Dr. Kwi Yun | Honoring a Grandmother’s Influence

Dean of Nyack’s School of Social Work, Dr. Kwi Yun, graciously shares a snapshot of her life in the I AM NYACK series celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

The recent attention to Asian Americans as violence increases against them has helped me refresh my racial and ethnic identity as an Asian American after living in the United States for the last four decades.

I was born in Seoul, Korea, a year after the Korean War decimated the country, causing economic hardship and social and political instability. Many families were separated or lost members to the War and were stricken with poverty. I remember people coming to my house and begging for food.

As a child, I felt safe in my neighborhood. I played with kids on the block until called in for dinner. On a hot summer evening, we would head back outside after quickly finishing dinner and continue to play, frequently in the dark.

Dr. Yun’s son Simon and her grandmother, Do Kim.

My grandmother was a woman of faith and wisdom. She was born in Suncheon in Northern Korea in 1898. A year before she was born, a missionary from America came to Suncheon and devoted his life to spreading the gospel. As a result, many people in the town became Christians, and my grandmother was one of them. She learned how to read and write to study the Bible. During the Korean War, she eventually moved to what is now South Korea with my father, who fought against communism in the North.

She had a daily routine of devotions three times a day. For evening devotions, her grandchildren would join in. After singing a hymn, “Onward Christian Soldier,” she would share scripture and pray for an endless number of people. Sometimes, she would doze off in the middle of prayer, and I would wake her up saying, “Grandma! Grandma!” Then she would come around and continue to pray. It seemed like hours for this three-year-old, but I stayed with her until it was finally time to say, “Amen!”

Following the War, the Korean peninsula was divided into two—the South and the North. The South took a path to democracy with capitalism and the North to communism. While I was growing up, South Korea was busy rebuilding the country. Resources were limited and competition was high. We were expected to study all the time to prepare for entrance exams for middle school, high school and college. The system was highly test-driven and competitive. Scores and rankings were posted on the wall of the school. The highly competitive system might have contributed to its rapid economic development; however, it did not allow me much room to expand my world.

It was the church that provided me with the space that I needed during my adolescence and college years. Through youth group activities, such as organizing retreats, presenting my thoughts or performing in Christmas plays, the church helped me cultivate my creativity and lifelong friendships. More importantly, the church introduced me to daily quiet time, which helped me grow in my personal relationship with God.

The missionary who evangelized in my grandmother’s town was Rev. Norman Whittemore from Brooklyn, New York. Because of his sacrifice, a woman born in northern Korea became a Christian and passed her faith on to her families. Many years later her granddaughter came to the United States. The institution where she serves is Nyack College, which was started as the Missionary Training Institute in New York in 1882, bringing the story full circle.

Thinking of this puts me in awe of God’s divine grace and guidance.