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Class of 2018
Candler international student serves as leader, advocate for marginalized

South Korean native Hangoul Choi, a master of divinity student in Candler School of Theology, has helped give a voice to international students, immigrants and women. Emory Photo/Video

Graduating master of divinity student Hangoul Choi (pronounced “Han-GEAR Chay”) won the first award presented at Candler School of Theology’s Honors Day Convocation this spring. The Claude H. Thompson Award “recognizes a student who demonstrates concern that the gospel of Jesus Christ comes to complete expression in the lives of men and women through acts of justice and reconciliation.”

“I would like the description more if it was ‘women and men,’” Choi chuckles wryly. “Or just ‘people.’”

People have certainly been at the heart of Choi’s three years at Candler, especially people whose voices aren’t always heard. 

On campus, the South Korean native has been a leader in the Emory Korean Graduate Student Association (EKGSA) at Candler, serving as both vice president and president. In the wider community, she has worked as a pastoral intern for children with developmental disabilities at Mount Pisgah United Methodist Church and as a children’s pastor at Shalom Korean Methodist Church in Newnan, a congregation with a large number of first- and second-generation immigrants from South Korea.

She completed a unit of chaplaincy training at Emory University Hospital, and just finished a semester-long internship in the global health division of the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Global Ministries. 

Looking back, Choi says, she didn’t plan to become involved in so many different arenas. “It just turned out this way. I guess I have broader social concern than I realized since there are so many things that we need to pay attention to.”

And Choi has always been paying attention. The daughter of ministers in the Korean Methodist Church, she studied theology at Yonsei University in Seoul. Coming across Bible passages that seemed “really against women’s rights” bothered her.

“I internalized that in myself and it was very hard. That was my turning point to really think deeply about theology and the Bible and God,” she says, “That’s when I decided to come to the U.S. and study more about it.” 

Little steps and big changes

Upon arrival at Candler, Choi got involved with the EKGSA, an organization of students from Candler and Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion that she says acts as a “very affirming affinity group,” providing much-needed concrete support for students who are in a new culture, speaking English as a second language. The group holds weekly prayer meetings, special orientation activities and social gatherings such as barbecues and women’s nights.

International students can often be in “survival mode,” Choi says — adjusting to culture shock, cost of living, and other elements of life in the U.S. “We want them to flourish, not just try to survive.”

While she served as vice president of EKGSA in her second year, Choi took a class in feminist and womanist ethics that challenged students to explore an ethical problem that interested them. Choi turned to the plight of “comfort women,” women and girls from occupied territories who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.

“Even though I knew about comfort women before, now I could discover more through research,” she says. 

Piecing together this research with readings of feminist theologians highlighting “people who died not even having a voice” spurred Choi to action. “I had the urge to share about the comfort women to help their voices be heard.” 

She collaborated with classmate Jessica Kawamura to organize a public screening of a documentary about Korean comfort women survivors — made even more relevant because plans for a comfort women memorial at Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights had recently been cancelled. Attendees from Emory and beyond watched, questioned and reflected together.

Choi had originally been skeptical about the event’s impact: “Like, ‘Oh, what’s the point? It’s just one event. People will forget.’” But then Emory Law students who attended the screening organized one at their school. This led to an important realization for Choi.

“My small action may lead to [one] a little bigger,” she says. “I’m not thinking of big change, just little steps.” 

From diversity to inclusion

Choi has continued to take catalytic “little steps” in her final year at Candler as president of EKGSA. The organization’s faculty adviser, Karen Scheib, professor of pastoral care and pastoral theology, says that a key feature of Choi’s leadership has been to move the school’s conversations about race beyond a black/white binary to include the experiences of Asian, Asian American and Latinx students.

“Hangoul has worked to move Candler beyond diversity and closer to an inclusive community,” Scheib notes.

Choi has specifically advocated on behalf of international students who have faced racial microaggressions. This year, she and EKGSA penned a communal letter on the topic to Candler’s administration and organized a student forum for Asian and Asian American students.

“Korean people, usually, we don’t want to cause trouble,” Choi explains. “Many times, we would just share a negative experience in our group and then say, ‘Oh, it’s okay, let it be. We will just graduate. We don’t want to cause trouble.’ But now we, as a community, felt the need to let our voice be heard and really tackle the issue to create change.” 

About 25 students of various ethnicities attended the forum. Choi says it was the first time that many Asian students had risked vulnerability to share about their experiences with microaggressions.

“Other students also asked questions because they really don’t know if things they are doing or saying may be hurting another person. It’s a matter of knowing, raising the awareness,” she says.

And again, Choi’s little steps traveled farther: members of the Candler International Student Association attended the forum, then held one of their own. 

When asked what she’ll take away from her seminary experience, Choi says, “I think Candler gave me great opportunities to grow and to fulfill my potential. It helped me to articulate my passion for people. It helped me to be a leader. It was a good nurturing ground for me.”

Then there’s a pause that seems to contain all her efforts to hold in tension the truth that one can be grateful for a place while knowing there is much work still to do. Work that Hangoul Choi has energized in a big way. Work that, she says, “we did out of care.”

Next year, Choi will be a chaplain resident with Emory Healthcare. She’s on track to be ordained as a minister in the United Methodist Church. And she’s ready to take more little steps that may very well become bigger than she realizes. 

“Wherever the doors are open or doors are closed, God will lead me,” she says. “I’m trusting that goodness.”

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