"In the name of Christ"
The story of David Suh and MCC meat canning
"My Korean name is Kwang-Eel Suh. I was born in what is now known as South Korea... everything changed overnight when I was 8 years old."
In August 1945, Korea was liberated from 35 years of colonization under Imperial Japan. The removal of Japanese forces was overseen by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which resulted in the formation of the 38th parallel line, splitting the Korean Peninsula in in half into North (Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or North Korea) and South (Republic of Korea, or South Korea). The 38th parallel rapidly became a frontline between the two overseeing nations. On June 25, 1950, the Korean War erupted.
After three years, on July 27, 1953, the Armistice Agreement was signed. But the three-year war left the country and people divided for 70 years. The aftermath of the war was devastating.
In 1951, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) came to Busan, South Korea, in midst of the war. MCC recognized the urgent needs of the war refugees and took steps to establish programs in South Korea. After the ceasefire in 1953, MCC Korea was established in the city of Daegu and the relief, development and peace efforts immediately began: material aid (canned meat, clothing and blankets, hygiene and medical supplies), medical aid and training, a widow's sewing project, Family Child Assistance (FCA) program, Christian Child Care training (CCCT) and Mennonite Vocational School (MVS).
In May 1953, MCC purchased from the South Korean government 22 buildings and 78 acres of farmland of the former Japanese Agricultural College. MCC decided to use the facilities to offer education, both academic and vocational, for orphans. In the fall of 1953, the Mennonite Vocational School welcomed and provided shelter, food, education and job training for hundreds of children. MCC also sent canned meat to provide nutritional support for students attending the school.
Sixty-five years later, a child who received canned meat at MVS now lives in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. His name is David (Kwang-Eel) Suh.
Like many other families, Suh's family was heavily affected by the Korean War. Suh was only 8 years old when the war broke out. Before the war, the family of five lived in Chungju, a small city about 63 miles southeast of Seoul. His father practiced medicine and the family lived a comfortable life. However, the war left the family with despair: "My father was taken to North Korea, never to return. Without my father with us, my mother tried hard to piece the family life together." Suh worked as a shoe shiner to support the family, but it was not enough.
In January 1958, a rare opportunity arose — MVS was recruiting a limited number of students for the second-year class of middle school. Suh was admitted and started attending the school in March 1958.
Suh unpacked his memories of attending the school. "MVS became home and school and community, wrapped in one. We became a big family."
Students at MVS learned Korean and world history, Korean language, English, science, geography, music and math. "My favorite [subject] was English," Suh said. "After school I was usually either at the basketball court or reading an English grammar comprehension composition book. Often I would stroll the rolling hills and recite words or sentences aloud; my audience was birds, winds and pine trees."
Each student was also required to select one vocational class among carpentry, metal working, printing or agriculture. Later electronics was added. Suh chose agriculture and worked at the school's greenhouse and participated in the group rice planting in the spring. Nurturing spiritual life was another important mission of the school. A Bible class was offered, and students gathered for chapel on weekday mornings and worship service on Sundays.
The canned meat with the label "In the name of Christ" is also one of Suh's keen memories. "We called it Mennonite beef," Suh said. "I ate a ton of it in my youth, for five years [while attending MVS], in South Korea."
Suh reminisces, "That was six decades ago. My palate still remembers the exquisite taste and my nostril the wafting aroma of the beef and kidney bean soup." Each year, MCC canned meat nourished over 150 children who attended MVS, until 1971.
In March 2023, Suh reached out to Ken Sensenig, Church Relations Associate for MCC East Coast, with a hope to visit an MCC meat canning site in Lancaster County. Sensenig invited Suh to the New Holland meat canning site. MCC's mobile cannery travels across the U.S., and volunteers join to prepare cans of turkey, beef, chicken and pork. The finished cans are shipped to those in need around the world.
Suh was impressed by the volunteers' hard work and commitment: "It was an elaborate and time consuming and labor-intensive operation — grinding chicken to smaller pieces, filling, weighing, sealing, boiling, wiping, wrapping, inspecting and packing..."
"While I was wiping water off and affixing labels on cans, I was overwhelmed with emotion. The emotion of utmost gratitude! And my distant memories came flooding, as if it happened only yesterday."
The full circle moment in New Holland, Pennsylvania, brought poignant joy and gratitude to Suh. Now Suh knows the rest of the story about canned meat.
More than 75 MCC workers from the U.S. and Canada served in South Korea from 1951 to 1971. After 20 years, the South Korean economy was standing on its own feet and MCC withdrew their programs. During the 18 years of MVS, over 400 students graduated, including Suh.
The Mennonite volunteers impacted my life with their love, kindness and care. Mennonite Vocational School edified my mind, body and soul. My five years of learning at my alma mater became seminal for my life to come," Suh said.
From 1965 to 1968, Suh worked for his alma mater and MCC Korea and met his spouse, Yon-Sook (Esther). With the encouragement and blessings from John Zook, a former MCC volunteer in South Korea and principal of MVS (1959-1963), Suh enrolled at Goshen College in 1968 and graduated with a business degree in 1971. The Suh's attended Belmont Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Indiana, and heard about MCC meat canning. Suh then hoped to witness the meat canning operation someday.
His Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and retail business work moved his family of four to a number of different cities and churches for many years. In 2019, they settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and now attend Forest Hills Mennonite Church in Leola, Pennsylvania.
"My trajectory of connection with Mennonites came to a full circle... I enjoy fellowship with such kind and joyous congregation," Suh said.
Suh expresses his gratitude for the numerous service workers and volunteers he met over the years when he was a student and later an employee at MVS and MCC Korea: "I could glimpse Jesus in their loving kindness and dedication. Their action spoke louder."
Today, MCC continues to send canned meat to people in need around the world. Over 30,000 people volunteer each year to fill, weigh, wash and label every can.
MCC returned to South Korea in 2014 with programs focused on peacebuilding in the northeast Asia region and reconciliation between the two Korea. Volunteer opportunities for young adults are provided through the Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program, International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP) and Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network (YAMEN).
The ministry of MCC is only possible through the compassion, love and dedication of people like Suh experienced in his life. MCC is grateful for the continued support and partnerships from congregation and communities that fulfill the life-giving work in the name of Christ.
A special thanks to David Suh for sharing his story, insight and knowledge on Korean history and MCC's involvement in the Korean Peninsula. Suh wrote a book titled, "Grace upon Grace: An Autobiography" in 2022 for his family and close friends. The book illustrates his experience living in postwar South Korea, including his time at the Mennonite Vocational School and the relationships he built with MCC.