Friday, September 22, 2023

Esther Ahn Kim: A Teacher’s Courage

by Sherri Stewart


Esther Ahn Kim, a music teacher in a Christian school in Japanese-occupied Korea in 1939, led her students slowly up the hill to the Japanese shrine, where she and her students would be expected to bow down to the sun god. She could feel her students’ eyes on her back. Should she bow down? The other teachers had said a simple bow meant nothing; what really mattered was what was in their hearts, and the punishment for not obeying would result in imprisonment, torture, and/or even death. Esther knew what she would do: She would not compromise; she would not bow down, even if it meant dying for her faith. Shaking and weak-kneed, she said a silent prayer. Just as her namesake, Queen Esther, had vowed, so would she. If I perish, I perish. 

Esther's group was the last to arrive at the shrine where a crowd had gathered, standing in straight lines, under the cruel glares of the Japanese policemen. The words of Mordecai, Queen Esther’s uncle, rang in this young teacher’s mind. Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this? (Esther 4:13,14)


At the commanding voice of one of the officials, the teachers and students bowed silently before the shrine. Esther remained standing, her face toward the sky. For such a time as this. Esther was called to the office when she returned with her students. A district chief awaited her, his angered voice rising as he grilled her with questions. As he did, a verse sprang to her mind: Exodus 14:14—the Lord will fight for you. Just then, the phone rang, and her interrogator left the office. When he didn’t return, she walked out of the school.


For several months, Esther lived in hiding with her mother. They disguised themselves in paupers’ clothes and fled the area to a deserted house in the country. During their time in hiding, Esther memorized more than a hundred chapters of the Bible, for it was only a matter of time before she was found and imprisoned for the stand that she had taken against the Japanese. "I knew it would be impossible for me to keep my faith in my own power," Esther wrote later. "God would have to work through me if I was to stand firm.” This was their training time for pain and deprivation, so she and her mother fasted for weeks at a time, prayed, and even practiced sleeping on a cold, hard floor.


Esther felt God calling her to come out of hiding, go to Pyongyang, and boldly proclaim the truth of the gospel and warn the Japanese. She knew that this would likely lead to her death, but she was determined to obey God’s leading. An old man named Elder Park showed up at their doorstep, saying he was told to find Esther and accompany her to Pyongyang because she spoke Japanese, but he took one look at her and said she was too weak of faith. Nevertheless, she accompanied him to Japan.


When they reached Tokyo, they met with several Japanese generals, telling them how the Koreans were being treated by the Japanese and preached the Gospel to them. In 1939, a bill was about to be voted on by the Japanese Diet about religious organizations that would affect Korea. Elder Park threw down a bill of warning in the assembly hall. 

Esther was immediately arrested and imprisoned. She ended up in a small country prison in Korea, but she remembered the words she’d heard about going to Pyongyang, so she wrote a letter asking to be transferred to the prison in Pyongyang, which was a filthy place of torture and deprivation. The smell was so bad she was always nauseous. Her number was 57. Many of the prisoners and jailers already knew who she was because her notoriety had preceded her.


The cold was her worst fear, so she sang hymns whenever it became so frigid, she couldn’t stand it. Starving was also a continuous reality; it became so bad that eating the bits they received only made it worse. Years went by, and she craved apples, so the guards brought a sack of apples to the cell which she shared with other prisoners. However, the apples were so rotten that a mere touch made the juice spew out of them. At this point, her teeth were so ruined that she could only handle soft apples, so she thanked God for his perfect gift.


Finally, she was released from prison for health reasons since she was almost blind, but her mother told her to go back to prison and finish her sentence since the inmates needed her there, so she did. The senior officer was amazed at her plea to be imprisoned again.


On August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered, and the war was over. Thirty-four Christians had been imprisoned at Pyongyang, and Esther along with thirteen others walked out after having served six years. However, the Russian Communists had taken over Pyongyang and the rest of North Korea, so Esther and her mother moved to South Korea. It was there she met her husband, an engineer, who later became a pastor.  

Soon after, the United States invited Esther to come and share her story. She and her husband settled in Korea Town in Los Angeles, where they pastored a church for forty years. She died in 1997. Esther’s full story is the subject of her book, If I Perish.,

Selah Award finalist Sherri Stewart loves a clean novel, sprinkled with romance and a strong message that challenges her faith. She spends her working hours with books—either editing others’ manuscripts or writing her own. Her passions are traveling to the settings of her books and sampling the food. She traveled to Paris for this book, and she works daily on her French and German although she doesn’t need to since everyone speaks English. A widow, Sherri lives in Orlando with her lazy dog, Lily. She shares recipes, tidbits of the book’s locations, and other authors' books in her newsletter.

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  1. Thank you for posting this amazing story. I can't imagine asking to be sent back to conditions like that. God was obviously in all she did.

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it. She's a true heroine, as is her mother.