Min Hwang sat on her living room floor, clutching the phone to her ear. Desperation and suicidal thoughts waited on the other end of the line, wanting to hope but finding nothing to hope for. A pregnant 21-year-old college student had locked herself in her dorm room for days, barely sleeping and eating almost nothing. Once her boyfriend saved up enough money, she would get an abortion.
Min didn’t know the student. They got connected through a mutual friend. Yet, here they were, two strangers connected by a moment of utter vulnerability and honesty.
Min didn’t really know what to do other than listen and pray. She could hear the tangible fear and depression in the girl's voice as she talked about her relationship with her boyfriend, her childhood, her family, her fears, and how she wanted to commit suicide when she found out she was pregnant. What would her parents think? How would her father react? What would happen to her future? Questions like these and more rang through the receiver until they finally hung up, hours later, as the first signs of morning peaked through the window.
“When I hung up, I told my husband, ‘Oh, I feel like all my words fell like rocks to the floor,’” Min remembers. “I felt like I didn’t do anything or make a dent, like she was still set on having an abortion. I felt so sad, you know, so sad for her and for the baby.”
Five hours later, Min got another call. It was the girl again. She called to say that she had slept for the first time in days, and she had a dream.
“In my dream, I was holding my baby girl,” she explained. “And I can’t do it. I can’t kill my baby.”
As Min listened, elation and hope filled her heart. The student feared her parents’ reaction, so Min offered to let her stay at Handong Global University in Pohang, South Korea, where she and her husband worked and lived. There, the student could seek proper health care and support. There, she could rest safely from her parents who later traveled down to Pohang to try and drag her to an abortion clinic. There, she could encounter a God who cherished and loved the child she was about to have, even if it was an unplanned pregnancy.
And sure enough, seven months later, the student gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. ——————————— “And that was my introduction to what was happening in Korea,” Min says.
That was in 2003. Seven years later, Min founded Women’s Hope Center (WHC), which seeks to provide comprehensive care to women facing crisis pregnancies and victims of sexual exploitation. First, women contact the Crisis Pregnancy Counseling Center, usually through the anonymous online chat feature of their website, to receive free counseling and prenatal care. Then, women can live in the long-term community housing, known as the House of Peace, where they continue to receive counseling as well as training to get back on their feet. WHC also plans to open Sanctuary Restored by fall 2013, which is a social enterprise in which women are trained for safe, dignified alternative employment, making them no longer vulnerable to prostitution and sex-trafficking. And the newest addition to WHC is the House of Hope, the first-ever hidden safehouse for survivors of sexual exploitation as well as pregnant women who face the threat of a forced abortion.
When Min landed in South Korea in 2003 with her husband, she anticipated that God would use her, but she never imagined it to be what it is today.
“When I came, I didn’t really know,” Min explains. “I was just open and expectant that God would show me what my ministry, my role, my part would be.”
Before moving to South Korea, Min lived in New York and worked as a registered nurse in New Jersey. She had just started a master’s program to become a nurse practitioner, when Handong Global University offered her husband the international chaplaincy position. They accepted the offer, which meant that Min couldn’t finish the program.
“But I remember God telling me, very clearly, ‘You will know what I want to equip you with—the kinds of skills and knowledge I want to equip you with—at the grad school level because it will be free,’” Min remembers. “And I was like, that would be really, really, really clear because why would that ever happen? I’m not from a developing country. I’m from Canada. Who would want to ever give me a free grad school education?”
And with that, Min arrived in South Korea, ready. But she soon forgot what God had told her regarding graduate school. Instead, she began working in the Office of International Affairs from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and at the international dormitory from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. She realized that the international faculty and students had very little resources to successfully immerse into the university. There was no English orientation or catalog, making it extremely difficult for students to register for classes. And the faculty frequently encountered visa snafus.
Min proposed a new office that would be separate from external affairs, called the Office of International Community Advancement. With the support of the university’s president behind her, Min thought it would be an easy feat. To her surprise, the proposal got rejected.
She slumped over her desk, just exhausted by it all. Working 12-plus hours with little reward left Min feeling discouraged. She wanted to assist the students and faculty, but she kept hitting dead ends.
It also didn’t help that Min clashed with many of her coworkers simply because of the way she spoke her mind.
“I didn’t realize how Western I was until I was surrounded by the patriarchal office culture in Korea," Min explains. "I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to speak my mind.”
But just as Min was ready to quit administration altogether, the university asked if she’d be willing to stay to continue developing the Office of International Community Advancement.
If so, the university told her, she would receive a full-ride scholarship to Handong International Law School (HILS).
“When they said that, I suddenly remembered what God said back in New York,” Min explains, “so, I was stuck.”
Min didn’t want to go to law school. She pleaded with God. I have a medical background. I’m a nurse. And I don’t even want to be a lawyer.
“It didn’t make sense to me,” Min says. “And I really thought that I didn’t have the personality for law. It just didn’t make sense to me…”
But she obeyed, albeit reluctantly. In February 2007, Min, the nurse with a medical background, began her first year at HILS.
“And guess what? I loved law school,” Min says. “I cried because it just amazed me at how much God knew me and loved me because I got to experience that.
amazed me at how much God knew me and loved me because I got to experience that. I didn’t know I would love it. But He knew.”
A young teenager from Seoul rolled into the Pohang Bus Terminal with nothing but the clothes she wore. Bruises and wounds covered her body. She wouldn’t look at the counselors in the eyes.
She was pregnant and running away from her parents. She didn’t know anything about WHC, but after her friend briefly mentioned the name, she contacted them for help. A WHC counselor in Seoul paid for her bus ticket to Pohang, and she jumped on the next bus, desperate and lost.
“She came because she had nowhere to go,” Min remembers. “It was very heartbreaking.”
But over time, Min watched the young teenager slowly regain her strength and identity again. She arrived distant and shy, but as months passed at the House of Peace, she began exuding more confidence and joy. The visible wounds began to disappear, and she wanted to heal the internal ones, too. At one of the Bible study meetings offered at the House of Peace, the young girl decided to give her life to Jesus.
She had arrived in Pohang broken and bruised. A cloud of darkness and deep sadness had followed her. But a glow full of love soon began to surface. And as her heart became whole again, she started hoping again in her future.
When she had discovered she was pregnant, her first thought had immediately gone to suicide. But now, she understood that this hardly meant the end. ——————————— Because Min spent a lot of late nights at the international dorm, students often talked to her about their problems, which initiated her own research on social issues affecting young women in South Korea.
often talked to her about their problems, which initiated her own research on social issues affecting young women in South Korea. What she discovered startled her: abortions were seen as simply another form of birth control, even among married couples. And resources for unplanned pregnancies were scarce.
“I was trying to see where girls could go to for help,” Min explains. “And that’s when I realized there really is no place girls can go to for help.”
At that time, most pregnancy help centers were in maternity homes associated with adoption agencies. So, by the time a woman got there, she had already decided not to abort.
“But we wanted to be able to be there for the girls when they first find out, just like that first girl I met in 2003,” Min says. “There’s so many girls like that, who are completely paralyzed with fear.”
Min knew the statistics that, in South Korea, for every baby born, an estimated two are aborted (although unconfirmed because abortion is illegal and, therefore, undocumented). The shame-based culture in Korea plays such an integral role in a woman’s decision to abort because of the disapproval and disappointment she would receive from society and her family.
“So, because we realized there was no crisis pregnancy center ministry in Korea, it seemed like this is something we needed to do,” Min says.
As Min prayed for how to move forward, God reminded her of the commitment she made to Him as a young girl.
In middle school, she sat amongst hundreds of youth at a multi-church prayer meeting. The speaker challenged them to be faithful and available to God in whatever capacity He wanted to use them for.
“Ask God what is on His heart, so that He can put it on your heart,” the speaker prompted.
Suddenly, as people began praying for God to reveal His heart, the word “abortion” blared in Min’s mind, like a siren. She didn’t know what it meant or what abortion even was. But her heart broke.
As tears flowed in a continuous stream from her face, she silently prayed, Jesus, whatever this is, use me.
“God never forgets,” Min laughs. “God never forgets whatever promises or commitments you make, even as a child.”
Throughout her education from middle school to college, that fire to help, to do something, in any capacity, only continued to grow. Min learned about child sex tourism, or child prostitution, that was happening in places like Sri Lanka and Cambodia. Regular classes suddenly seemed mundane to her because all she wanted to do was be out “there”, wherever “there” was.
“I was like, ‘What am I doing here studying Psychology 101?’” Min laughs. “I even considered joining Mother Theresa…but God really had to train and mold me, to die to self, because it would've been terrible if I went out at that point.”
And then, in law school, Min began studying human rights. She read about women being trafficked in Southeast Asia, and how they became slaves to the sex trade and faced multiple forced abortions. And that’s when Min knew who she needed to help: victims of sex-trafficking. Especially mothers who, in a fit of desperation, volunteered to enter the sex industry without knowing the gruesome circumstances they were about to endure.
In September 2010, Min formed a steering committee, composed mostly of her friends, who shared the same heart and vision as her. Eight months later, the Crisis Pregnancy Counseling Center opened its doors.
Early on, all of their clients were young unwed mothers, which left Min, admittedly, a little confused.
“I was like, ‘Why am I starting with abortion?’ because I thought God wanted me to work with girls that were being trafficked,” Min explains. “So I really didn’t understand the connection. But now, three years later, I do.”
As Min speaks, suddenly, her giggly lightheartedness, which she jokingly calls her “foggy mommy brain”, transforms into a quieter yet stern tone. She leans in with confidence and conviction.
“You gotta start from conception,” she says. “Because what is sex trafficking? What is human trafficking? It is the devaluation of human life. It is objectifying human life.”
And now, after WHC expanded its services to include victims of sexual exploitation (pregnant or not) in the summer of 2013, Min knows it couldn’t have happened any other way.
“Again, I am so stunned at God’s wisdom because…what if I had started with the sex-trafficking issue in Korea?” Min asks. “It would’ve been very different. My understanding would not be at this level, and I probably would not have learned as much as I have.” ——————————— Near the cafeteria of the university, Min walks with her three children in tow. They just completed the day’s work of homeschooling, and they’re off to the next appointment. On her way, Min runs into Yun-mi, the wife of a professor at the law school, and Erin, WHC’s Director of Childbirth Education and a founding member of the steering committee. A combined total of 11 children, all under the age of six, scurry around them. To the outsider, it looks like chaos. To them, it’s a daily, sometimes more, occurrence.
As Min converses with the two women, her three-year-old son drops his bike, runs to the nearest bush, and returns to his mom’s side with a flower in hand. She thanks him, then asks him to pick up his bike. Meanwhile, her 18-month-old daughter reaches up, wanting to be held. Min picks her up. The oldest daughter, who is five-and-a-half, chases another girl around a nearby tree.
Min makes a mental note of where all three of her children are and after a quick five-minute conversation, gathers her troupe and moves along. ——————————— From the outside looking in, Min looks like Superwoman. She got pregnant with her first child during her first year at HILS in 2007 and gave birth during winter break. She returned to law school after taking a year off and got pregnant with her second child in 2009 at the same exact time two years ago, once again giving birth during winter break. When Min flew to Alabama to take the bar exam in 2011, she was pregnant with her third child.
In the midst of that, she started WHC and watched it grow exponentially in the last three years.
But Min is the first to admit that she can’t do this on her own. There are days she feels totally inadequate for the task at hand.
“There are times I’ll be like, ‘I don’t know what to do. I’m so inadequate. My Korean is poor.' I’m shy, so I hate going in front of people and talking in front of people. It’s really hard for me,” Min confesses. “There’s so many ways I feel like I’m the wrong person for the job. I have three children, and I’m homeschooling. How can I balance all of this? How can I do all of this?”
But it’s in those moments when she hears God speak.
“He just keeps telling me, ‘You don’t have to worry about it. You don’t have to worry about anything.
have to worry about anything. Just be faithful and available.’ And I think that’s something I can do. I’m pretty simple-minded, so if God says, ‘Jump,’ then I’ll say, ‘OK.’ And maybe that’s all He really needs.”
Which really is all He needs. Time and time again, Min watched as the only thing she could contribute was faith, and God took care of the rest. WHC’s headquarter office is located in the heart of Pohang, South Korea. When they first inquired about the building, they knew they couldn't afford it and they wondered if the building owner would even allow a crisis pregnancy center in the building. It turned out that the Far East Broadcasting Company, a Christian radio network, owned the building. And the man they spoke to used to participate in pro-life campaigns back in his college days. He wanted them as tenants so badly that he accepted their offer, although sizably lower than the original asking price.
For the House of Peace, they wanted a specific apartment for their community housing. The security deposit was 45,000,000 Korean won (about $42,000), but they only had 20,000,000 KRW, which they received from individual donors. Min knew she needed to come up with the other half right away or else they would lose it. She posted a prayer request on WHC’s Facebookpage and within 12 hours, Min received a message from someone who had just flown into Incheon International Airport. After seeing the prayer request on a smartphone, the person immediately wrote to Min, “However much you need, we’ll get it to you.”
In June 2011, a private landowner donated a plot of land in the beautiful countryside, where many of the Seoul elite travel to after retirement. With it, WHC is building the House of Hope, a hidden safehouse where women can go for safety and participate in a year-long Christ-centered restorative program.
These are women who need to be hidden because parents, boyfriends, or pimps are looking for them, threatening forced abortions or prostitution.
With the fundraising efforts and partnership of Pastor Eddie Byun, a member of WHC’s board of directors, and Onnuri English Ministry’s Hope Be Restored, a freedom and justice ministry in Seoul, design and planning for the House of Hope has begun. Originally, they hoped to open their doors in 2014. But in September 2013, the original landowner decided to donate the other half of his land as well, which included his house. Rather than figuring out zoning permits to build from the ground up, WHC can now remodel the home for its safehouse. Thus, they plan to open their doors much sooner than originally anticipated.
“I felt like there was this river,” Min explains emphatically, “and I was just sucked in. And God was sort of carrying me along, whether I liked it or not. But it’s just been so amazing. Even now, every time…basically, I have a front seat to see Him do all of His miracles.”
When Min stepped onto South Korean land, she had no idea what the next decade had in store for her. How could she ever anticipate that God would use the promise she made in middle school, the medical experience she gained as a nurse, the law education, and a fiery passion to create the perfect candidate for His will? She couldn’t. All she needed was faith. And He’d do the rest.
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