The Rev. Lee Dong-hwan still wears his clerical collar, but he isn’t able to deliver sermons on Sundays at the Glory Jeil Church in Suwon, where he has been a pastor since 2013.
Lee was suspended by the Korean Methodist Church for two years in October over a blessing he gave at a queer festival in 2019.
The 40-year-old pastor has appealed the decision and since has become a central figure in a movement that hopes to transform the church in South Korea, where conservative Christian denominations have long been at odds with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.
“The problem of discrimination in Korean society, especially in the Korean church, is very serious,” Lee said. “For the awareness of human rights in Korean society to progress further, a change in the church is absolutely necessary.”
Lee was invited to give a blessing at the Incheon Queer Festival, held in August 2019 in the port city west of Seoul. He accepted, saying a prayer and scattering flower petals at the event while wearing a rainbow-colored stole.
Lee knew that he was challenging the official doctrine of the Korean Methodist Church.
In 2015, that church took a hardline stance on homosexuality, revising its rules to say that someone can be punished for agreeing with or supporting it.
“I was worried that going to the queer festival might raise some issues, but nevertheless, I thought that there should be no discrimination when a pastor blesses someone,” Lee said. “I thought that God’s love is equal for everyone, so I decided to go with it.”
Lee said his own attitudes changed gradually after a member of his church confided to him that he was gay in 2015.
“Originally, I had a very negative perception of LGBTQ [people],” he said. “Since I was a child, I was in a conservative church atmosphere. But when a member of our church came out, I started thinking [that] he’s person, the same as me.”
Lee said he looks at the references to homosexuality in the Bible as products of an ancient time, not to be taken literally in today’s environment. He also said he began pondering the messages of Jesus, who supported society’s most vulnerable, when thinking about the issue.
“If Jesus were alive today, who would he eat and drink with?” Lee asked rhetorically. “I think it would be people like the handicapped, sexual minorities, struggling workers. I thought if we interpreted the Bible for today, Jesus would be with the LGBTQ community.”