On a small hill overlooking the Han River that flows through Seoul, Korea, sits the Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery. The tranquil refuge surrounded by a bevy of highways and urban hustle is holy ground to Korean Christians. Early Catholics were massacred on the site, and later, when the country was more open to Christianity, Protestants bought the property and established a cemetery in 1890.

Korean Christians revere the foreign missionaries who came to their country in the 19th century starting hospitals, opening orphanages, creating schools, translating Bibles and siding with them in spirit during the years of Japanese occupation, which began in 1910. The work of the missionaries helped Koreans assume their roles as leaders of a free and independent nation after World War II, and they have not forgotten that. Although over time, foreigners who were not missionaries were also buried at Yanghwajin, Korean church groups visit the site daily in a kind of pilgrimage, ferreting out the graves of missionaries related to their particular tradition and rehearsing their history as Christians and citizens of an independent Korea.

Mary F. Scranton, the first woman missionary sent to Korea by the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church (North) in 1885, lies in the cemetery's southwestern quadrant. Ms. Scranton established Korea's first girls school, Ewha School for Girls, shared the Gospel message with Korean women and helped them organize for Christian service. More than a century later, Korean and other Asian Christian women are still benefiting from and building on her foundational work.

One of Ms. Scranton's 21st century fruits is the Scranton Women's Leadership Center, founded in 2007 under the historic American Methodist Korean Women's Mission Foundation, through which United Methodist Women predecessor organizations did extensive education of Korean girls in Korea and which remains a partner in mission. The center has close ties to United Methodist Women, as the Women's Division's property committee selects the foundation's board of directors.

The center aims to create educational opportunities for women in developing countries and train women leaders for church and society.

"The Scranton Women's Leadership Center is committed to empowering women to live up to their full potential with human dignity, just as Mary Scranton has taught so many Korean women to do," said Hea Sun Kim, executive director of the center and Seoul-based staff of the Women's Division, United Methodist Women's national administrative body. "These women will contribute to the betterment of their own families, communities and the world."

The center's programs include:

  • Scholarships for undergraduate students in developing countries in Asia and Africa, and scholarships for Asian students who have been accepted to graduate schools in Korea or their own countries. The center also offers scholarships for students committed to serving as leaders in their various countries with funds raised by alumni of Ewha Girls High School in North America.
  • Internships with nongovernmental organizations for young women who are committed to learning to work and live in international settings.
  • Opportunities for young people of diverse backgrounds to come together to network and volunteer in a variety of service settings. Students from Pakistan, and Bennett College and Pfeiffer University, United Methodist Women educational mission institutions in North Carolina, participating in this program led vacation Bible school programs in Korea in 2010.
  • Asian church women's leadership training and dialogue events.

"In 1885, the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society sent Mrs. Mary Scranton to the Chosun Kingdom, which was the name of Korea at the time. She started to educate girls and women for the first time ever and changed the history of Korea," said Dr. John Nam Oh, chair of the Scranton Center board of directors. "My dream is that many of our Scranton scholars will grow to be leaders of their countries. Nobody can alone transform the world. To do so, we need good leaders with integrity and clear vision both in the public and private sector."

Learning from experience

Seventy-one women from 14 Asian countries and the United States gathered for the Scranton Women's Leadership Center's biennial Asian Christian women's leadership training and dialogue at the newly renovated Korean Women's Society of Christian Service Building in Seoul, Sept. 5-10, 2010. The training was packed with Bible studies on leadership and workshops on topics ranging from how to create a nongovernmental organization to writing and speaking from a women's perspective to designing educational seminars for justice. It also featured field trips to mission programs in the area including several migrant human rights organizations; shelters for runaway teens, battered women and their children, and teen victims of domestic violence and/or sexual abuse; and several community centers for elderly women and former prostitutes.

The workshops were instructive and the field trips provocative, but even more transforming was women growing in their own eyes as they heard one another's stories and saw for themselves what women in mission could accomplish.

"In my culture, women can't do a lot of things," said Ai Lam, leader of the health care board of the women's committee of the Vietnam Methodist Church. Ms. Lam graduated with a degree in public health in 2008 and now trains women and children in basic health care in rural areas.  "In rural areas, women work in the field then go home and take care of their families. In villages, they have water in the community but not inside the houses. So women can't do a lot of things. Here, especially the Korean women, I see women can do a lot."

Ms. Lam said the work of churchwomen in her country focuses on literacy and health care. She will use what she learned at the Scranton Center training event to lead a similar training for rural women in her country. "Pray for us, mostly that we'll know we're not alone," she said. "Pray God will raise more women with a heart to reach women."

Like the church in Vietnam, much of the church in Asia is young and growing, although under very different circumstances. Just over 60 years ago, Korea was in the throes of a civil war that left many maimed or dead, divided families as well as the country and devastated the nation's economy. But today the Korean Women's Society of Christian Service is a lively part of the Korean Methodist Church's mission outreach, supporting programs for women, children and youth in Korea and internationally, particularly in Asia. However, churchwomen's groups in many other Asian nations have fewer financial resources and also must struggle to overcome cultural dictates constricting women's freedom or government restrictions on churches. One participant shared that when her churchwomen's group started a program to help battered wives the government stopped it and said the problem of domestic violence did not exist. Another participant said that when her churchwomen's group started a feeding program for children the government shut it down, saying that was not church work. Yet another participant explained that the church in her country has not yet been recognized by the government and so operates behind a business storefront.    

Still, whatever the stage of their nation's or women's mission development, the women took hope from the Korean women's story and from one another.

"We didn't have a Mongolian Bible in 1994," said Nara Baasankhuu, a local pastor in the United Methodist Church in Mongolia, which began in 1989. "I never went to an English class. I saw a Christian Bible in English. I asked, ‘God, please help me,' and that's how I started."

Mongolia was a communist nation until the fall of the Eastern European Soviet block in 1989. It had democratic elections in 1992, but it is still a very poor country with an average annual income of U.S. $1,680. "If you don't have identification you can't get a job. People sell things in the black market," she said. Ms. Baasankhuu said her local church has about 60 members. She left the meeting determined to organize a women's mission group. 

The experience expanded Ms. Baasankhuu's and the participants' concepts of mission to include themselves and other women as leaders empowered to effect change.

"Why listen to the voices that say Asian women don't have power?" Ms. Kim said, addressing the women during a plenary session. "God has given us power as children of God. How will you respond to the call of the Lord?"


Posted or updated: 1/31/2011 11:00:00 PM
response cover
KWSCS general secretary Kyu-hwg Lee and a participant open a worship service. Notes of commitment to God are tied to the roses. Jennifer Kutz McCallum