By Linda Lawson Still
Contributing Writer, Baptist and Reflector
NASHVILLE — After an intense, two-week pilgrimage to Nashville, Woo Jaeo returned to South Korea Oct. 19 with greater insights about the grandfather he never knew.
He arrived knowing that Woo Tai-ho, a Presbyterian minister, had studied theology at Vanderbilt University divinity school in 1939, became a Baptist and a member of Belmont Heights Baptist Church in the city, and went on to become the first missionary to Korea.
Woo Jaeo, 40, a Seoul book publisher, said his aunt had often told him, “You are like your grandfather.” Part of the reason he wanted to retrace the elder Woo’s steps in Nashville was to better know the man who died in 1954, 22 years before he was born. But he was also searching for a better understanding of himself and his faith in God.
“I felt that my success is more than my ability and I wanted to know more about that,” Woo Jaeo said in an interview at the church office.
In 2015 he sent an e-mail to Belmont Heights, not knowing if he would get a reply. He requested help in learning more about his grandfather’s stay in Nashville more than 75 years earlier.
Belmont Heights Pastor John Garner and administrative assistant Nelda Queener combed through church records. They discovered the handwritten card Woo Tai-ho had filled out Feb. 19, 1939, applying for church membership. The card included Tai-ho’s address at 455 Kissam Hall on the Vanderbilt campus. They also found a document confirming Tai-ho’s ordination to the ministry in November of the same year and budget reports showing the church had given Tai-ho a stipend of ten dollars per month during his stay.
Next, Garner knew that all the church business meeting minutes since its founding were on microfilm and contacted the Southern Baptist Library and Archives in Nashville. Research there turned up correspondence between R. Kelly White, then pastor of Belmont Heights, officials connected with the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, and the Japanese Baptist Convention. The subject was Tai-ho’s desire to become a missionary in his home country.
Earlier this year, Garner sent Woo Jaeo a folder of information they had found. That, in turn, led to his trip to Nashville. He stayed in a bed and breakfast walking distance from the church. He traveled by bus around the city and discovered Nashvillians were happy to answer his questions and direct him where he needed to go. He especially appreciated the fellow bus passenger who stayed on the bus a stop beyond her destination to point out where he needed to get off. And he spent time at the Baptist historical library.
Woo Jaeo also went to the Vanderbilt campus, learned Kellam Hall where his grandfather lived no longer exists, but did find its location. He attended services at Belmont Heights and experienced Friday night football at a high school game where he ate his first hot dog.
Woo Jaeo said his discoveries have enriched his life. “I learned God loves me and God loves our family. I can feel what he felt. I am thankful to God for what he did.” Garner said helping Woo Jaeo learn more about his grandfather also benefited the Belmont Heights congregation of today.
“Belmont Heights invested in the life and ministry of a young Korean man who felt called to be a missionary to his own people many years ago,” he said. “That investment has paid off in the hundreds of churches started and the tens of thousands of lives touched with the gospel.”
Garner continued: “Belmont Heights has seen the dividends of making spiritual, time, and monetary investments in the life of one person multiplied to a nation. We are humbled and honored to know that we could play a small part in spreading the gospel to the Korean people.”
In addition to the positive information he learned about his grandfather, Woo Jaeo said he also gained insights about “what a hard time he had.”
The “hard time” had been predicted in a 1940 letter from Edwin B. Dozier of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board to R. Kelly White of Belmont Heights. Dozier predicted the challenges might include finding acceptance in Korea and noted some Christians there were experiencing persecution. Belmont Heights funded Tai-ho’s travel back to Korea and paid his salary for three years. After working for a relief agency, Tai-ho started a church in Inchon that continues today.
Garner said the experience of helping Woo Jaeo in his spiritual journey has reminded us “to always be open to possibilities of God’s power and call on people’s lives. Only God knows what impact a church can have.”