Jackie and I had a great time Saturday. I will blog about the great place we ate at and the awesome pizza we made later. But for right now I want to write about what happened Sunday.
It all started Saturday when we were getting lunch in Itaewon. It is an area known for having a great deal of foreigners due to the US military base nearby. After eating we walked outside and waited to cross the street. Jackie went to take a photo and I stood at the crosswalk. While I was waiting, two Korean girls came up and offered to give me a free ticket to the World Peace Festival at Olympic Stadium on Sunday. I called Jackie over and the girls explained everything to the two of us. Lunch would be provided, a free shuttle bus would take us there and we would get a free shirt. The purpose of the festival would be to promote peace in conjunction with the United Nations' International Day of Peace.
We had no Sunday plans and, while at High Street Market earlier, we had heard John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance," so I was willing to try it out. It sounded like fun. Well, it was certainly something.
The Next MorningWe left for the meet-up point at 8:30 a.m. It was a beautiful morning and calm. At the meet-up point, we were given a t-shirt with a sticker of the United States flag on it and a gift bag full of snacks, water and a Coke. Pretty nice. We loaded into the bus. There were six volunteers and maybe seven of us on the charter bus. There was only one other American. I know a few women were from the Philippines. I am not sure where the other guy was from. Our group leader looked like Carrie Brownstein from Portlandia, Wild Flag and Sleater Kinney. I love her!
It took awhile to arrive at the stadium. When we stopped, we had to line up and follow our group leader into the stadium. As we walked through the corridors of Olympic Stadium, the performers and athletes of all ages lined our path. They all had the biggest smiles on and waived at us constantly. It was nice. Jackie even commented that it was great to see so many happy people. I gave a group of young baseball players a bunch of high fives. We enjoyed the walk. Then we had to wait for our seats to be found.
In the StadiumThey led us to some empty seats in a really poor area for viewing the proceedings. There was a big gate in front of us. Nevertheless, it was not too bad because there were a couple of giant screens showing the action from all angles. The stadium was packed. The stadium was color coordinated. In each section, every person wore the same thing as the others in that section. Everything was colorful. In front of each color-coordinated section and at intervals up in the sections, were people directing when everyone should yell, cheer and clap. They were not like cheerleaders. It was a staged show of support for things. The sections obeyed almost completely (save for the random person who coughed from time to time or whatever).
Eventually, an old man, Man Hee Lee came out of the tunnel. The Korean volunteer sitting next to me, a woman in her 50s, kept excitedly hitting my arm and pointing to him. Then she would look at me with a you-should-be-more-excited-to-be-near-him look. She would explain, with hyper enthusiasm, things to me, except she only spoke Korean so I understood none of it. Mostly he looked silly. The crowd was going crazy though.
It seemed he was the director of the organization. And while I thought the smoke, fireworks and loud music that accompanied his arrival were a bit over the top, I figured it was a cultural thing. Maybe he was a professional wrestler or something.
What I did understand, however, were the English subtitles on the television screens. Mr. Lee was somebody who was going to bring the light of God to the world. Um, okay? Jackie and I were a bit taken back by the overt religious language of everything. The hosts of the event would mention what was going on, first in Korean and then in English, and it also included a lot of light versus darkness talk and some other strangely worded sentences. Apparently, in 1984, the universe completed its rotation and that is significant for some reason, I can not remember exactly. Also, this event was "more like the Olympics than you would first expect" because the Seoul Olympics had a similar slogan.
Then there was a big countdown to the lighting of the Olympic torch. It meant peace and light and defeating darkness. Everything was about light and darkness and defeating the darkness. There was not so much talk about peace as there was about how much light is going to be victorious over darkness. That is not generally how people speak about peace, you know, as a war.
Then the procession started. Each group of bands, drummers, athletes, children and marchers were part of "tribes." There was some mention about Isreal for some reason. Anyway, the tribes were Simon, Bartholemew, Matthew, Andrew, John, Thomas, Peter, etc. I am Catholic. I know those are some of the names of Jesus' disciples. On the tv screen, it was mentioned where they had each tribes' churches and what they were for (some symbolized the "wisdom of the majestic eagle, etc). Some of the churches were from as far away as the Netherlands and Australia. All the parade participants looked Korean though.
By this time, listening to the hosts talk about religious themes and reading the overtly religious words plastered across the tv screens, we knew this was not some UN-related peace event; it was a religious celebration that had tricked us into attending. The other foreigners all seemed to be enjoying themselves. Us two looked to be the only ones not smiling. Honestly, it started to seem a little creepy. I thought we were brought over to be spectators. But if that were the case, the people who were in our section made up about a sixth of the audience. Every other section was full of people from these "tribes." The sections on the opposite side of the stadium created pictures from giant cards they would hold up. As each tribe was announced, they would spell out the name and create a picture. They also created a bunch more pictures from time to time. While we were there it was probably up to a dozen distinct pictures.
And they waved flags a lot.
Bailing on PeaceNeither of us wanted to be there any longer. However, we felt trapped on all sides. It was such an ugly feeling. There were so many people that there was no room to walk. We had been told to give our badges back when we wanted to leave, so we had to actually check in with these people first. It is hard to be rude, especially when they had given us so many things. Plus, the whole scene was intimidating. When 100,000 are chanting and you aren't in agreement or included, you start to feel isolated and small.
But it was all too much and we finally gave our badges back before we pushed our way through the droves of people who even covered the stairs, a sure fire code violation if we were in the States. Once outside the stadium, it was all we could do to get as far away as possible. We had gone expecting a gathering about peace and had gotten a crazy religious celebration. They had used us to fill seats and who knows what else...
Researching Mannam and Man Hee LeeWhen we got to the apartment I immediately began reading everything I could about this organization and Mr. Lee. There are some interesting, strange things.
- Man Hee Lee believes he is a Jesus-like figure (or possibly Jesus himself) and that only he can decode the Book of Revelations. According to him, the world will end once his group reaches 144,000 members. He also believes he will never die. Today he leads a church known as ShinChonJi which is aggressively pursuing new members, especially on college campuses, but most people simply call them a cult. When I posted one of my photos from this celebration on Tumblr, I got a reply from somebody I did not know. He is a Korean and simply said, "The religion is considered to be a cult in Korea (sad face)."
- Mr. Lee was in California earlier and his group had some strange encounters with the internet "press."
- Other people have had weird encounters with this group. During a celebration at the War Memorial, one person saw blatant racism. They hate the Japanese. A lot.
- There are long, long, long message board threads dedicated to foreigners meeting these people. Apparently, Mannam provides free Korean lessons, soccer leagues and cooking classes. Some of those people have had very positive interactions with the group and think of them as nice people. Others have had completely negative experiences. Some of the classes were unorganized and a front for increasing their membership, nothing more.
- A lot of guys get suckered into going to their events because they are approached by young, rather attractive, Korean women. Then when they show up to meet the girl, she will bring a group of friends. None of the people in this group are ever out without the others.
- Another blog has chronicled the link between Mannam and Man Hee Lee. He writes about the scam of their volunteer work, most of it being volunteering for events to get more foreigners to join. The rest of it seems to be photo opportunities without really working to help anyone.
- These photo ops help them hide the fact that they are a cult. They essentially use foreigners to gain legitimacy and look inclusive. In fact, Mr. Lee's intentions are to use Mannam to further increase ShinChonJi's numbers, reunify Korea and "swallow up all regions." I guess that is before the end of the world happens.
So that was my Sunday. Hope everyone else had a good time. And remember, kids, "Where light meets light, there is victory!"