Dr Billy Jang Hwan Kim, a South Korean Baptist pastor likely to be elected president of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), has called for Baptists to play a greater role in solving ethnic and religious conflicts, particularly those involving Christians.

On January 8, unless there is a last minute challenge, the eighteenth Baptist World Congress, meeting in Melbourne, will officially elect Dr Kim, a 64-year-old broadcaster and pastor, as its president. He will be the first Korean to be elected to the post, which he will hold for the next five years, until the 2005 congress of the BWA, which represents 80 percent of the world's Baptists.

His church, the Korea Baptist Convention, is a relatively small organization within South Korea, with about 600,000 members in a total population of 42 million. The main Protestant churches in South Korea are the Presbyterian and Methodist churches.

Dr Kim's election was recommended last July by the BWA's general council, meeting in Dresden, Germany, and he is the sole candidate who will be presented to the congress January8. In theory he could be challenged from the floor of the meeting, but this is highly unlikely to occur.

Many of the BWA president's duties are ceremonial, but he—all presidents thus far have been males—plays a key role in directing the organization, in representing it in meetings with government leaders, and in speaking out on issues of justice and human rights.

Asked, during an interview with Ecumenical News International (ENI), about his main focus as president, Dr Kim said he wanted to promote the unity of Baptists around the world, particularly their role in helping to solve ethnic and religious conflicts. He singled out violence in Indonesia and in India where members of other faith groups have attacked Christians. In Indonesia hundreds of church buildings have been destroyed in recent months.

Dr Kim expressed general concern for Christian minorities, especially Baptists, in developing countries, pointing out that in Western countries Baptists had a strong presence—"no one can touch them"—but that in many developing countries, Baptists were vulnerable.

A Christian of conservative views, with a strong belief in the importance of scripture and preaching as the keys to Christian family life, Dr Kim is known in Korea as a charismatic preacher, highly successful evangelist and as chaplain to the Korean national police force. The church where he is senior pastor, the Central Baptist Church in Suwon, South Korea, attracts a total of about 10,000 people to its six services each Sunday.

Article continues below

He is also director of the Far East Broadcasting Company, a Christian network of five radio stations that broadcast the Gospel to Christians in Korea as well as to ethnic Koreans in neighboring China, Russia and Japan. A particular service to Korean-speaking Christians in China, provided by one of Dr Kim's radio stations, is a daily half-hour reading of the Bible in Korean. The reading is slowed down to enable Korean speakers to write down the text, as they do not have Bibles. "If the readings are too fast, we get letters saying slow down'," Dr Kim said.

In Billy Kim, the BWA is choosing as its president someone who believes in finding strong and effective solutions to the problems faced by Baptists. He told ENI that not so long ago some Koreans were criticizing Baptists, saying that because of their belief in baptism by immersion they were in fact a sect. He decided to take action to fight this prejudice and devised a plan to baptize 10,000 people at the same time. Local Baptist pastors told him that they would never be able to find 10,000 people who wanted to be baptized, so he asked them all to stop baptizing converts for a year. The numbers of those seeking baptism quickly built up, and in 1990, during the sixteenth Baptist World Congress, held in South Korea, more than 10 000 people were baptized by immersion in the Han River in Seoul. National television covered the event and helped end prejudice against baptism by immersion and against Baptists.

Asked what was the major challenge to Baptist churches in South Korea at the end of the 20th century, Dr Kim said: "Parking spaces. Forty years ago, only the mayor and deputy mayor in a town might have a car. Now the average family has two cars and people want to drive to church. They spend 10 minutes looking for a place to park. But an acre of land costs US$1 million, or even $2 million downtown. So we have to investigate high-rise parking areas or underground parking."

Dr Kim was raised in what he describes as typical traditional Korean beliefs, combining Buddhism, Confucianism and animism. But his fate was decided when United Nations troops were stationed near his home in Seoul in the 1950s, after the end of the Korean War. He and other adolescents went to the camp to ask American soldiers for chocolate. He was given work, tending a fire and polishing the soldiers' boots. One soldier, Sergeant Carl Powers, asked him if he would like to go to the US to attend school. He attended a school in Greenville, South Carolina, where he converted to Christianity after a student told him about the Gospel. He entered the ministry and returned to Korea where his family then converted to Christianity.

Article continues below

Dr Kim told ENI that Sergeant Powers had paid his school fees for eight years. On Christmas Eve 1978, Dr Kim baptized Powers in the River Jordan in the Holy Land. "On a human level, it's not possible to plan such things," Kim told ENI. "But with God all things are possible."

Dr Kim will be the 18th president of the BWA. Asked by ENI whether Baptists believed that males should hold positions of leadership within the church, Dr Kim, who is married with three children and six grandchildren, referred to Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians and said that God had created the family unit and that man should exercise spiritual leadership within it.

"Margaret Thatcher did a good job as a political leader, but I don't know what sort of leader she was in her home, because I didn't visit her home," he said. "In a house, in a football team, in a big corporation, there has to be one leader. If you are given that authority, you have to exercise it properly. Most of the ladies in my context, in Korea, let the men be leaders, in spiritual roles and within the home. If a father exercises spiritual leadership, the children behave well."

Asked if his job made him the Baptist pope, Dr Kim laughed. "I don't think Baptists would allow a pope," he said. "Our philosophy is one of local autonomy. I support that, but we should co-operate on issues affecting the Baptist family."

Related Elsewhere

The Baptist World Alliance Web site has some information, but not much, on their congress.