“I really feel that, today, I have a word for you from God.”
The word “from” elongates just slightly. Marcus Corpening likes emphasis. He likes to emphasize that this message derives from ideas and inspiration not of his own accord.
As the 26-year-old pastor surveys the crowd of about 90 people, a slight smirk molds his face. He knows that today’s service carries weight. The bulletin says “Friendship Sunday” and for Marcus, this means new ears. The members of his congregation at New Philadelphia Church’s (NPC) Itaewon campus in Seoul, South Korea were encouraged to invite friends who don’t normally go to church; thus, making this Sunday, the 23rd of December, a special day for Marcus.
Speaking on a stage to non-Christians didn’t happen so often for him. Not since college, at least.
“I was a little Van Wilder’esque in my college days,” he jokingly explains in his sermon to the audience.
Van Wilder, the movie, comically profiles a seven-year college student that continually slips in and out of socially dangerous situations, generally involving scantily-clad women. But Marcus’s college years at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC) were more than that. A movie reference about a plotting rapper hooked on politics that doubled as a spoken word aficionado in an African-American theater troupe while rolling to nightclubs on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and shoot, even Sundays sometimes, would be a little more accurate.
In his sophomore year at UNC, Marcus joined the group Ebony Readers Onyx Troupe, a club on campus known for posting up in the middle of crowded areas and bellowing poems in a monologue-style street performance, called “spoken word”.
called “spoken word”.
Marcus loved seeing this. It reminded him of “Def Poetry Jam”, a show on HBO that showcased established spoken word poets, as well as up-and-coming ones. The same show that inspired him to write hundreds and hundreds of poems in high school. Writing poems felt easy, but performing them was a new experience. Spoken word was island-like in its approach. Alone. Just the artist, the poem, and the crowd.
Marcus had experience rapping at talent shows and small gigs in high school, so there was no stage fright when it came to being on the mic. Rapping tapped into the music, used the music, and was ultimately driven by the music. In spoken word, however, emotions often took precedence, lending to a much wider variety of meter, timing, and delivery.
What Marcus gained through years of performing spoken word has carried over to the pulpit. Anytime his low voice reverberates, and the bravado mixes with his heart’s convictions, most eyes follow what their ears are inspired to hear. In other words, when he speaks, people listen.
Marcus’s grin at the start of his sermon for Friendship Sunday unfolds into a full smile. Five minutes into his message, he illustrates how he and a few friends went on a road trip in college, and the first stop, after driving for 31 hours straight, was the Grand Canyon. In his best Lion King parody, he describes the moment of seeing the distant sun lift over the horizon.
“Ma-aaaa-tchya-benya-aaa!” he sings, rousing laughter out of the sanctuary filled with mostly 20- and 30-somethings.
As he explains that he remembers the journey much more than the sights they set out to see on the road trip, he paces back and forth on the one-foot-high stage. The total surface area of the stage measures that of a one-car garage.
garage. This space appears too little for Marcus. He walks back and forth, but his movement looks eager. Like a comedian working the crowd.
For Marcus, the moment of impact is at hand. No longer is stage presence important, but rather being in the presence of those gathered. So, he steps off. Meeting those who sit listening, right where they are. His jokes stop.
“You know, for those that chose the wide, comfortable path,” Marcus says. “It only leads to destruction.” He pauses. And then, “My grandfather, for example, was a drunk...”
His words change tones. His eyes lessen their movement. And his heart is now fully on display.
Marcus explains that his late grandfather drank, and drank quite often. When this happened, he became abusive towards his wife, even pulling guns on her. His grandfather never knew the negative impact it had until his daughter, Marcus’s mother, told him that her boyfriend did the same thing. According to Marcus, the impact of choosing the spacious, comfortable path in life leads to destruction for not only the decision maker, but for those around them, too.
The church-goers zero in on these words. Here stands this pastor, revealing painful family history, and all they can do is listen. A hug seems in order because this moment floats through the room with a quiet heaviness. But Marcus knows this moment has to pass; this is not the time for sadness or pity. He goes on.
“Sin is like eating chocolate...” Pause...pause...still pausing. Laughter erupts. The juxtaposition from alcoholic grandfather to sinful chocolate seems too ridiculous to move past. He doesn’t stop there. He, then, examines the effects of Korean ramen, a packaged noodle dish famously known for packing huge amounts of the unhealthy flavoring substance Monosodium Glutamate, or MSG for short.
“I ate ramen everyday for a week...by the end of that week, I thought I was going to die,” he proclaims.
The ramen story’s relatability rests simply on the fact that NPC is located in the middle of Seoul. Marcus knows this bustling Asian metropolis well.
He first ventured to Seoul in 2007 for a spring semester as an exchange student. As a senior at UNC, he decided to delay his graduation by a semester to do so. This idea seemed odd to a few friends, but to Marcus, it made perfect sense. The girl of his dreams was already there.
They met at a nightclub in Chapel Hill and dated for a while before she flew to Korea in the fall of 2006 for a year long exchange program. She sometimes invited him to church, but Marcus generally shrugged it off. As their relationship got serious, he gave in and went to a few services with her. Despite not believing the message, he remembers being surprised at how nice everyone was.
Then, that November, when Marcus least expected it, he had his moment with God.
He was waiting at a bus stop on a rainy night. Nothing out of the ordinary, really. He was coming home from the student store, waiting for the free shuttle back to his apartment. This trip generally played out uneventful. But as he stood, waiting for the bus, the rain shifted. He watched as something about its falling motion swayed in a new way. Moments later, he began to weep. The revelation of God being real fell on him, and it was heavy. He did not know what else to do but silently admit, God, You are actually real.
The moment God met him at a bus stop remains difficult for him to explain.
But it happened. He felt that in his heart, he had discovered God. So, he called his girlfriend in Korea, excited to share the news.
She didn’t believe him. She thought he was faking it to keep the relationship going.
Marcus’s conviction, however, remained. He started to frequent a local church near campus over the next few months and came to a firm belief in Jesus Christ as his savior. He admits he still partied here and there, but genuine change occurred. This change eventually led him to Seoul. He wanted to experience it with his girlfriend.
When he made it to Yonsei University in Seoul, the relationship that grew, however, was not with his girlfriend. Instead, it was with her mentor, Christian Lee. They met a week after Marcus arrived and totally clicked. Marcus, a hip-hop head from the backwoods of North Carolina, and Christian, a Korean guy from the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, shared the common bond of growing up in African-American communities.
Unfortunately, as he gained a friend and mentor in Christian, the relationship with his girlfriend continually digressed.
A few months into his study abroad semester, rumors began to surface that Marcus had cheated on her. Some people at church and in the dorms began to collectively distance themselves from him. But Christian stuck by Marcus’s side, saying that if he really didn’t cheat on his girlfriend, God would vindicate him.
These times were difficult. Mixed emotions plagued the end of his semester abroad in Seoul. On one hand, his faith in God grew exponentially. On the other hand, hearts were broken.
“The narrow journey is hard,” Marcus explains to the congregation, 29 minutes into his sermon.
minutes into his sermon.
This revelation comes from a passage in the Bible—Matthew chapter 7—when Jesus urges His people to enter heaven by the narrow gate. For the gate that is wide leads to destruction. And the gate that is narrow is hard, but leads to eternal life.
At this point, all attention fixates upon Marcus. His hands shake, he’s not pacing anymore, and he starts to walk down the middle aisle, a few rows deep. His message isn’t for the frequent attendees in front. It’s for the people that sit in the back. It’s for the ones who may never hear him again. He wants to meet them where they are at.
“I was an atheist for six years,” Marcus says calmly, but straightforward. “I hated Christians.”
The people staring at him can relate. Many in this room have backgrounds of hate toward the church.
“I used to hate,” he confides. “I used to be bitter...I had many reasons to be bitter. I was abused for 15 years. Told I was nothing. Told I would fail. I had, in my mind, many reasons to be bitter.”
He is fully exposed now. The listeners experience full transparency into his heart. A heart that has been tossed, turned, pulled, wrenched, broken and then, finally, restored.
Marcus lived in Lenoir, North Carolina from birth until the beginning of his sophomore year of high school. The abuse he mentions in his sermon was dished out by his mother’s long time boyfriend. Marcus’s biological father left when he was born, and his mother’s boyfriend later moved in with them and had two more kids. Marcus and his younger half-brother and half-sister frequently came home to a man threatening their mother’s life.
The abuse included heavy verbal berating coupled with physical attacks.
Marcus often rode his bike to his grandmother’s house after school, fearing what he might have to face at home. While the abuse was generally directed at his mom, Marcus received more than his fair share. Up until middle school, the abuse did not put a strain on his grades or relationships outside of the house.
But when high school came around, things changed. His grades dropped. His attitude shifted, and he was fed up. Marcus grew physically and his demeanor noticeably turned. At times throughout his freshman year, the only thought that would cross his mind was, how do I end this? Thoughts of buying a gun were not far behind.
Bitterness began to consume him, and his mother could see it. She could sense a confrontation coming. It was time to make a change.
On an otherwise normal fall afternoon, she pulled into her driveway, only to see her boyfriend storm out of the house with a baseball bat. As she jerked the car into reverse, he sprinted to the front hood and began pounding. She fled the scene as he stayed behind, bat in hand. None of the kids were home at the time.
A week later, she secretly packed what she could without drawing attention to it, woke the kids in the middle of the night, started the car, and left. After picking a spot on a map, she drove three hours east to Asheboro. While his mother drove and his siblings slept in the back seat, Marcus sat up front, silent.
They stayed that first night in the basement of a battered women’s shelter. For the time being, they were safe. Far from the abuse. Far from a broken home. But also, far from any faith in a decent future or pleasant life.
For the next two months, they slept in that basement. When Marcus and his siblings started school, they constantly lied about where they lived or where they were from, for fear that they would be discovered. After those first two months, they moved into government subsidized housing in town, and Marcus’s mom found a job. His grades began to come back and he made a small, close-knit group of friends. Eventually, his uncle came to live with them, and life began to level out.
Asheboro carried the conservative Christian flag proudly, and the high school was filled with Christian students, pushing a Jesus agenda on him. However, coming from the kid-sized cot of a basement, Marcus simply carried too much bitterness. He firmly established himself as an atheist and just moved on with high school life.
“But what transformed me was not praying a prayer,” he says to the church. “As I grew to know Him, as I grew to encounter Him, and as I grew to encounter other people that He transformed, it transformed me.”
Hope stirs in the room now.
Marcus’s demeanor shifts from somber and serious to empowered and bold. As he remembers where God brought him from, his gaze floats from each face that looks on. Attempting to reach each person that will listen. On this particular Sunday, it is the whole church.
Marcus became the full-time campus pastor at the Itaewon campus in January of 2012. The journey started after he returned to North Carolina from his study abroad semester. Marcus approached church in a whole new way.
During a mid-week prayer meeting, Marcus moved to a quiet prayer room and told God that he wanted to do more. His heart whispered, I’ll go to prayer meetings every week.
But God responded, “I want more.”
I’ll run another small group, Marcus said back.
God replied again, “I want more.” No matter what Marcus proposed, God had the same answer.
It was in this conversation that Marcus knew he was being called to full-time ministry. He called Christian back in Seoul and told him about how God was calling him into ministry. Christian encouraged him to wait and said that if he was really being called to it, God would confirm it.
“I remember saying, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Full-time ministry isn’t easy. Make sure it’s from the Lord,’” Christian, now the lead pastor at NPC, recalls. “I wanted him to make sure this wasn’t some fickle phase because ministry isn’t something you volunteer for. You’ve got to be called to it.”
After the phone call, Marcus knew one thing from the bottom of his heart. Christian had his best interests in mind. And that serving under Christian’s leadership would be the best thing for him and his growing faith. So, a few months later, in the spring of 2008, he booked a flight to South Korea to be under Christian’s leadership.
Once Marcus was in Korea, God encountered him powerfully, and Christian recognized that the full-time ministry call was definitely upon Marcus’s life.
“That is when I challenged him to quit his job and apply for the intern pastor program with New Philly,” Christian says.
Marcus listened. He applied and got accepted as an intern pastor and began pursuing his Master’s of Divinity Degree at Torch Trinity Graduate University in Seoul. A couple years later, he joined the church plant team that helped open NPC Itaewon.
helped open NPC Itaewon. A year after that, he finished his seminary studies and received his formal ordination.
Needless to say, Marcus has come a long way in a short six years.
“There is always a destination,” Marcus closes the Friendship Sunday sermon. “But it’s the journey that’s important.”
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