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Syngman Rhee, Louisville Seminary Alum and Ecumenical Leader, Dies

Jan 16, 2015

Syngman Rhee (BD ’60)
, 83, died January 14, 2015, under hospice care in Atlanta. A well-respected leader in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the wider faith community, his life was distinguished by his commitment to the church and for his many relationships and experiences in ministry.

Syngman RheeRhee (pictured) earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, W.Va., a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School and a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Chicago Theological Seminary.

He pastored two small congregations in Louisville and served for 13 years as the Presbyterian campus minister at the University of Louisville. In the early 1960s, he became engaged in racial justice through his participation in the civil rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1978, Rhee left Louisville to begin his 25 years of service on the national staff of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America [now the PC(USA)]. He coordinated, mission work in the Middle East and East Asia and was associate director for the Worldwide Ministries division. Rhee served as president of the National Council of Churches (1992-93) and as a board member of Presbyterian Outlook. In 2000, Rhee was elected moderator of the 212th PC(USA) General Assembly and traveled throughout the country that year speaking about the importance of continuing local and global mission work.

He served as the director of the Asian-American Study Center and was a distinguished visiting professor of mission and evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va. As chairman of the One In Mission campaign, Rhee, along with his wife, Dr. Haesun Rhee, established the Asian American Ministry Center to assist in the education of Asian American students, pastors, educators and laity.

Rhee served as distinguished visiting professor for global leadership development at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., and most recently was a distinguished visiting professor in the practice of global leadership development.

Awards received over Rhee’s career include the Louisville Seminary Distinguished Alum Award in 2001 and the Presbyterian Outlook E.T. Thompson Award for his transformative servant leadership in 2010.

In a recent interview with the Presbyterian News Service, the Reverend Clifton Kirkpatrick, Louisville Seminary professor and former Stated Clerk of the PC(USA), said of Rhee: “Syngman Rhee is one of my dearest friends. He is one of the great saints of the church and has served the church well. I give thanks for all he has meant.”

Born in Pyongyang, Korea, in 1931 and a son of a Presbyterian minister, Rhee and a younger brother fled North Korea as the Korean War was breaking out in 1950, leaving behind his parents and four sisters. As a refugee in South Korea, he was touched by the food, blankets and kindness received through the Church World Service. He later proclaimed that was one of the reasons he was active in the National Council of Churches and Church World Service.

Rhee and his family remained separated for 28 years until they were united in North Korea in 1978. He learned that his mother had died and that his father had been arrested by the Communist regime and died in prison. The painful experiences of war and separation from family motivated his lifelong quest for peace as he would remain a proponent with the Presbyterian Church of the unification of North and South Korea throughout his life.

He joined the Republic of Korea Marine Corps in 1953 and received special training at the U.S. Marine School in Quantico, Va. When Rhee emigrated to the United States, friends from Quantico sponsored him as a student at Davis and Elkins College, where he majored in English and religion. He then attended Louisville Seminary where his tuition was fully paid by a woman who had met him when he spoke at her church conference at First Presbyterian Church in Charleston, W.Va. He was ordained in Louisville. One week later, he married Haesun Rhee, his longtime friend and medical doctor in South Korea.

Rhee is survived by his wife, Haesun, and his children, Anna, Peter, and Mina. The family is planning a private funeral followed by a public memorial service at a later date.
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