South Korea

Kick Start

One ministry in Korea uses taekwondo to teach more than just a martial art.

Jess Fong

The master pauses with one foot on the steps.

Through the large picture windows of a McDonald’s in Seoul, Korea, he sees a group of his students. They stop mid-walk, expressing proper respect with a full bow.

He smiles and waves them in, welcoming them with fake punches and light slaps, compared to the tight, powerful fists he will use later.

They bow again.

Bowing is a common greeting to Sim Chang Soo, not just because it’s as expected in Korea as a handshake is in America.

In Seoul, “master” is the common translation for anyone ranging between teacher, coach, or counselor -- and he is all 3, blurring the lines between physical sport coach and spiritual mentor. He receives dozens of bowed greetings every day.

Master Sim, a recognized Olympic taekwondo demonstrator, has taken his passion for a sport and made it into ministry.

His 3 daughters are named Tae Sun, 12, Tae Young, 9, and Tae Hee, 3, meaning “mission through taekwondo,” “glorifying God through taekwondo,” and “happiness through taekwondo.” Often, he practices with the 2 eldest in a small, low room in their attic, feet slamming into mats, rocking their kitchen ceiling.

His wife, Park Eun Joo, both a national- and world-champion black belt, first began Taekwondo in Action (TIA), a ministry of Korea Cru, in 1994.

Today the husband (45) and wife (40) continue this combination of sport, prayer and evangelism. So far, they’ve trained 369 students through a 12-week intensive class with TIA. They have sent missionaries to 6 countries -- including regions where missionaries are unwanted, but black belts who teach are eagerly accepted.

Taekwondo, translated as “the art of the foot or fist,” is considered the national sport of South Korea, and many children under the age of 10 have stage-one black belts. It’s also required in the military, where every male must serve 2 years.

Master Sim wants people to see more than high kicks and board-breaking punches, like at a recent children’s program. His stage presence is magnetic -- 300 children in the audience appear enraptured.

“I used to feel emptiness in my heart, even after taekwondo, so I began to seek Jesus Christ,” he tells the crowd.

After his students depict a high-speed, taekwondo-infused skit about Jesus, dozens of children lift their hands when Master Sim offers them a chance to have eternity with Jesus. He leads more than 150 performances like this each year in South Korea.

He also takes teams onto the subway, where they do a short performance in a moving car -- occasionally jolting sideways, mid-kick.

Because taekwondo achievements are so recognized throughout South Korea, citizens are often impressed with the level of skill displayed by Master Sim and the 60 full-time staff members. Bridging into evangelistic conversations is easy.

Through these outreaches, Master Sim has personally helped lead more than 30 people to Christ each month for the last 15 years, according to staff member Jeremy Yoon, Master Sim’s student and a stage-five black belt. One of the most successful parts of his ministry is seeing students who become missionaries.

Kang Dong Kwon, 27, is renowned for his tornado kick -- a high difficulty move with a 540-degree turn. A Buddhist at age 18, he went to the Internet to learn taekwondo and connected with Master Sim.

“When I first came to TIA, I was not familiar with Christians and wanted to run away. But as a final chance to see God, I observed TIA members’ life and training. They were faithful and sincere.”

Kang became a Christian and, earlier this year, traveled to South America as a missionary.

Before the physical training of a TIA meeting begins, the 17 black belts, including Kang, listen as Master Sim preaches on “total faith -- including faith that says, ‘If I die, I die.’ We need to pray this with all our hearts and with strong faith.”

Bowed over blue mats, the students begin to pray out loud and all at once, while Master Sim prays over each one, walking up and down the rows. He is as dedicated to them as they are to him and believes deeply in the future that they can bring to Korea and the world.

TIA has sent missionaries to 6 countries and has translated the TIA gospel presentation into 14 languages. Master Sim’s vision is to reach 40 countries or languages by 2020.

Master Sim is often surrounded by his students, from undergraduates to a single father, and tonight is no exception. Besides studying taekwondo with him, all of them have heard and spoken the message of Christ to others through his encouragement.

Over dinner, one student points around the group and says, “He is his master, and his master, and his master…”

Master Sim smiles and interrupts.

“But He,” pointing his index finger to the sky, “is my Master.”

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