The private jet landed on Jeju Island, South Korea in November of 2004. Joe Park stood on the tarmac watching the captain exit the plane. The captain looked at Joe and asked him who he was. Upon hearing his response, he immediately ushered Joe into the jet. Waiting in the front of the cabin was a sports agent who introduced himself as Mark. He led Joe to the back of the jet’s cabin where the world’s top-ranked golfer sat reading a book.
Tiger Woods looked up from his book as Mark explained who Joe was and that he would be with them during their time on the island. Tiger stood up and warmly shook Joe’s hand. That was Joe’s third year on the job. He had gotten used to meeting famous athletes. And even though Tiger left Joe slightly starstruck, these types of encounters happened regularly.
Ten years later, Joe leans in on a small couch in a coffee shop in Seoul, his elbows resting slightly on his knees. His hands cut through the morning sunlight as he talks about the day he met Tiger Woods.
He begins by comparing himself to Jerry Maguire, the 1996 movie about a sports agent who gets fired for his inner-moral realization and launches an independent agency. Joe worked as a sports manager for 15 years. He climbed his way up the ladder, starting as a grunt worker and eventually moving up as a business executive at a large international sports marketing company.
Joe started working in Seoul, South Korea for the sports marketing company in 2000. Nine years later, he was promoted to the vice president position, the same year he married his wife, Juri. At 34 years old, he was young for a vice president, and this promotion included a nice pay raise.
Things were looking good for the newlywed couple.
On the outside, the work looked glamorous. Office politics aside, Joe had the chance to work with celebrity athletes, such as professional tennis players Maria Sharapova, Roger Federer, Venus Williams, and the famed figure skater Yuna Kim.
Joe smiles as he shares these names and several more. His life is so different now than it was then. He takes a sip of his cappuccino and pauses as work-related stories come to the forefront of his mind. He loves sharing these stories, but he is grateful that they are stories from his past. His life once revolved around managing superstar athletes and the next comfortable paycheck. Now, his life revolves around God.
On Thursday, June 20, 2013, Juri sat on a bench, chatting with some other moms as their kids ran around the neighborhood park. Her phone rang, and she saw Joe’s name pop up on the caller ID. When she answered, Joe explained that he had just gotten into another argument with his managing director. I don’t know how much longer I can stay at the job, he told her. Juri could sense Joe’s frustration and hopelessness, even through the speaker.
The next day, Joe’s argument with his managing director continued. When his coworkers invited him out for lunch, he said, “No.” He had no appetite. He needed to be alone. So instead, Joe grabbed a drink from the local convenience store, found a shaded corner outside of his office building, and sank into a chair.
These arguments that Joe had with the managing director reminded him of just how toxic his work environment was.
just how toxic his work environment was. This same managing director, who was his senior but not his boss, often barked out orders to the staff that Joe had hired. His team often felt inadequate and stupid whenever the director made verbally abusive comments and gave unrealistic demands. Struggling to honor this man in his workplace, Joe was determined to keep his integrity. But he didn’t know if he could do that any longer.
He cried out to God. “Where are you? Lord, where have You been? What are you doing?”
Joe walked back into his office after his lunch break, wanting only to make it through the day and go home to his wife. However, the managing director called Joe back into his office. He wanted Joe to write a politically motivated email that Joe wasn’t comfortable writing. The director threatened that if he left the office without sending the email, he would be fired. When Joe still refused to send the email, the director made it clear that he should not come back to work on Monday. He was fired.
And just like that, Joe found himself unemployed. He thought about Juri and their two-year-old daughter, Joanna. What was going to happen to their future? Would he be able to provide for them? Had he just thrown away everything he had been working towards his whole life?
A few days later, Joe received a phone call from his boss, the senior vice president of the company, in Singapore. He asked Joe to take his job back. Furthermore, he wanted Joe to take over for the managing director who had just fired him. He explained that the company had been talking about it for years.
Joe remembers his boss’s words with sharp clarity. “And he said these words: ‘Joe don’t miss this opportunity. Don’t you realize you’re being given the keys to the kingdom?’”
Joe called Juri to tell her about the job offer. After he explained the conversation with his boss, Joe could feel Juri’s hesitation over the phone. This very thing had been on her mind and in her prayers, too.
“She actually had a vision of me standing in faded blue jeans,” Joe says. “Really old clothes. Wearing an old t-shirt with a string in my pocket, pulling out a string. At the end of the string was a key. And I was standing there holding this key. And I had this expression of comfort and peace and joy.”
“I knew right there and then,” Joe continues, “that this was all planned out by God.”
As Juri shared this vision with Joe, she wasn’t sure if this key meant taking the new job position or something else. Part of her still wanted him to have a full-time job. Part of her wanted to have a steady source of income. Part of her was scared of the unknown.
But Joe felt that the key he held in this vision opened a different door. A door that did not lead to the money and success of working in the business world. He finally felt ready to leave that world behind him. Juri listened as Joe shared his thoughts. They prayed together and finally agreed that Joe’s time working at that company was over.
The next day, and every day after that, Joe didn’t have to go back to his job. He didn’t have to go back to the place where countless insulting memories existed. The office where Joe felt chronic unhappiness. The company that gave him a lot of money and business knowledge, but at the cost of his youth and his spirit.
And yet, the glaring reality of no job, no money, and no idea what to do next hit him like a freight train. Joe was terrified. Was it worth it? He didn’t know, so he did what he could.
know, so he did what he could. He prayed.
For the first few weeks of unemployment, Joe prayed for wisdom and clarity in how to move forward. And as he prayed, Joe desired to go even deeper with God by dedicating 21 days to prayer, cutting out all food and media to focus on what God had to say about the matter, otherwise known as a fast. His diet consisted of juice and water, and his free time went to reading the Bible and praying. Whenever he felt hungry or fatigued, rather than eating, Joe prayed. Every time his stomach grumbled, it served as a reminder to pray.
Simultaneously, Joe desired to use his new free time helping the community in some way. His church in Seoul, Jubilee Church, had recently made an announcement about a three-day soccer camp for orphans in Seoul. The following week, he had a dream in which he was working with children. When he woke up, he immediately signed up to volunteer at the camp.
The soccer camp was held annually by Jerusalem Ministry, a Christian non-profit organization dedicated to serving orphans in Seoul. Every summer, the ministry organized a camp for boys from different children’s homes to come together and play soccer. They were split into teams and competed in a tournament throughout the three days. In order for the camp to be a success, it required the dedication and commitment of volunteers to coach and mentor the kids.
The fifteenth day of his fast was the first day of the soccer camp. Joe was enlisted to be the assistant coach for a team of 12 boys. The team was given the moniker Chelsea and wore the blue and gold uniforms with pride.
While the head coach ran drills with the team, Joe took every opportunity to encourage the boys. If a player stomped off the field because he didn't think it was fair to get subbed out of a scrimmage, Joe sat on the bench, arm around the boy’s shoulder, explaining why players had to rotate in and out.
think it was fair to get subbed out of a scrimmage, Joe sat on the bench, arm around the boy’s shoulder, explaining why players had to rotate in and out. Every boy on the team was fair game for him to love. And so, Joe loved them. These boys, who rarely got one-on-one attention, started to see Joe differently. They knew he cared about them, even in those short three days. Joe wasn’t just there to teach these kids how to play soccer. He was there to teach them how to accept love as well.
By the third day of the soccer camp, Joe was a different person. He felt rejuvenated and young. He enjoyed spending time with boys who weren’t afraid to play soccer in the rain. These boys reawakened Joe’s youthful spirit. He loved the end of each day when his team had to sit in a circle, and each boy had to compliment another teammate on how they played.
At the end of the final day, a boy named Kyoung-min went up to Joe desperate for a team photo. The boy explained that some of the other boys were walking around with a photo of their team, and he wanted one too. Kyoung-min, seemed willing to trade his soccer ball, his cleats, his uniform, anything and everything he had just for a group photo of Team Chelsea. It was then that Joe realized this camp changed these boys’ lives. And his life too. His perspective on happiness shifted from materialism to relationships. It’s not about what a person has but with whom he or she shares life with.
In a journal entry days later, Joe wrote:
For the past 15 years of my life, I have been serving the rich and famous; the best athletes in the world. I have bent over backwards for these world class athletes—Tiger Woods, Annika Sorenstam, KJ Choi, Rafael Nadal, Yuna Kim, Maria Sharapova—all the best in their respective sports, and household names. However, none of them compare to my boys on Team Chelsea.
By the end of his 21 day fast, Joe knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that God was calling him into ministry.
“When I look back on my life now, like the entirety of my life, I realize that this was all planned out,” Joe remembers. “Because the first time I even mentioned seminary was back in high school. I mentioned it to my father. My dad was like, ‘That’s all good and all, but honestly, I would rather you had a business degree before you go into seminary. And have a few years in business. Seminaries don’t want fresh-out-of-school, punk kids. You should have a little bit of life experience.’”
About two months later, Joe and Juri knew it was time for him to apply to seminary. They had money saved up, but not enough to get Joe through seminary with a wife and a child. They had no other choice but to start trusting completely in God.
Getting to that point of trust was not easy. Juri remembers back to the first few months after Joe left his job.
“At first, I felt that we needed to try our best to save as best we can,” Juri remembers. “There was a bit of anxiety not knowing where our next paycheck was going to come from. I immediately started looking for a job and interviewed with a company, but did not get it.”
The more she prayed, the more peace she felt.
“After a while, I had to go to God with this dilemma,” Juri continues. “And He answered by telling me to put all of my trust in Him and that He would provide everything. After that, I felt freedom from the financial burdens. I wasn’t even aggressively looking to get a job when a sister at church introduced me to a job opportunity.”
For the ten months prior to that, Joe’s family had very little income. A time that should have been stressful brought Joe and Juri peace. And in April 2014, Juri started working in public relations at an insurance company.
“For the first time in our lives, we are not a slave to our bank account,” Joe says.
Seeing the way God had been providing for his family, Joe reveals that he felt more stress about his finances when he was actually making money.
“All of the things that we were trying to do with our money was not enough. We were trying to save up to buy a house, and save up for this and save up for that. And somehow, it was just not enough each month. And now, even during that period where we didn’t have income, it was more than enough because our priorities were so different,” Joe says.
Throughout all of this, Joe had the unwavering support of Jubilee Church, where he serves as a deacon.
“I have never seen him more joyful,” Drew Shih, a pastor at Jubilee, says of Joe. “I’ve never seen him work harder. It’s like the good working hard, you know? Where you are giving your whole heart to something because you love it. It takes a long time to deconstruct our preconceived notions about what God wants us or doesn’t want us to do. It was really awesome for me to see Joe become like a little kid in a candy store with regards to life. And I still see it today.”
Joe started his first semester of classes at Torch Trinity Graduate University in February 2014. He received a scholarship that covered half of his tuition. A scholarship that only one or two recipients per class are offered.
Joe glances down at his bluetooth keyboard and up to his iPad, where the words he types appear one by one. From the second row of his “Bible and Interpretation” class, he sometimes has to squint to see the board. He is older than the majority of the students around him, but he doesn’t mind. His life experience is just as valuable as the contents of these classes.
When thinking about his future, Joe says, “My entire life I had always been planning the next step. In college and in my career, I had all the answers. People come to me for advice, for career advice. For the first time in my life, I have no clue whatsoever. That’s a good thing, for the first time.”
Before, Joe felt like he was on the path to his grave. Now, he is happier than he has ever been, holding the key to a door he hasn’t come to yet, but cannot wait to open.
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