Dust stirs up around Jisu Choi as motorbikes whiz by, and the locals haggle prices for fruit, vegetables, sunglasses, watches, clothes, and anything else one might find at an outdoor market. Jisu smiles at a vendor, a woman who wears a brightly patterned pagne, an African cotton wrap. Jisu chooses a carved wooden mask. The vendor gives her a price, one that Jisu knows is much too high. Jisu sighs, speaking in French to the colorfully clothed woman, tossing out a few words in Ewe, the local Togolese language. Taken aback, the vendor calls Jisu yovoh, meaning “white” in Togolese. The woman simply doesn’t know what to make of this young Asian girl.
“I tell her I live in Lomé,” Jisu explains, “and she starts laughing, and then gives me the souvenirs for a more reasonable price.”
A week or two later, Jisu is back in the marketplace, shopping with her Nigerian friends. Once again, she is reminded that she doesn’t fit in when people walking by call out, “White person!” or “Chinese person!”
“I used to get really mad,” Jisu says. “I’m Korean! And for me it’s like I am Korean, but then I am not, kind of. So it’s really confusing.”
In 1991, Jisu’s father moved to Togo to run a Hyundai car dealership. Two years later, when Jisu was two, the rest of the family joined him. They planned to stay for two years...more than 20 years have passed since then.
Being removed from her parents’ culture and from people that looked like her forced Jisu to adapt to a new environment. But as she grew older, Jisu learned that the color of her skin would always prevent her from being truly African, just as the way she learned to move and speak and act would prevent her from feeling truly Korean.
Trying to explain her identity—feeling like an African, looking like a Korean, and thinking she was somewhere in the middle—Jisu says, “Most of the time I felt left out.
the time I felt left out. Like I didn’t really belong anywhere. Even when I visited Korea for the first time, I felt like, ‘Oh, I don’t belong here either.’ I am not familiar with Korean culture. When I come to Korea, I want to go back home. But when I go back home, I want to go to Korea.”
When Jisu and her family first moved to West Africa, they arrived at the same time as a pastor they knew from Seoul, South Korea. Together, along with the few local Korean families that lived in Lomé, they formed a church. This was the church Jisu grew up in. Sunday was the one day in the week when Jisu would spend time with other children that looked like her. Sunday was the day when Jisu spoke all day in Korean, bowing to her elders, promising to study hard at school. Sunday was the day when Jisu allowed herself to be immersed in the bit of Korean culture she brought with her from Seoul.
Jisu hides in the bathroom all day, crying into her hands. She realizes how much she just disappointed her parents. Jisu, in fifth grade, just got suspended from school for stealing. As she sits on the bathroom floor, Jisu remembers something she learned in church: God loves her. He forgives her sins. Even though she feels like the worst kind of human being, God still loves her. He still forgives. As she dries her tears, she lets this new revelation sink in.
Although she grew up in a Christian family, this was the moment Jisu took on her family’s faith as her own.
As years passed, believing that God was real and accepting His love for her proved to be two different things for Jisu. Constantly comparing herself with other people, Jisu felt that she lacked in everything she tried. Her brother, Hyun-soo, was better at studying. Her friends were more athletic than she was. Everyone else was good at something. Living in this constant state of comparison caused Jisu to fear people. She feared that they would not like the person she was. It grew to the point that every time she met someone new, she simply wouldn’t speak. She went from the loud child, saying everything that came to her mind, to the quiet and reserved girl who barely said a word.
Jisu began to withdraw from life.
After years of trying to fit in and fearing what people thought about her, Jisu fell into a deep depression. She grew to hate herself. She began contemplating ways to end her life. She desperately wanted to escape a world she felt she had no place in. But Jisu could never follow through with those suicidal thoughts because deep down, she knew God desired her to live. Still, the feelings of being an outsider everywhere she went never left Jisu’s mind.
Once Jisu hit high school, things started to change. Attending a private school with a high student turnover rate, Jisu’s circle of friends completely shifted. Now, people who appreciated Jisu’s sense of humor surrounded her. “I started to gain a lot more confidence in high school,” Jisu says.
Jisu also started volunteering at a local school to look after children with hearing disabilities. She began feeling empathy and compassion for the people she helped, and it caused her to start thinking about her future…what she wanted to do after high school. Hyun-soo, also, proved to be a vital role model. He transformed from the brother who teased her to the young man whom she grew to admire. And he began encouraging Jisu to read her Bible every day. As he pushed her to grow in her faith, Jisu realized she wanted the growth for herself, too.
But life after Togo was a scary thought. After years of hiding behind cheery “hello”s and fake smiles, Jisu had finally started to feel accepted and a bit more African. The majority of her friends were Nigerians. They loved it when Jisu ate chicken and acheke, a traditional African dish, with her hands. They loved when she haggled better than they did at the marketplace. They loved her for her Nigerian accent when she spoke in English.
But at the same time, Jisu knew she wasn’t African. She wanted to learn more about the culture her parents came from. She wanted to learn more about her mother-tongue. Even though it scared her, she knew she wanted to go back to Korea.
In 2008, four people gathered weekly in the living room of an apartment in a bustling neighborhood of Seoul to pray for Emmaus Campus Ministry, where students from all different backgrounds, ethnicities, and family dynamics came together with one very big commonality...their love for Jesus.
Erin, Marcus, Brian, and Mat were the four leaders of Emmaus, which was based at Yonsei University, one of Korea’s elite universities. They wanted more English-speaking students to come out to their meetings. To be a part of their campus ministry. To be a part of the community.
But more specifically, they wanted to see long-term exchange students who would be at Yonsei for four years as opposed to the usual four-to-six months. Long-term exchange students could be built up to lead. And they could be instrumental to the exponential growth of the campus ministry.
could be instrumental to the exponential growth of the campus ministry.
In June 2009, Jisu landed at Incheon International Airport in South Korea and enrolled at Yonsei University to start classes the following spring. She would double major in Life Science and Biotechnology and Theology.
Find a church, improve my Korean, and get to know my relatives. Those were Jisu’s main goals when she decided to move back to her native city. Jisu moved in with her grandmother, so she was expected to go to church with her. She didn’t mind, though. She joined the young adults ministry right away and played bass guitar on the praise team.
Jisu’s first semester of school started in March 2010. With only ten people in her Life Science and Biotechnology major, she got to know her fellow classmates quickly. One of them, Il-young, told her about this unique ministry on campus that he had heard about from a former youth group leader. It was a Christian ministry that catered to English-speaking exchange students. He invited Jisu to come to one of the meetings with him. She thought it sounded too good to be true. The campus ministry was Emmaus.
Erin, the Emmaus director, spoke to the small group of exchange students at the first meeting Jisu went to. Her message focused on the insecurities and struggles many college students face as they try to find their identity and worth in their schooling, from their friends, through their families.
“I didn’t even know about the word ‘insecurities,’” Jisu says, “I had no idea there were words for the struggles that I had.”
Her friends looked at the African beads that Jisu wears around her waist.
The beads are her one tie to the land she grew up in. They’d say, “Jisu, you are so African.” A phrase she hears more and more as people in Korea get to know her. Sometimes, Jisu wishes she was, at least, half-African, so that she can look on the outside how she feels on the inside.
Il-young encouraged her to join the praise team because they needed a bass guitarist. Seeing it as a chance to get to know some of the people at Emmaus, Jisu readily agreed.
So, the same semester Jisu started school, she found Emmaus. She realized she still struggled with her identity. She feared people getting to know her and not liking what they found. After all, she didn’t even really like herself.
Which is why, when a group of students from her dorms invited her to party on the weekends, she said, “Yes.” Wanting to fit in, Jisu proceeded to live a double life.
Playing bass on the praise team for Emmaus’s Tuesday night meetings and partying with her friends on the weekends allowed Jisu to successfully know as many people as possible without getting to know them on a deeper level.
The inability to identify with one group or another, just like in Africa, was coming back. But that was not who God created Jisu to be. She wasn’t supposed to be marked by insecurity, or deep fears, or confusion. His plan had always been for Jisu to thrive.
God saw the potential she had as a leader. So, he brought people into Jisu’s life that would help her lead her peers, instead of being afraid of them.
Throughout her entire first year at Yonsei University, her “familia” (a term used in Emmaus for each Bible study group) leader, Judy, invited Jisu to attend New Philadelphia Church, commonly known as New Philly, the church that Emmaus is under.
used in Emmaus for each Bible study group) leader, Judy, invited Jisu to attend New Philadelphia Church, commonly known as New Philly, the church that Emmaus is under. Jisu held back for a long time because of the obligation she felt towards her grandmother’s church.
Then, as Jisu opened up to Judy throughout the year, Jisu realized she didn’t have any close friends at her Korean church. And after her first semester of school, all of the friends that Jisu partied with left Yonsei University. So, she stopped partying.
She started noticing that her friends at Emmaus were thriving in whatever situation they were put in. Their faith was growing stronger, and the maturity they were gaining was evident in their lives. Looking around her, Jisu wanted to change in the same way she saw her friends changing. She desired to be a part of more than just Emmaus; she wanted to be a part of a family.
Jisu approached her grandmother about finding an English-speaking church. Fearing disappointment, Jisu was surprised by her grandmother’s response. “Wherever you go, we worship the same God,” her grandmother said. “Find a place where you feel more comfortable.”
In March 2011, Jisu finally visited New Philly for the first time. She sat in one of the plastic maroon chairs in the back, listening to Pastor Christian Lee preach about the heart of God and finding one’s identity in Him. At the end of the sermon, Pastor Christian called up certain people in the congregation to receive prayer. Having no idea who Jisu was, he asked her to come up.
“We silence the voice of the accuser,” Pastor Christian prayed over Jisu, “and we break off all negative words that have been spoken over her and into her.” The words Jisu had spoken over herself for the last 20 years flashed into her mind like neon signs. I am not good at anything. I am nobody. I have no identity. She began to weep.
Then, Pastor Christian prayed, “We speak life into her, a new identity. She is a new creation, created in Christ Jesus in true righteousness and holiness. Every motive that comes forth from her new nature is a pure motive.”
Jisu remembers that day vividly. She remembers the change that happened in her heart when Pastor Christian prayed for her. Realizing that the identity she had been searching for her whole life was not based on where she was from. Her identity was not based on her ethnicity. Her identity was based on who God says she is.
In 2008, four leaders met in an apartment to pray for a small campus ministry at Yonsei University.
Today, just five years later, Emmaus has a staff of 14 as well as 17 student leaders, whom they lovingly call "studders." Large group meetings now take place across the top three universities in Seoul, where all three campuses have seen over 100 students combined at their weekly meetings.
One studder is always selected to be the student representative. Taking on that role for the fourth semester in a row is Jisu.
Jisu encourages, challenges, and leads her fellow classmates to make sure they are able to connect with every new or returning exchange student that walks through the doors of Emmaus. She does so, understanding the importance of being a part of a community.
“When I joined New Philly, they always told me, ‘You know, Jisu, they’ve been praying for four-year students to come. You are one of our answers,’” Jisu explains. “And I was like, ‘Man you guys prayed so hard.’”
Pastor Erin describes Jisu as “full of life”.
Judy describes Jisu as someone who “pours life into the places she goes to.”
Hyun-soo talks about his little sister as a “warm-hearted girl who cares about the people around her.”
Jisu is no longer someone who withdraws from life; she is someone who adds to it.
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