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Given the often polarizing nature of religion, it’s surprising that a recent Pew Research Center survey found Americans view faiths different from their own in a more positive light than they used to. Denver’s Iliff School of Theology, which boasts faculty members who represent 12 different denominations and beliefs, aims to encourage this tolerance. Earlier this year, its president appointed a fitting dean to lead that charge: Methodist minister Boyung Lee, who’s already worked around the world to cultivate religious acceptance. Before the start of classes at Iliff on September 11, we sat down with Lee to discuss growing up in South Korea, social justice, and what she hopes to accomplish in the Mile High City.
Name: Boyung Lee
Occupation: Dean at the Iliff School of Theology
5280: When did you first feel compelled to become a leader in the church?
Boyung Lee: I had spiritual feelings—what I’d now describe as a calling to be ordained—as early as middle school, but I didn’t know what to do about it because there were no female ministers in South Korea. But when I attended Yonsei University in Seoul, which was founded by American missionaries, I had a reawakening of faith.
How did your religious feelings change during your college years?
College was a bigger culture shock than living abroad. There were constant protests on campus, and I stopped believing propaganda about the military-controlled government. I also started doing service work with my church, and I met some of the poorest Koreans—including young women who had to work to finance their brothers’ educations. Some of those women encouraged me to go abroad and get ordained so I could be their voice.
You were ordained by the United Methodist Church and sent to Connecticut for your first assignment. Tell us about that experience.
I was the first pastor of color at this church. Within three months, I’d visited 80 percent of parishioners to identify who they wanted to be as a congregation. In the four years I was there, attendance tripled.
After preaching for four years, you started teaching in 2002. What is your approach to theology education?
I have a global focus. When I led the Changemaker Fellowship Program at the Pacific School of Religion in California, I helped graduate students from a variety of religious backgrounds develop projects that addressed social justice and human rights issues. One student, for example, created a multifaith coalition between African-American, Native American, and Jewish landowners, all of whom were interested in building urban farms.
Why is the Iliff School a good fit for you?
Not many theology schools offer such anti-racist, anti-homophobic, interreligious training for students, but Iliff is one of them. I appreciate that the school recognizes nontraditional approaches to religious education.
How do you hope to further that approach in Denver?
Because every place has its own culture and approach to religion, I want ideas about curriculum or new programs to come from the community. But generally we’ll try to prepare students for social justice work or careers in nonprofits, since they probably won’t all be ministers. I want to help them consider non-Christian perspectives and become good neighbors to reshape what’s going on in the world.
There’s certainly a lot going on in terms of religion today. Are there things that worry you?
I get concerned when liberals or conservatives go to extremes in the name of religion. Or when people are violent because of their religious beliefs. That’s not true religion.