U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, Helping Hands group assist family building new home

U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, Helping Hands group assist family building new home

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U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Richard M. Mills, Jr. and volunteers from the U.S. Embassy’s Helping Hands organization continued an annual tradition by joining the Fuller Center for Housing Armenia team Saturday in Aghavnatun village of Armavir region to help build a home for Petrosyan family. Within a few hours the volunteers finished concreting the floors, a huge step forward for the family.

It’s the eighth year the U.S. Embassy team has joined forces with the Fuller Center for Housing Armenia to build homes for Armenian families in need of decent housing.

The Petrosyans have lived in a metal container since 1995. They have lived in a small room with no bathroom and no kitchen — just a small bedroom without proper roofing and flooring. In 2015, they finally were able to build the walls of their own house but could not afford to finish it.

“It is so hard to live in such housing conditions,” said Mariam, the family matriarch. “My health problems don’t allow me to work harder, but my husband and I have done our best to create decent housing conditions for our son. The rats and snakes were the permanent ‘inhabitants’ of the house. Now, I am so happy that there is a hope that finally we will have a home.”

“I am honored to join you all today to meet the Petrosyan family,” Ambassador Mills said. “They have shown true hospitality to all The Fuller Center volunteers and to those of us from the U.S. Embassy as we come together in a true spirit of partnership and friendship — people helping their brothers and sisters build a better life. This build site today is an example of what we can achieve when we join hands, Americans and Armenians to achieve our common goals.”

“Housing is a basic human right that is vital in everyone’s life and I am glad that we are united in our conviction and dedication to making a difference in the lives of families in housing need,” Fuller Center for Housing Armenia President Ashot Yeghiazaryan said.

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Slideshow from Saturday’s workday

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Disabled Army veteran says becoming homeowner “a dream come true”

Disabled Army veteran says becoming homeowner “a dream come true”

Gavin Billbe is a disabled Army veteran who never thought he would have the opportunity to own his own home, but thanks to one of The Fuller Center for Housing’s newest partners — the Community Mission of Minersville, Pennsylvania — and the generous donor of a vacant property that just needs a little fixing up, Billbe will soon have a dream fulfilled. WNEP-TV has a new report on how a pastor’s determination to help the homeless have decent places to live through The Fuller Center’s affordable housing ministry has given Billbe an opportunity he never thought possible until now:

Alaskans Bob and Leslie Bell eager to lead first Global Builders trip to Papua New Guinea

Alaskans Bob and Leslie Bell eager to lead first Global Builders trip to Papua New Guinea

(Photo: Fuller Center for Housing Global Builders Coordinator Maegan Pierce, Registrar Stacey Goolsby, Bob and Leslie Bell and Director of International Field Operations Ryan Iafigliola during the Bells’ visit to Fuller Center headquarters in Americus on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017)

Bob and Leslie Bell ought to be the most famous folks from the small, coastal hamlet of Homer, Alaska — also known as the “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World” and “the end of the road” as the last stop on Alaska’s Sterling Highway.

Instead, that recognition probably goes to their neighbors, the Hillstrand family from The Discovery Channel reality TV show “Deadliest Catch” or to singer Jewel Kilcher (“Who Will Save Your Soul,” “You Were Meant for Me”), who rose to instant stardom in 1995 with her album “Pieces of You,” still one of the best-selling debut albums of all time, having gone 12-times platinum.

The Bells, though, have been volunteering in the affordable housing ministry for more than 20 years and have visited 75 countries and led 48 international volunteer build trips. These two former teachers, though, are more interested in service than stardom and in faith-building more than fame-building.

“We’ve got too many things to do to watch TV,” Bob said with a chuckle during a visit to The Fuller Center for Housing’s international headquarters in Americus, Georgia, on Thursday. “I’ve got more important things to do.”

“We don’t even have TV, for one,” added Leslie, who taught Jewel in middle school.

Among the important things the Bells have to do is to plan next month’s first-ever Fuller Center Global Builders trip to Papua New Guinea, one of this affordable housing ministry’s newest and most exotic international covenant partners. Fortunately, the Bells not only have loads of experience leading international volunteer trips with Habitat for Humanity and The Fuller Center, but also the 75 countries they have visited includes previous visits to Papua New Guinea. In fact, years ago they trained Petrus Martin, who now serves as the coordinator for The Fuller Center’s operations in Papua New Guinea.

“Martin is an intense person in that he is so committed to his community as a whole,” Leslie said. “He is going to make this a community that thrives. He’s very Christian, very compassionate, and he has a way of motivating other people in the community. He’s not a preacher, but he is like a New Guinea version of Millard Fuller. He doesn’t take no for an answer, and he doesn’t think anything is impossible.”

The Fuller Center Global Builders team led by Bob and Leslie Bell will be partnering next month with the Korong family from the Panapai Village of Kavieng District, New Ireland Province, to build a safe, new home.

The Bells will be leading a team of at least 16 volunteers on next month’s trip to build a home in partnership with the Korong family in the Panapai Village off Kavieng District in New Ireland Province. Sam, a woodworker and furniture maker, and Harriet, who sells produce and baked goods, have longed for a decent home in which to raise their daughters since their former house made of untreated logs and bamboo recently had to be torn down.

Bob and Leslie both said that based upon their previous trips to Papua New Guinea and the motivation provided by Martin they know the Korong family and others in the community will be heavily involved in working alongside Fuller Center volunteers.

“If you just mention anything, it will be done,” Leslie said. “They just jump right to it. They love to teach other people. They love to learn. Interaction is like in their DNA. They don’t stand back or watch. They’re not bystanders. They are a people that are involved in what they are doing. Everybody is involved. It’s not pushed onto them — it’s just what they do.”

Venturing to far-away places like Papua New Guinea may seem inconceivable to people used to the modern conveniences of bustling American cities with a Starbucks seemingly on every corner, but 50 years of Alaskan living on the shores of Kachemak Bay have the Bells prepared to handle all the ups and downs that come with international volunteering in impoverished villages.

“To live in Alaska, you have to be pretty independent,” Bob said. “There’s a lot of things you have to be able to overcome, so you’re used to problem-solving. You don’t wait for somebody else to figure it out for you. I think a lot of that transfers to going to other countries. If you’re in another country, you need to figure things out. And if you’re standing back and waiting for somebody to figure it out for you, you’re going to be waiting a long time.”

“To live in Alaska, you have to be pretty independent. There’s a lot of things you have to be able to overcome, so you’re used to problem-solving. You don’t wait for somebody else to figure it out for you.” — Bob Bell

One thing they have figured out, time and time again, is that these trips are part of a spiritual journey — their own and the volunteers who join them on these missions, something Leslie said she and Bob learned directly from Millard Fuller, who met the Bells while speaking to churches in Alaska and then encouraged them to come to Americus for a volunteer stint, where their love of international service was nurtured and flourished.

Leslie said that the volunteers on this trip are not just fulfilling needs in a community but are nourishing their own spiritual needs, adding that morning devotions before each work day are a crucial component of their trips. They also believe that by planning and organizing such trips that they are merely opening doors for other service-minded people to walk through.

“This one trip is part of their spiritual growth — it’s not a one-shot, been there, done that, got the t-shirt kind of thing,” Leslie said. “Our morning devotions is a really important time because that’s where we connect, where we share not just things that inspire us but share our questions, share why we’re doing what we’re doing and what draws us here. … I know that 100 percent of the people who go on our trips are going because of something that they need to grow and understand why they do what they do. If you give them an opportunity to learn that, it helps the teams be successful.”

“We want their experiences to be personal,” she added. “We’re not there to make their experience our experience. We want them to have the opportunity to build a relationship with the homeowner or be one-on-one with the community’s kids so that when they leave, it’s their place. .. It’s about setting up opportunities for them to grow and learn on their own.”

become a global builder

HARVEY UPDATE: Dickinson First Presbyterian a hub for flood and spiritual recovery

HARVEY UPDATE: Dickinson First Presbyterian a hub for flood and spiritual recovery

(Photo: The Rev. Kathy Sebring leads services outside of flood-damaged First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, Texas, on Sept. 3. 2017. See the Houston Chronicle’s coverage of the services here.)

Record rainfall from Hurricane Harvey brought five feet of water into First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, Texas — along with some unwanted visitors in the form of fish and snakes. But the Rev. Kathy Sebring said it also has brought the blessings of Good Samaritans eager to serve as the hands and feet of God in the community.

The church has long been actively engaged in several ministries to help the community of mostly low-income residents where it sits. With back-to-school clothing drives, a diaper ministry, ESL Bible studies, music lesson scholarships and a food bank run by M.I. Lewis Social Services in its fellowship hall, families have come to rely upon and trust the work of the local church.

Now, First Presbyterian of Dickinson has added a new role in the community — hub of flood recovery efforts in the area. Members of the Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders have been helping get the church ready for its new mission, one that will include helping the Disaster ReBuilders coordinate its recovery work in the region.

“Everybody is working hand-in-hand,” said Sebring, a former grief counselor for a local hospice who was asked last year to helm the church. “The Fuller Center folks are providing so much structure. God is working through the hands and feet of many people right now.”

Sebring is among community leaders that are working with various organizations and church to help the devastated community, including the Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders as a leader in home restoration. The Disaster ReBuilders are working to establish a camp in the area, likely in Texas City, where they plan to begin hosting volunteer teams in a few weeks.

That will be part of a very long-term recovery for the region. The spiritual needs, however, are immediate.

“Everybody’s faith is tested,” she said, noting that concept was the subject of a devotion by Oswald Chambers upon which she reflected a few days ago. “We have faith, but until it’s tested and you go through the test, you don’t really own the faith. If you go through a disaster or crisis and you come through it, it’s yours.

The Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders’ Aaron Ratliff comforts someone outside of First Presbyterian of Dickinson.

“I just try to comfort people and say that this will pass,” Sebring added. “This kind of thing will either strengthen your faith and you’ll have complete trust in Christ, or it can kill it. We’re trying to seek people who are really fragile and come alongside them and pray with them and listen and let them tell their story. We just reassure them of God’s love for them and that they’re not alone.”

While the cleanup and restoration of her church is ongoing, the congregation took a major step in marching forward this past Sunday, Sept. 3, when it held services and communion on the church lawn.

“It was so important that we get together,” she said of the services. “Everybody was hugging on everybody, and there were a lot of tears. It was really just an affirmation that we survived and God is good. We had a lot of offers from churches in the area not affected by the flood to come worship with them, but God just kind of told me that wasn’t the way to go. For one thing, most people’s cars were destroyed. It was very important that we get together and worship as a community and remind each other that, through God, all things are possible and we will go on. It was great and so good to see everybody.”

The church’s role as a community servant applies well beyond those who attend the church. Sebring noted that one family driving by during Sunday’s services stopped and asked if they could take part in communion. They told her they had not attended church in a long time but believe it is time for them to return.

A trailer of food and other supplies brought by the Disaster ReBuilders’ Aaron Ratliff and Katy Summers has helped begin to restock the food pantry, the contents of which had to be discarded after being flooded.

“People are hungry,” Sebring said. “We had people walking by and we’d catch them eating the contaminated food. We’d give them what food we had.”

She also recalls getting a donation of fresh fruit from a local grocery store. She was heading out to deliver some when a family drove up in search of something to eat. She gave them the fruit.

“The look on these children’s faces, it just broke your heart, but they were so excited,” she said.

It is the children that Sebring is especially concerned about as the long weeks, months and years of recovery lie ahead.

“Everybody that comes up and we give food, we ask if they’d like prayer,” she said. “So we pray with them, and they’re just in tears and then I’m in tears. I’m very, very concerned for the children. This is a low-income area already.

“So I think it’s very important that we maintain a presence,” she continued. “People are naturally used to coming here because of the food bank, but now they are coming for more than the food. They are coming for spiritual comfort.”

Give to the Disaster Recovery fund

Watch Sunday’s emotional service at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, Texas:

 

Harvey update: Disaster ReBuilders prepping to bring in Fuller Center volunteer teams

Harvey update: Disaster ReBuilders prepping to bring in Fuller Center volunteer teams

The waters are receding in east Texas, and the waterlogged area is beginning to transition from emergency mode to the dirty, extensive work of long-term recovery. Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders leader Bart Tucker said Tuesday that his group anticipates having a base camp established soon in the Texas City area, where they hope to host volunteer teams as soon as possible — perhaps by the end of September.

This work comes on top of the disaster work the ReBuilders and the Ginger Ford Northshore Fuller Center for Housing is doing in Louisiana, which was hit with historic flooding in 2016. For now, the ReBuilders are needing people willing to sweat and get dirty mucking out homes hit hardest by flooding from Hurricane Harvey but will need their most skilled volunteers headed to their base in Denham Springs, Louisiana, to deal with ongoing recovery efforts there.

Fuller Center President David Snell was updated on the situation Tuesday morning and said that The Fuller Center for Housing will set up registration for volunteer teams to head to Texas as soon as possible.

“The waters are receding and leaving more hardship behind,” said Snell, who has worked alongside Fuller Center volunteers in Atlantic City after SuperStorm Sandy and in Louisiana, as well as in Haiti, Armenia and other places impacted by natural disasters. “Thousands of houses in the Houston area were flooded and will require that those houses be emptied so that damaged drywall and insulation can be removed. There is urgency in this as dangerous mold will quickly set in.

“The Fuller Center will be a part of this effort,” he continued. “Volunteer teams are lining up to help.  We have folks on the ground who are helping assess where our work will be most helpful, especially with poorer families who have no one else to turn to.  Things are moving quickly — we’ll have more updates soon.”

Be sure to follow The Fuller Center’s Facebook page for updates and to bookmark FullerCenter.org for news about volunteer efforts in east Texas.

More on Harvey and other work in our September update:

Give to the disaster recovery fund

Methodist church from West Lawn, Pennsylvania, renews spiritual energy working in Haiti

Methodist church from West Lawn, Pennsylvania, renews spiritual energy working in Haiti

The Rev. Jeff Raffauf has had many international experiences with members of his congregation on mission trips to several different countries, but building Fuller Center homes in Pigñon, Haiti, has taken these spiritual journeys to an even higher level. Five teams from the church have worked with The Fuller Center for Housing in Haiti over the past two years, and each team comes back invigorated — as so often happens with church groups who take Global Builders and U.S. Builders trips through The Fuller Center. In a new article from the Reading Eagle, Raffauf and others talk about how these trips impact Haitians, why they support the work and how their faith grows through the work.

Complete Reading Eagle article

Fuller Center Global Builders

We will be helping families recover from Harvey for a long time; you can help

We will be helping families recover from Harvey for a long time; you can help

(Photo: From left, Debi and Bill Hayden with Ginger Ford Northshore Fuller Center for Housing Executive Director Tamara Danel in April at the re-dedication of their Hammond, Louisiana home, where damage from the August 2016 flood was repaired by Fuller Center volunteers.)

 

 

The images coming out of Houston and east Texas are heart-wrenching. Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath of record rainfall have destroyed homes and washed away entire neighborhoods and communities.

The Fuller Center for Housing is not a disaster-relief organization. Now is the time for those groups to step forward, and they are doing all they can in conjunction with government agencies, volunteers and good-hearted folks from across the nation — neighbors and strangers.

Eventually, the spotlight will fade from this disaster, but the after-effects will be long-lasting. Many families will be helped by FEMA, while others will be able to rebuild with the help of insurance coverage or their savings. Thousands of families, however, will no doubt fall through the cracks of assistance and years from now will be feeling hopeless.

The Fuller Center has helped families who fell through the cracks after Katrina — some of them who spent years living in FEMA trailers and some who were even denied that help. We helped families in Atlantic City, N.J., after SuperStorm Sandy. We are busier than ever in Haiti, devastated by a 2010 earthquake and in Nepal, where a massive quake struck in 2015. We remain busy helping families affected by last year’s flooding in Louisiana. And we will be there for families impacted by Harvey. With the Associated Press reporting that only 2 of 10 Houston area homeowners possess flood insurance, your support of The Fuller Center’s Disaster Recovery Fund is desperately needed.

“While FEMA will help many, their funding typically covers only a portion of the recovery costs,” Fuller Center President David Snell said. “As is always the case in these events, the poor will be the least able to restore their homes. This is where The Fuller Center can be the most helpful. We will be reaching out to those families to help them rebuild.

“We focus our work on recovery, and there will be a great deal of work ahead of us in the wake of Hurricane Harvey,” he added. “Our generous donors’ gifts will be put to good use once the flood waters have receded and the vital work of getting houses restored begins.”

Cathy and David Wagner thank Fuller Center volunteers in April 2017 for their help in repairing their flood-damaged home.

HARVEY TAKES AIM AT LOUISIANA

The Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders currently have a base in Denham Springs, Louisiana, where they are busy helping families affected by two devastating floods in 2016. It was just in April that dozens of Fuller Center volunteers converged on Hammond, Louisiana, for the Higher Ground on the Bayou Flood Recovery Blitz. Those areas are now in line to get at least several inches of rain as Harvey moves inland once again, threatening to extend the current flood disaster into Louisiana.

“It is very gloomy and dreary and rainy, raining off and on today with lots of thunderstorms,” Ginger Ford Northshore Fuller Center Executive Director Tamara Danel said when reached Tuesday in Hammond, Louisiana. “And the forecast is not looking good.”

Ginger Ford Northshore has hosted hundreds of volunteers over the years helping families who suffered for years after Katrina and more recently families impacted by two historic floods in 2016. She knows how difficult it will be for those impacted by Harvey over the years to come.

“It’s going to take years and years for the folks in Texas to be taken care of one way or the other,” Danel said. “I’m just really shocked and devastated by the destruction and worried about the lack of available housing when all of this is said and done because so many houses are going to be in ruins.”

Danel’s team built a new home in Pearl River, Louisiana, last year for a family that had been living in a FEMA trailer for more than a decade after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina — a build that was sandwiched between the area’s two devastating 2016 floods. She has seen the looks of hopelessness on the faces of those who believe help will never come.

“There are still families here who have not begun work on their homes and are not living in safe, sanitary conditions, and it’s been over a year since the flood,” she said. “We had about 150,000 people affected by the floods last year, and so many are still without restored homes. When you multiply that by what we see in Texas, it’s going to be an astronomical challenge to help everybody and to find housing that is safe and sanitary for people to live in.”

WHAT’S NEXT

The Fuller Center for Housing is monitoring the situation in Texas and Louisiana and already in talks with church and other groups about partnerships and other ways to help once the immediate disaster situation is under control. If you know of a church group interested in forming a Faith Builders partnership to help families recover or would like to become a covenant partner, please contact The Fuller Center at email@fullercenter.org.

how to become a fuller center
for housing covenant partner

 

Q&A: Fuller Center President David Snell reflects on four trips to North Korea

Q&A: Fuller Center President David Snell reflects on four trips to North Korea

Fuller Center for Housing President David Snell knew it was a monumental challenge to try to foster a little peace between North Korea and the United States through the construction of simple, decent homes. In the end, it proved too monumental a challenge.

The peacebuilding idea was first brought to then Fuller Center President Millard Fuller in 2008 by Don Mosley, who helped Fuller start Habitat for Humanity and went on to found Jubilee Partners, a Christian community in North Georgia that extends hospitality to newly arrived refugees from around the world. Fuller tasked Snell with leading the effort.

Snell, who was named president of The Fuller Center after Fuller’s sudden death in February of 2009, would go on to make four trips to North Korea. He brokered a memorandum of understanding in which The Fuller Center would build 50 homes for families in a farm collective known as Osan-Ri just outside of Pyongyang and was there for the project’s groundbreaking in November of 2009, as was Mosley.

Working with North Korean leadership, though, grew more cumbersome over the next couple of years and the project was put on indefinite hold when leader Kim Jong Il died in December of 2011, just a few days after the final Fuller Center team visited the project.

The Fuller Center today is coming off of its most productive building year ever and is piling up success stories, but Snell took a moment this morning to reflect on this non-success story. He has visited 25 countries, but he has seen North Korea in ways that few Americans ever have or ever will.

How did this Fuller Center project in North Korea begin?

This all started when our friend Don Mosley from Jubilee Partners, who’d been involved with Millard since Mbandaka (where the Fullers worked in then-Zaire 1973-76) came to us. He’d made friends with Dr. Han Park at the University of Georgia. Dr. Park was well-connected with both North Korea and U.S. leaders and was able to navigate between the two. They came up with the idea of The Fuller Center building some houses in North Korea. The idea was that we would fund them, but we’d work with the North Koreans to design them.

The key to it was we’d send U.S. volunteers over to work with the Koreans in getting the houses built. The idea was — as we stated in the memorandum of understanding we signed in Pyongyang — that it might “foster friendship and trust between all persons involved.”

So Dr. Park arranged for a small group of us to travel over to North Korea, and we met with officials at the Paektusan Academy of Architecture, who were going to carry the ball on the Korean side. We started talking about it, and it sounded like a pretty good idea.

Did you get any pushback against this idea of working with North Koreans?

Actually, very little. We had one donor who wrote and said he’d never give us another dime because we were “cavorting with the enemy,” but that was the only real visible objection. I’m sure there were people who were concerned, but that was the only actual resistance we got.

David Snell (center) at the Osan-Ri groundbreaking on Nov. 11, 2009.

What was the actual housing plan for Osan-Ri?

They initially wanted us to build in Pyongyang, but everything in Pyongyang is huge, very expensive condominium-style apartments and housing blocks. We said no, that we would build in the country where we’re comfortable and we’ll build single-family homes. So we ended up in Osan-Ri and were going to build 50 houses there. It was a farm, apple farm as I recall. Some of the housing was derelict and needed to be replaced. Then they were going to continue the project and build another 150 houses.

You knew how tough this would be. Why even try?

If you don’t try, you know your result will be failure. And in the early days it was actually very encouraging. The folks in Korea were embracing of the notion by all appearances. Met some wonderful people there. The idea of doing something collaboratively like this would demonstrate both to Koreans and to Americans that we’re not all that different and that our governments don’t agree on things, but we can get along. So there was real momentum in the early days — on both sides — to do this.

What got in the way of that early momentum?

Well, we had some disagreement over the house plan itself. I visited a number of rural communities in North Korea and visited the homes there. They were really quite lovely homes — small but lovely two- and three-room homes. But they seemed well-built and were comfortable. So we were trying to design something that would accommodate that. There was some back and forth on what the actual house design would be.

There also was the building system itself. We were prepared to introduce a new system there. It’s cold in North Korea and they used asbestos panels for insulation. We were suggesting a sort of Styrofoam block kind of system that we could bring in from China. They were actually kind of excited about that. We ended up bringing some of those blocks into the country.

It got worse and worse. I think what really happened was that in the early days they expressed excitement about the volunteers coming in. But as this thing progressed and it looked like something might actually happen, they weren’t so sure they wanted that feature. It finally ended when they said, “We can do this. Just send us the money and we’ll build the houses.” That flew in the face of everything we were trying to do. The volunteer piece was fundamental to it. When that started to go away, then it appeared that we might not be able to do this.

In December of 2011, we sent a team of six Fuller Center volunteers to check on the project. A few days later, leader Kim Jong Il died. What were your hopes for the project and the country itself at that point of transition to the current leader, Kim Jong Un?

We worked pretty well when Kim Jong Il was in power there. He actually visited this site and had eyes on the project which made it more difficult for the Koreans because they were under the gun. When he died and the son took over, we were hopeful. (Kim Jong Un) was Western-educated, and maybe he’d bring new eyes and a new approach. It hasn’t turned out to be that way. I’m actually thankful every day that we aren’t sending volunteers to North Korea because things certainly changed, but not for the better.

School children in Pyongyang.

What were your impressions of the country and the people from your four trips there?

I came to believe that what we know about them and what they know about us is mutually flawed. Pyongyang is not a bad-looking town. It’s full of skyscrapers, and that’s where everyone lives. That’s the place to be in North Korea. I did get into the countryside, and I did visit with the folks. I know that they’re carefully selected and things are orchestrated, but we had a groundbreaking at Osan-Ri with officials there with a long table and banners and got to speak and then we got to mingle with some of the farmers afterward. You know, they’re folks just like us.\

They have a whole different life. They’re totally isolated. There’s no information coming in. There are three TV stations and they all play the same thing — it’s all propaganda. And they’re taught from an early age that we are the enemy, America is the enemy, and that our goal is the destruction of North Korea. Regime stability is probably the most important thing for the government there. They watched their neighbors and what happened in the Soviet Union when Western influences started to show up and Western TV and movies came and they couldn’t support that socialist system any longer. So they’re keeping it out, and they’re very effective at it.

I found that the food was delicious. I did not see starvation on a mass scale. Like I say, I can only report on what I saw, but I saw a fair amount.

Is it true that you went to church in North Korea?

I went to church. Again, people say it’s staged but it seemed like there was a lot of sincerity in there. It was sort of a Presbyterian-style service. The choir was magnificent. They seated the guests up front, and we had headphones so we could pay attention to the sermon. There were a couple of times that the headphones went blank, so I figured the pastor must have been saying something they didn’t want us to hear. At the end of the service, they walked us down the aisle, and the choir sang “God Be With You ‘Til We Meet Again.” It was very powerful.

Then the members left by the side door, and a very interesting thing happened that told me that maybe there really was some sincerity in all of this. Everybody in North Korea has a pin that they wear over their heart. It used to be a picture of Kim Il-Sung, but then it became both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong Il. Everybody has one. I tried to get one, but they told me no. When they left the church, I saw people putting their pins back on. So, they took their pins off to go to church. I might be reading too much into it but that seemed to indicate to me that there might have been some sincerity. There are only two or three churches in Pyongyang, and they’ve done a very effective job of promoting atheism there. But, nonetheless, there is a spark of belief.

We like to tout The Fuller Center’s success stories, like our record building year we just had. How does this non-success story of North Korea fit into the annuls of The Fuller Center?

It fits just where it ought to. It was certainly not a success in many ways — in any way, actually. But it was an education. We tried something. We’re talking about a global thing. I realized when I was over there that we weren’t dealing with peers. We were negotiating with the government of North Korea. But if you don’t try, you know you’re going to fail. We tried. We were blessed in that it didn’t happen because it’d be a terrible thing right now. It’s not a good time to be an American visiting North Korea. The volunteer component would have crumbled anyway. But you learn from your failures.

Now, I don’t know anywhere in the world we could go that would be as challenging as North Korea. Cuba would be a cakewalk compared to North Korea. But we reached out and actually made some relationships. They can’t sustain themselves because we can’t communicate with them. And we don’t know what we left behind. We don’t know whose lives we may have touched. We’ll never know, but, by golly, we made the effort.

Kim Il-Sung’s birthplace and childhood home, as photographed by David Snell in 2009.

 

With all the tension between the U.S. and North Korea today, do your experiences there put a human face on this political turmoil?

It does for me. I know some of these folks now. I’ve met them. One of the folks that I worked with there I really enjoyed, just a wonderful guy, was in the equivalent of our State Department. Recently he was posted in New York at the United Nations. There’s no way I could call him up and say, “Hey, how are things?” But he was a very decent man, and I wonder what’s going through his head as we’re watching all of this happen.

There’s an interesting bunch there. When you arrive in North Korea, you’re met by your translator, who is with you the entire time. You don’t leave the hotel without them. It’s their monitoring system; I’m not naive to that. But a couple of these guys were very interesting young men. They’re exposed to the West. One of them came to me — in the upper floors of the hotel where the tourists stay, they had BBC and China TV in addition to the local stations — and he came to me and said, “Do you have BBC up there in your room” I said yeah. He said, “Can I come up and watch the news?” I said, “It’s fine with me; I don’t know about your folks.” It was a 20-minute thing that came on at five o’clock. He knocks on the door at five o’clock, I let him in and he came and sat five feet in front of that television set, absolutely riveted for the entire broadcast. When it was done, he thanked me and left.

But there’s a corps of these folks, a fair number of them, because every foreign visitor has someone to accompany them. I think at some point this is gonna fail; this regime can’t sustain itself. And when that happens, I think these people are going to be in an interesting position to help guide the future. I was very taken with their intellect, friendliness and interest.

We’re sharing a photo gallery (below) of just some of the images you’ve captured in North Korea. How did you bring home so many images?

I see these things on Facebook — photos that the North Koreans don’t want you to see that some guy is secretly taking — I took pictures the whole time I was there. I’d ask. … One place we went when we were first looking for a site out in the country, we could see in the distance artillery covered in camouflage. I thought, hmm, we might have gotten too close to that particular post. But I never had a problem and didn’t have a problem getting my camera out of the country. So, I don’t know. We blow things up in the West. One of the things that always bugged me about Kim Jong Il was how he was always portrayed as a buffoon, and he wasn’t a buffoon. He was an autocrat. He was a dictator. He was cruel. But he wasn’t a buffoon. Now this youngster (Kim Jong Un), I’m not so sure about.

One of the things I’ve learned from this and from my other travels is if we could get governments out of the picture, we could probably all get along. The Koreans, really, on a 1-to-1 basis, love to get to know folks. And that’s true all around the world. If we could get governments out of the picture, we could probably have peace.

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David Snell’s visit to a Christian church in Pyongyang:

David Snell’s footage from Arirang Mass Games: