I am a collector of stories. It is my experience that some of those who have lived the longest have the most interesting tales to tell – if not simply due to the fact that time brings change. Our stories flow from our life’s collections of choices and chances, celebrations, and sorrows. They are what will tell the generations to come who we were and how we lived our lives.I am always on the lookout for those who chose the better part. For folks who, even after living eight or so decades continue to pursue their passion and fight the good fight on a daily basis. They are the dreamers and inventors – re-inventers of destiny. At first glance, they may seem ordinary to those around them, but their stories shed light on how extraordinary they truly are.
I recently spent a delightful afternoon with one such couple. Their combined story is one of overcoming a variety of obstacles while living, loving, and giving of themselves. Their goal is to continue to walk with God and finish well.
I’d like you to meet Sang and Frances Lee. I hope you enjoy their story as much as I did.
When Frances learned that she had been accepted at the American Friends Service Committee intern program in Louisville, Kentucky, she was not very enthusiastic. It was last on her list of places she had applied to for a summer job before beginning her studies in Sociology at Purdue University. It turned out, however, to be one of the best decisions of her life. It was there where she met Sang. That meeting resulted in a friendship that turned into a love that has lasted in a marriage celebrating 64 years and counting. This is certainly an example of Proverbs 16:9 in action: “A person may plan his own journey, but the Lord directs his steps.”
Escaping from the communists
In 1953, Sang came to the United States from Korea after spending time working as a civilian translator for the US Marine Corps. He had been living in Seoul, South Korea attending the College of Commerce, Seoul National University when North Korea crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. The next three years were a study in survival as Sang escaped from the communists’ clutches on numerous occasions.
The first occurrence took place in 1950 just after the North Korean army had taken Seoul. Sang, his brother, and a couple of other college boys were living in his Uncle’s house. All four young people had to hide in the attic when the communists began searching for young people to draft them into the North Korean Army. As soon as possible, they packed up as much food as they could into a backpack and snuck out of the city before daylight. After walking almost 40 miles south, they learned that US soldiers were guarding a bridge and not allowing Koreans to cross, so they had to turn around and go back to Seoul.
For a while, they spent a great deal of time hiding in the attic as the communists made searches almost nightly. Staying in Seoul became too risky, so Sang’s uncle sent them north to a farmhouse in the mountains where they hoped to be safe from the communists. On one occasion, North Korean soldiers captured and led them up to a Buddhist temple where they joined about 75 others waiting to be interrogated. While waiting, Sang noticed a large urn for making kimchi behind the temple. He quickly climbed inside it and waited until all was quiet, got out, and snuck back to the farmhouse. The other three boys were able to escape as well.
Helping the Military
After the US military retook the City of Seoul under the leadership of General MacArthur, Sang was finally able to return to his home town of Mokpo on the western tip of the Korean peninsula. After spending some time reuniting with his parents, Sang became involved with a navy intelligence unit, and eventually ended up traveling to Pusan. His ability to speak English, along with Korean, Japanese as well as a smattering of Chinese made him valuable as a translator. In due course, he became an interpreter and interrogator in a US POW camp belonging to the American Eighth Army.
Coming to America
A family Sang had a close relationship with during his stay in Pusan helped pave a way for Sang to travel to America to study. Even though his college records from Seoul National University had been destroyed, he was accepted at Bradley University. He later went on to receive an MBA from The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
Sang and Frances met in the summer of 1955. They were both working in an “Intern in Industry” program by the American Friends Service Committee in Louisville, Kentucky, and housed in a black church, which welcomed the multi-race group of college kids. When the summer program ended their relationship continued and thrived, even enduring the 200-mile separation while each attended different colleges. With a mix of blessings and reservations, they were married on June 7, 1956.
Graduation and beyond
Frances received her Master’s Degree from Purdue. Her thesis was on ‘Brown v. Board of Education’ which was a Supreme Court case contesting the practice of school systems separating black and white students, declaring that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s ‘equal protection clause’. The idea of equality of all was not simply a subject for her thesis, but a core value. She lived a color-blind life demonstrated, in part by loving a young man from Korea and accepting any discrimination that might accompany their union.
Frances worked in statistics while Sang was attending Wharton. Afterward, in spite of receiving an MBA, Sang had difficulties finding employment, so he took additional classes in computer systems, and as it turned out, once companies learned Sang understood computer technologies, many businesses wanted to hire him.
In 1964, a computer company he worked for needed someone who could speak Japanese, so they sent the whole family, which by then included a son and daughter to Tokyo for training the Japanese. While there, they were able to spend two weeks in Korea visiting Sang’s family. Even though his Mother didn’t speak English, she welcomed Frances and they bonded immediately.
Time to follow Christ
Although Sang’s mother was a Christian, and as a young man, Sang gave his heart to the Lord, at times, he was not following the Lord wholeheartedly. Until 1945, under the Japanese rule, the Shinto religion was mandatory for Koreans. One summer, while Sang was in high school, he spent a month or so at a Buddhist’s temple but decided that it was too passive for him. He decided that Christianity was the better way of life for him. There were, however many instances in his life when he called out to God, as well as several occasions where he knew that God intervened and saved his life.
One day their daughter, Andrea told them that her Youth Group retreat needed a chaperone and cook. As it turns out, Sang loves to cook. They agreed to serve at the retreat. It was in that place that the Lord was able to captivate their hearts.
From then on, their relationship with the Lord grew as they held bible studies and participated in various ministries. Sang even became an Elder, and later an Elder Emeritus. The Lord always provided churches for fellowship in every city they lived in.
When Sang and Frances decided to retire, they found Charlotte, North Carolina to be the perfect spot. Retirement did not include rocking chairs and checkers as Sang was offered part-time employment and they also became connected to a Korean PCA church close to where they lived.
Missionaries to Romania
After retiring in Charlotte, they spent two years in Romania. It was a perfect fit as the ministry needed both an accountant and a computer expert. While there, they were involved in both a school and a church plant – which is still thriving. As a bonus, they traveled back and forth from Romania which allowed extra adventures with stays in Vienna and Greece.
Over the years, both Frances and Sang have learned that it is really a small world. Frances shared a wonderful story from about a year ago. An American newcomer to their church asked Sang if he was Korean and asked what town was he from. It turned out that her father grew up in Mokpo, Sang’s hometown. Her grandfather was a missionary doctor there.
As an Elder Emeritus, Sang and Frances continue to hold bible studies even during this season of coronavirus they have worked out how to hold the studies while safely distancing from each other.
A goal shared by both Sang and Frances is to finish well. After hearing their story, I believe they are well on their way. Their love for the Lord is evidenced by how they continue to live their lives, as stated in Ecclesiastes 9 “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might…”
Reflecting on our visit, there are a couple of words that come to mind when describing Sang and Frances: Focus and Forgiveness. No matter what the goals, they live their lives on purpose. Obstacles of war, prejudice, and discrimination have not deterred them from pursuing their life’s course. From what I observed, part of their secret of success is found in their willingness to serve when called whether home or abroad. Raising two children and enjoying five grandchildren are counted in their many blessings.
The dedication Sang wrote in his autobiography describes his heartfelt thanks to God and his family. The last line sums it up nicely, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.”
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My book, “FinishingWell: Finding Joy in the Journey”, is a collection of stories and tips about doing life with my Mama. May it encourage and inspire you to find joy on your own, unique journey. Find our group on Facebook