SEOUL, June 21 (UPI) -- 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."
Korean Methodist Church officials, however, disagreed and found him guilty of supporting homosexuality at a trial in October, handing down the two-year suspension in the first-ever judgment of its kind in South Korea.
Lee had an appeal hearing scheduled for February, but he and his legal team protested against the trial being held behind closed doors, ostensibly due to COVID-19 precautions.
The appeal was rescheduled for March, but again the legal defense raised objections as the presiding judge was the Methodist pastor who first leveled the charges against Lee.
Lee and his supporters are awaiting a new date for his appeal, and in the meantime, a weekly rally and prayer meeting has sprung up around the case.
On a recent Monday evening, supporters gathered outside of the office tower that houses the KMC headquarters in downtown Seoul to pray, deliver speeches and sing hymns.
At the rally, Kim Yoo-mi, 25, a Methodist divinity student who is studying to become a pastor, said she is hoping the movement around Lee will help spark change in the church.
"I'm not only for the Christian church. I'm for the religion of Jesus," she said. "That's why I'm trying to make my church go a better way. I hope there will be some movement inside the Christian church to make a change."
Oh Se-yo, 32, a pastor at a progressive Presbyterian church, said many pastors are afraid that accepting the LGBTQ community will undermine their authority.
"As a Christian and a pastor, it's painful seeing this," he said. "I also feel a sense of responsibility. Maybe we can't get anything done, but the most important thing is that we are moving. We are taking action, we are not going backward."
Lee's case has also drawn international attention, such as a letter of support from Korean ministers and members of the United Church of Canada, a mainline Protestant denomination, which called the verdict against Lee "exceedingly unfair."
While Lee and his supporters hope to foster debate within the church, a conservative public attitude toward the LGBTQ community in South Korea is showing signs of shifting, particularly among younger generations.
A poll by Gallup Korea last month found that 52% of respondents were against same-sex marriage and 38% were in favor, marking an increase of three percentage points since 2019. But among those in their 20s, an overwhelming 73% expressed support.
At the same time, participation in organized religion is dropping precipitously, driven by factors that include changing social attitudes and a series of high-profile embezzlement and succession scandals at South Korea's largest Protestant churches.
Some 50% of South Koreans belonged to a religion in 2014, but that number plunged to 40% in 2021, according to an April survey by Gallup. Again, younger Koreans are leading the change, with only 22% of those in their 20s reporting a religious affiliation.
Activists and progressive politicians long have been seeking greater rights for the LGBTQ community in South Korea. Several attempts at an anti-discrimination bill have been raised in the parliament since 2007, with the most recent effort by the progressive Justice Party in June of last year.
Lee Jong-geol, a veteran activist and head of the South Korean Coalition for Anti-discrimination Legislation, said that the bills consistently have been met with heavy resistance by influential leaders of conservative Christian denominations
"A very vocal sector of the Christian church has acted as a barrier to anti-discrimination and has made LGBTQ issues unable to be discussed," Lee said.
However, he added that he feels that a division is growing over the issue in the church, especially among differing generations.
"You can see that the younger generation is more open-minded to sexual minority issues," Lee said. "There is a movement growing to change the Christian church itself, and I think it will keep going."
Joseph Yi, an associate professor of political science at Hanyang University in Seoul, has studied attitudes toward the LGBTQ community by evangelical Christians in South Korea, and says the idea of an all-out culture war has been overstated.
"There's a small minority of people who are activists [within the church], who see the LGBT community as a threat," Yi said. "But the vast majority are more into an outreach scenario. Either they don't care about politics or they think that they should reach out to [the LGBTQ community]."
Lee said that he draws hope from connecting directly with church members, citing an interview he did with a conservative Korean Christian newspaper based in Dallas.
"We had very different positions, but we listened to each other's stories," Lee said. "I thought if we can at least communicate with each other, it might be an opportunity to make a difference."
The pastor that he is determined to continue his struggle within the church rather than walk away, even if he is facing long odds.
"I love the Methodist Church," Lee said. "Even if I get dismissed or expelled, I want to stand with the members [seeking change] and help change this place with them.
"I want to show that there is at least one person who supports them. That's why I don't want to give up."