South Korean missionary is therapist-counselor
Ki Eun Jeon brings a global perspective and a caring for people who are suffering to her pastoral counseling with Samaritan Center, a Puget Sound-based counseling service, that opened an office in Spokane Valley in May.
As a missionary with University of the Nations, the South Korean woman moved to Kona, Hawaii, in 2011 and then came to Spokane in 2013 to study English at Gonzaga University.
She has lived in an apartment provided by the Ministry Institute since then. She and her husband, Derek Chignell, a retired professor in biochemistry at Wheaton College in Chicago, were married in 2014, when he moved to Spokane.
Although her initial goal in coming was to improve her skills in conversation, reading and writing, when she learned that Gonzaga had a master's degree in clinical mental health, she began that program, graduating in 2016. She then taught pastoral counseling from 2017 to 2019 with the University of the Nations, which she said has "a whole-person approach."
Ki Eun studied to be a missionary with University of the Nations in 1998 in Lausanne, Switzerland, in a six-month non-denominational/ecumenical program of discipleship training with diverse students from African, South American and European countries. During that time, Ki Eun, who is Presbyterian, realized her call was to work in pastoral care.
In May, she began doing counseling by Zoom, because it's hard under COVID-19 to meet face-to-face.
"In this profession, I apply listening skills," she said. "People struggle with unpleasant emotions and need to learn stress management. Some are struggling with life transitions, moving to different places or with children leaving home.
"The struggles of people here are the same as those of people around the world—mothers struggle with children, wives struggle with husbands and children struggle with studies," Ki Eun said. "An African mother struggles to provide enough food. Americans struggle to provide children with education and opportunities. While an African wife may struggle with polygamy, an American wife may struggle with marital relationships. With COVID, many are experiencing financial struggles."
Ki Eun speaks of Africans because she has done several two-month internship trainings in Ghana, Togo, Egypt and Uganda. She also went to Argentina, Chile, the Faroe Islands, European countries, Australia and Indonesia.
For those stays, the University of the Nations gave her minimum payment, but she has had to raise funds to support her work, housing, insurance and airfare.
Ki Eun grew up in Gaeun, a small town in southeast South Korea. Her father was a mining engineer and her mother worked for the same company. Ki Eun left at 15 to go to high school in the city of Taegu and stayed through college, studying public health.
After graduating in two years in 1987, she moved to Seoul to work in interior design and manage human resources with a Christian company, informally doing counseling.
She attended a small Presbyterian church in Seoul.
When Ki Eun was 17, her father left home to open a restaurant and live with another woman. He went bankrupt, losing his savings and pension.
"We did not know where he was until he came home," Ki Eun said. "Living without my father affected my life financially, emotionally and educationally. My family was poor. I couldn't go to college right away. It was shameful to be in a dysfunctional family. My 20s were hard.
"I thought I was a faithful Christian, but my family situation was horrible," she said, adding that during three years of struggle, her Christian faith and the church became critical to her. "It helped me find a reason to live life. At first, no one helped. I learned that even Christians struggle, suffer and experience painful lives."
For 10 years, she sought to learn how to serve God. In the 1998 training in Switzerland, she questioned and asked God to let her know what she was to do. Ki Eun found her calling.
"I found God could use my broken heart for service. It was clear my mission was to use the tool of counseling," she said.
Now she has the training she needed.
"I can do clinical mental health counseling through both my professional practice and the mission agency," she said.
Samaritan Center, which has 12 centers in Seattle, opened a center at Opportunity Presbyterian Church in Spokane Valley with Gary Steeves, a Samaritan Center counselor who needed someone to work with him.
Ki Eun said a pastor at First Presbyterian Church, which she attends, and a friend at the Ministry Institute recommended her.
She does both pastoral counseling and clinical mental health counseling at Opportunity Presbyterian Church.
"The clinical mental health approach is a pathological approach, knowing a person's divinity but not mentioning the spiritual much," she said. "It's more social science and psychology.
"Pastoral counseling uses biblical principles and belief in God. It's an easy approach with the same values and understandings about life, and using prayer ministry, emphasizing spirituality with psychology," she said.
Both Ki Eun and her husband Derek, a widower with four children who was born in England, continue to work with the University of the Nations.
He chairs the science college and leads the Water for Life program, which goes by invitation to do water projects in Kosovo, Indonesia, Nepal, Cambodia and Rwanda.
Ki Eun and Derek, who met in 2011 in Hawaii, join the Ministry Institute's Tuesday community meeting and attend the Thursday virtual Taizé prayer services.
Both are Presbyterians, but have learned about the Catholic Church at Gonzaga, and sometimes attend St. Aloysius on campus.
In Spokane, there are four active Korean churches. At Spokane Full Gospel Korean Church, she works with the youth, who speak English and are more American than Korean, which is hard for Korean-speaking parents.
"The youth know English better than their parents, creating a gap in the parent-child relationship. The group of five in the 125-member church provides the community they need," she said.
The youth meet twice a week. Sundays they meet in person in a big room, socially distanced to talk about issues and read a book on the purpose of life. Tuesdays they have a Zoom meeting to read the Bible.
"I love Spokane, because the nature, mountains and winter are like Korea, but summer is hot and dry while Korea is hot and humid," she said.
The University of Nations' missionaries serve in 190 countries with 96 languages, about 15,000 full time and about 50,000 part time.
The agency's mission areas are education, counseling, science and technology, art and sports, Bible study, humanities, applied linguistics and Christian ministries.
"I love how God leads my life. I'm open to God's plan for me," said Ki Eun, who has previously worked in areas with more diversity. "Now I am learning about American culture."
Sometimes, counseling in English, which is not her first language, she feels isolated from that diversity, but Ki Eun said she "has a heart to serve people in this community."
Beyond counseling, she is also looking for ways to share her culture through cooking Korean food.
In her travels to six continents, she has found cooking to be therapeutic.
"Food is the core relational language, opening people's hearts and helping bring healing," Ki Eun said. "Having a meal together empowers people."
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December, 2020