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Miracle Journey

November 01, 2016 - 11 minute read

Rev. Dr. Shang Ik Moon looking through a photo book

Rev. Dr. Shang Ik Moon lived a life of pain and miracles on his way to becoming a co-founder of Concordia University Irvine/Christ College Irvine. As a boy he survived the outbreak of the Korean war, making his way through enemy lines only to find himself alone at age 14, foraging for food. God’s intervention brought him to faith and to the U.S. where academic and spiritual training prepared him for an assignment he never expected: helping to establish a new Lutheran university on the West Coast.

Whenever the situation turned worse, God came through with another solution,

Moon says. “My story is a repetition of my predicament and God’s help."

Moon’s family was caught in the cross fire of the Korean War in 1950. His father, a government employee, had died but the new communist regime targeted his mother for execution because of her ties to the former government. Providentially, a family friend and double agent was assigned to execute her. He whispered, “When I shoot, I’ll be shooting a blank. You fall down and play dead, and at night come to my house.” She did, and hid in a hole under his living room for three months.

“We both thought each other was dead,” says Moon, who narrowly escaped Seoul and was walking south with nothing but his mother’s instructions to wake up in the morning, put the rising sun to his left and keep moving. He slept in fields and villages. His memories of the trek come back disjointedly. The journey introduced him to the kind of war-related horrors best left unspoken.

At one point, Moon was climbing a snow-covered mountain with a rescued infant strapped to his back. He was trying to deliver the child to its only surviving relatives in the south, while also escaping the front lines himself. Half a dozen American planes in formation flew overhead. One peeled off and came toward Moon, so close that the sound was deafening.

“When you look at a big airplane coming at you, that sensation is indescribable,” he says.

Bullets began to fly. Moon could hear them whizzing past his ears. The plane bore down on him.

“Those airplane machine guns are like cannons,” he says. "By all descriptions I should have been dead."

The plane circled back to fire on him again and Moon was literally frozen with fear. He couldn’t even duck into the bushes.

You’d think you’d become frantic, no—very calm, peaceful resignation. Almost like, ‘I’m in your hands. Do whatever you want with me.’

None of the bullets hit him, and the plane rejoined its squadron. Moon continued on, narrowly avoiding execution the following day after being taken captive by South Koreans who thought he was a spy. He successfully delivered the infant to its relatives, but the child did not survive the war.

“Death and life is like a paper tent,” Moon says. “One side is death, the other life. You can easily slip from one to the other. Those were very precarious days.”

A family took Moon in as a servant on their farm, but treated him like a slave while the rest of the family lived in relative luxury. He worked from before dawn to collect firewood from a nearby mountain, and was rewarded with little more than broth.

“I was still 15 and not mature enough to take that, emotionally,” he recalls. “Once upon a time I, too, had loving parents who really cared for me gently and with all kinds of emotional support. How is it that I lost all that? What’s worth living for anymore? I went to my room and cried my heart out. That was an almost daily routine.”

After more than a year he fled to a U.S. military base in Suwon, hoping to find a better life. Instead, he found himself sleeping in the open and making soup out of discarded bones and grubs he found in the garbage dump.

“From the get-go I thought I shouldn’t have left,” he says. “I went to the military base to ask for a job but they were inundated with orphans and constantly chased you away.”

Desperately one day he thrust himself into the attention of an American officer, handing him a letter Moon had written in broken English. The officer took pity on him and introduced him to a chaplain who had just arrived, Rev. Eduard Vajda. Though Moon was barely acquainted with the Christian faith, and had made fun of the Christian kids in his school who seemed to him “a weird bunch,” Vajda offered to take him in.

Rev. Dr. Shang Ik Moon flipping through a photo book

Rev. Dr. Shang Ik Moon flipping through a photo book

“He called me ‘Moon,’ and I called him ‘Chappy,’” Moon says. “I didn’t know what a chaplain was. He taught me English with Luther’s Small Catechism, and made arrangements for me to sleep in the sacristy of the chapel. He brought me a cot and blankets to keep me warm, a radio so that I wouldn’t be lonesome, and three meals each day, now that I was dwelling on the base.”

Moon served with him for a while, going to orphanages to share the gospel, and then Vajda began saying, “I want you to think about becoming a preacher.”

Moon protested that his father had wanted him to be a politician, and his mother wanted him to be a rich medical doctor. For his part, Moon wanted to be an atomic scientist because the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima was big news in those days.

“Did you ever think about the purpose of your life?” Vajda asked. “You could have died many deaths by now, and yet you are still alive. Aren’t you curious what God has in store for you?”

“He constantly challenged me that way,” Moon says. “I had no good answer.”

Moon had already progressed to faith of his own.

“A lot of people claim to know the day and hour they became Christians,” he says. “I cannot claim that at all. For me it was a gradual process. One morning you get up and say, ‘You know what? I do believe in Jesus.’ And you keep reinforcing yourself. Revelation comes in a moving fashion, not a sudden blink.”

Moon embraced Vajda’s idea of sending him to a Lutheran seminary in the U.S. to become a pastor, then returning to Korea to serve as a missionary to his own people. Before departing for St. John’s College in Kansas, Moon asked if he could return to Seoul to  find out for certain if his mother was living. Martial law had been imposed on the city, so Vajda brought Moon with him as an “interpreter.”

‘Oh, you’re still alive!’ she exclaimed. ‘Your mother thinks you’re dead.’

Finding his old home was difficult because buildings had been razed in battle. He  finally spotted a neighbor who was salvaging bricks. “Oh, you’re still alive!” she exclaimed. “Your mother thinks you’re dead.” Moon’s mother had returned to Seoul secretly just a week before. Moon found her early in the morning, washing her face in a courtyard.

“She looked at me and wouldn’t say a word,” he says. “I guess she thought she was seeing a ghost, or maybe imagination. I walked toward her and still she was frozen. I thought, ‘Well, the communists tortured her so much that she’s out of her mind and can’t discern reality anymore.’”

Moon took her in his arms and said, “Oh, mother, you don’t remember me, do you? I’m your son.” Then she cried out. “That was our reunion,” he says.

Joy and sadness mingled as she learned of his commitment to attend college in America on scholarship. Finally she released him, saying, “I thought you were dead anyway for these past three years, so I’ll let you go and you can seek your own future.”

They parted for another seven years, until she came to live with Moon while he served his vicarage in Kansas. She cooked for him daily and “treasured that year, and we were able to make up what we had lost,” Moon says.

Studying in the U.S. was a great privilege— and terribly hard.

“I didn’t even know English that well,” he remembers. “If I didn’t understand one word I would get totally lost because I lost the context. I had to carry a handheld dictionary all the time. I had a lot of fear and many times wanted to quit and go home. But many wonderful professors encouraged me to stay, saying, ‘You’re going to do great.’”

Rev. Dr. Shang Ik Moon

Rev. Dr. Shang Ik Moon

One of Moon’s tutors was R. A. Bohlmann, who later served as synod president. He helped Moon learn Greek, Latin and German. “Without him, I would have quit,” Moon says.

Moon also met his wife-to-be in St. Louis where she was attending a Lutheran school of nursing. Their common interest in ministry helped bond them and they were married after Moon finished seminary. “We shared the journey together,” he says.

But his original goal of returning to Korea as a missionary didn’t materialize, which was “very disappointing.” The Korean Lutheran church had opened their own seminary and were training people. Feeling defeated, and with degrees in sociology and theology under his belt, Moon accepted an offer to teach at his alma mater, Concordia Senior College in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

“Korea didn’t need me but America wanted me,” he says jokingly. “What we want sometimes does not happen, and yet at the end it was good because that led me to where I am.”

He taught there for six years and began speaking in area churches, who were curious about the only Korean man in town.

“I had so many opportunities to talk about my Christian witness, and missions and evangelism,” he says. “I treasured that. I said to myself, ‘I’m now a missionary from Korea to America.’”

One day in late 1975, Charles Manske showed up in Ft. Wayne to introduce himself and talk about the vision for Christ College Irvine.

“It sounded kind of like wishful thinking, but unreal,” Moon says. “How can you have a college when there’s no building, no faculty, no nothing? But Manske really was a man of vision. He could see the picture of the college that is now unfolding.”

Moon was uninterested, but Manske eventually convinced him to come look at the empty parcel of land.

“There wasn’t much of anything but a barren hill and a few rocks. It was really a surprise,” Moon recalls. “But for some reason I felt it was an interesting challenge. There was nothing, but we said yes.”

So began Moon’s life work, helping to establish the new college.

“We had to set everything up and  figure it out,” he says. “In retrospect, being rejected by Korea and the six years of preparation in Ft. Wayne gave me an idea about how to administer a college.”

Still, it was a great challenge to gain enough students—and credibility—to overcome great skepticism within the denomination. As one educational leader told Moon, “We need another college like we need a hole in the head.”

“Christ College Irvine was born in such an untimely time,” Moon says. “Everyone said it was the wrong time.”

Looking back, Moon sees what “a wonderful privilege it was to have the opportunity to get in on the ground  floor to build a brand new school. That kind of opportunity doesn’t come too often. I’m so glad I did not turn it down.”

Moon held numerous positions, starting as CCI’s academic dean, responsible for curriculum design, establishing academic policies and setting up all the systems. He also taught psychology and sociology.

The first students were recruited by going “to the highways and byways to grab any living soul, anybody who breathed,” he says. “Those students were truly the pioneers. It was a strange combination of students who had an equally crazy vision as we did.”

By the  fifth year, Christ College Irvine accomplished the unthinkable: it attained full accreditation with WASC, largely because of Moon’s efforts, according to Manske.

“That was unprecedented in the history of WASC,” Moon says. “It was retroactive so all who graduated earlier were given the credit. Because of that, nobody talked about shutting down the school anymore.”

Moon credits Southern California supporters for the college’s survival.

Rev. Dr. Shang Ik Moon with his camera

Rev. Dr. Shang Ik Moon with his camera

“It was all miracles because we were so poor and so meager, we were constantly begging our people to give donations to meet our budget,” he says. “Our constituents really came through. This college survived only because of the people’s goodwill. They genuinely wanted a college in Southern California.”

Moon served as vice president and provost under “four gifted, great presidents, each with a unique role in the developmental stages of Christ College Irvine/Concordia University Irvine,” he says.

He went on to establish relationships with a dozen cooperative schools in Asia which exchange students with Concordia.

Moon and wife Sharon have been married fifty years and have three children. After his retirement, they set up the Moon Family Endowment Fund “to demonstrate to the newly arriving international students that Concordia University Irvine is a caring community with a friendly environment, guided by Christian love.” The endowment makes it possible for international students to be met at the airport, given their first meal on campus and shown great hospitality, much the way Moon was cared for when he first arrived in the U.S. It also funds scholarships for them.

“When they return to their homeland, they are likely to be the future leaders of their nations,” Moon says. “Their Concordia experience would have hopefully shaped their core values, and they can exude a Christian witness. To that end alone, it is a worthy investment to provide the scholarships and the grants.”

Moon’s favorite subject is the Great Commission in Matthew 28, Jesus’s command to “make disciples of all nations—teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Those words serve as the foundation of his life and the university he helped found.

It was all miracles because we were so poor and so meager.

Now 80, he continues to speak in area churches and to various organizations, directs the Korean Pastoral Colloquy Program of the LCMS and is working on his autobiography. He also loves hiking, photography and “the majesty of God’s creation, especially the National Parks of America: Bryce, Grand Canyon, Sequoia, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Zion.”

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