Finding Meaning

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Birth of Belief

By Skip Hellewell

North Korea is an enigma, known for public executions, militant bombast, and famine. Add to that a people so desperate for freedom they risk death to escape. Last week two escapees, a couple in their 30’s, visited Laguna and I was able to interview them. For their safety, we will refer to them anonymously as John and Sue. I was deeply touched by their story.

John escaped first, braving a perilous journey through China and Laos to Thailand, and then to South Korea. He carried a vial of poison, to avoid being returned if caught. For his wife’s protection, he simply told her he was going on a business trip, cryptically adding as he left, “We don’t have to live here.” When he didn’t return, Sue became depressed, hating the rising of the sun that heralded another day without John, but also pondering the meaning of his last words.  After eight months, John was able to contact her, tell of his escape, and ask, “Do you want to come to me?”

To attempt escape was to risk a terrible death. Sue knew nothing of freedom, lived a relatively comfortably life in North Korea, but answered “Yes!” “I risked my life for love,” she explained.   John gave her two pieces of counsel for her journey: “If you’re caught don’t take your life, I will save you,” and “Pray to God.” His first advice came from the practice of some countries holding escapees for a bribe. The latter arose from a new discovery for John: belief in God. Sue knew nothing of this, religion is not taught in North Korea, and asked, “What is God?”

Sue’s escape was perilous but successful and the two reunited in South Korea. Now, she says, “I am happy with each sunrise.” John had become deathly ill on his own escape, and in his extremis cried out for relief from an unknown source of hope. In South Korea, taught by a Catholic priest, he came to see this as an intuitive encounter with God, and prayer. Sue did not understand John’s discovery, but began to talk with two American missionaries though more to learn English. She missed her family terribly and was drawn to religion by the teaching of eternal family. Family is critically important in North Korea where ancestors are worshipped, but also because it is the only place of real safety. Sue is from a seaside town in North Korea and a prized Laguna moment was to imagine her family just over the horizon.

Their discovery of belief has been life changing. Public executions were common in North Korea, especially in the ‘90s when people were required to witness them. The meaning of life became insignificant. Both remember with regret ignoring dying bodies in the streets during times of famine. With faith came respect for life and a desire to return to North Korea, when possible, to help others. John’s goal of starting a chicken farm surprised me. Eggs, he explained, though rarely available, are a cheap source of essential proteins for the malnourished.

John and Sue, in need of funds to continue their education, were generously helped by Laguna families. But they blessed us in turn by what we learned about Korean families: Young people will risk their lives for love. The family is everything. Children are prized above all. Marriage is a life-long commitment. Isn’t it amazing, all the ways we can find meaning?


Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected]


Places to worship (all on Sunday, unless noted):

Baha’i’s of Laguna Beach—contact [email protected] for events and meetings.

Calvary Chapel Seaside, 21540 Wesley Drive (Lang Park Community Center), 10:30 a.m.

Chabad Jewish Center, 30804 S. Coast Hwy, Fri. 6 p.m., Sat. 10:30 a.m., Sun. 8 a.m.

Church by the Sea, 468 Legion St., 9 & 10:45 a.m.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 682 Park Ave., 10 a.m.

First Church of Christ, Scientist, 635 High Dr., 10 a.m.

ISKCON (Hare Krishna), 285 Legion St., 5 p.m., with 6:45 feast.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, 20912 Laguna Canyon Rd., 1:00 p.m.

Laguna Beach Net-Works, 286 St. Ann’s Dr., 10 a.m.

Laguna Presbyterian, 415 Forest Ave., 8:30 & 10 a.m.

Neighborhood Congregational Church (UCC), 340 St. Ann’s Drive, 10 a.m.

United Methodist Church, 21632 Wesley, 10 a.m.

St. Catherine of Siena (Catholic), 1042 Temple Terrace, 7:30, 9, 11, 1:30 p.m. (Spanish), 5:30 p.m.  There are 8 a.m. masses on other days and Saturday 5:30 p.m. vigils.

St. Francis by the Sea (American Catholic), 430 Park, 9:30 a.m.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 428 Park Ave., 8:00 & 10:30 a.m.

Unitarian Universalist, 429 Cypress St., 10:30 a.m.


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