Samjung Kang-Hamilton was baptized by an American missionary on Jeju-Do Island, an island southeast of mainland South Korea. She was not a Christian; she had never heard the Gospel. She was drawn to her own baptism by pure curiosity.
“I never heard of a Bible and I wasn’t interested,” she said. “I wanted to know what Americans looked like – I’d never seen them before.”
She and a friend attended an organized time of prayer, sponsored by the American missionaries who were conducting a summer campaign in her village. When the invitation for baptism was announced, she stepped forward.
“It was a very dramatic experience,” she said.
Fourteen-year-old Kang-Hamilton wore a white gown under a full moon and beautiful scenery, but that was all the experience reflected at the time. She returned home and had no connection with Scripture.
Kang-Hamilton’s gentle voice is graced by an accent that captivates her listener and begs her story to be told. She maintains an elegant composure as she begins to trace her life from Jeju-Do Island to a cozy office in the Graduate School of Theology in Abilene, Texas.
Home was a fishing village on Jeju-Do Island called Shi Heung Ree, inhabited by about 500 other families. At the time, the village was home to 60 elementary school students, five of which attended high school. It was a village where a woman commonly helped her parents in the home until she found a spouse, married and settled. Today, Dr. Kang-Hamilton is a wife and mother of two musically gifted children, Nathan, 17, and Hannah, 13. She is an adjunct professor of religious education and children’s ministry in the Graduate School of Theology, an active member of the University Church of Christ and president of the Friends of ACU Library. She received her Ed.M. and Ed.D. from Columbia University.
“If you can do it, I can support you, and if you find the truth, stick to it,” she recollects her father telling her years ago. These words carried her from one side of the world to another and encouraged an open mind toward the unfamiliar world of Christianity.
Her father was an atheist; her mother did not practice any religion, and she lived next door to a shaman – a woman called on to cure illnesses, tell fortunes and serve as a medium between spirits and humans.
This skepticism kept her away from any interest in Christianity, until a few months after her baptism when a preacher from the church began repeatedly knocking on her door and asking her to come to a service. She finally decided to go to church one Sunday, and from then on it was a completely different story.
She continued to attend church throughout high school and decided to make Christianity and education prominent elements in her life, but struggled with the effect this had on her relationship with her family.
“I cried – I cried so many times trying to practice what I thought was right and what my parents wanted me to do,” she said.
Contrary to most women in her village, she decided to move to Seoul after high school to go to college, become a teacher and further develop her faith.
“I would move from the country, a village, to the capital city by myself. It was a tough journey for me,” she said.
Her family was comfortable in its village, and had no need for advanced schooling or degrees, “But I needed to go to a different place to pursue the things I believed,” she said.
She had found the truth her father spoke of, and she took his advice to follow it.
The Big City
Kang-Hamilton moved to Seoul in 1976 and worked full-time as a secretary for the same missionary who came to her village the summer she was baptized.
She had taken the first step; but found herself struggling with her future.
“I was searching – it’s hard when you don’t know what direction to go in,” she said.
She remembers a day when God spoke to her and began revealing His will.
“I was walking down the street in Seoul and I heard a Gospel reading,” she said. “The preacher was talking about the will of God, and somehow that lesson hit me, and I was turned around.”
From that moment, her decision was to trust and follow God.
“I began searching for the will of God,” she said. “I don’t know if God was listening to my struggle, but I decided to go to seminary. I’ll never forget that.”
Kang-Hamilton enrolled in night classes at Seoul Christian University, formerly Korean Christian Seminary, and began working toward her degrees in theology and Christian education.
“I studied in the public bus with my Greek and Hebrew language cards,” she said. “I made a good grade, but I wanted to study more.”
She was active in the Church of Christ that employed her and decided she wanted to learn more about the Christian faith, but could not do so in South Korea.
“I learned Christianity imported from the West, and I felt there was a lot more to explore.”
She continued her studies with this desire in the back of her mind.
In 1984, Kang-Hamilton partnered with a missionary and planted a church in Seoul. She soon became closely acquainted with her peers from Seminary who shared the same dream of moving to the U.S. The group came together all night every Friday to pray for each other’s decisions.
By her senior year, she had devoted three years of her life to prayer about one decision, and was losing motivation to continue.
Senior year, she gave up.
“I was faced with people saying, ‘You’ve dreamt and prayed about this; why are you giving up now?’ so I started rethinking,” she said.
The following summer, she approached her boss about coming to the U.S. and was faced with a new set of obstacles.
He got in contact with friends at Cascade College in Oregon and arranged for an international student application to be sent for her admittance. However, the process was not easy – her visa was rejected – a possibility she was afraid would happen.
“I tried again during Christmas,” she said. “People are more generous then.”
This thought proved true – the American Embassy sent her a visa after her second attempt.
While at work, and still in the application process, Kang Hamilton was assigned to help a group of students from Oklahoma Christian University plan their mission trip to South Korea.
During causal conversation with the students, she mentioned she wanted to come to the U.S. and was in the process of applying to Cascade College. A student quickly replied, “Why don’t you come to Oklahoma?”
She received and completed the application and began to arrange her move to America.
The Big Move
Kang-Hamilton finished her degree in Korea, with honors, and transferred to Oklahoma Christian University on Jan. 2, 1985.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, Americans are blessed’,” she said.
Once she became accustomed to the spacious Oklahoma landscape in comparison to the 20-story buildings in South Korea, she began her bachelor’s degree in Biblical studies.
Her degree in theology and Christian education from Seoul Christian College transferred, but she was forced to spend a year taking Oklahoma Christian’s basic courses and faced a severe struggle with the language barrier.
“I came without any ESL,” she said. “I could hear, speak and function, but coming here was a struggle. When American students spent one hour for a class, I had to spend 10 for the same one.”
Her self-esteem spiraled.
“My self-esteem was spiraling,” she said. “I wished I could speak the way I was thinking in my head, but you cannot express the vocabulary of a country until you live there and learn its culture.
Gracious as each word may sound leaving her mouth, it is easy to forget she endured such a struggle with the English language. She makes an example of her struggle through the idea of checks and balances.
“I understand checks; I understand balances,” she said. “And you know that is a term for American government, but I never knew that because it is part of this culture.”
She also was living in a dormitory as a student in her mid-20s.
“It was hard for me, but I didn’t complain” she said.
Her life in the dorms was short lived – after a semester, the resident director let her move to the senior, then married student housing.
Kang-Hamilton completed her degree and had set a goal to receive her master’s in religious education, but that particular program at Oklahoma Christian was replaced with marriage and family therapy. Abilene Christian University was the only other school that still offered the program she wanted.
A New Home
“I came here not knowing anyone, no car, nothing – it was a wonderful experience,” Kang-Hamilton said.
She worked fulltime in the Brown Library and took classes in the master’s program. The library staff knew she was supporting herself and surprised her with a trip home.
“They knew I was going to school and working day and night, so they secretly collected money and sent me back,” she said. “I hadn’t seen my family in several years, and they knew I didn’t have the money to do it.” She said this showed her what it means to be a Christian.
“I have a lot of special people here,” she said. “I have a lot of fathers, mothers, grandparents – everywhere I go, someone is there for me. That’s part of being a Christian – friends.”
In 1987, a donation was given to the graduate school to send a group of students to Jerusalem for a semester.
“I was interested, but I didn’t have the money,” Kang-Hamilton said.
Wendell Broom, professor emeritus in Bible, missions and ministry, was leading the group and approached Kang-Hamilton. She told him she could not afford the trip, to which he responded, “If you want to go, we can find a way for you to go. I can help you.”
Kang-Hamilton raised the money and soon was on a plane to Jerusalem with 14 other graduate students, including Dr. Mark Hamilton, a man she had seen around campus but did not know.
The two arrived in Jerusalem, started spending time together and soon went on their first date of pizza and a walk through the town.
“It just seemed right,” he said. “When you meet someone who’s smart, creative and beautiful – all these things, you’d be stupid not to ask her out.”
The two dated for three years and married in 1989.
John Willis, professor of Biblical studies in the Graduate School of Theology, was Mark’s Old Testament chairman, while Mark was pursuing his master’s degree, and thinks highly of the Hamilton family, whom he has known for 20 years.
“They have a wonderful relationship,” he said.
“He’s wonderful, sweet, kind and smart – girls are looking for all these things in a strong Christian man,” Kang-Hamilton said. “My goal is to serve God, and this man is going to support me. This is a gift.”
The two finished their master’s degrees and moved to Connecticut, where Mark had a job preaching. She commuted six hours by train, three days a week to Columbia University, and had their first child, Nathan, by the time she received her Ed.M. and Ed.D. with a focus in church education.
“Then it was Mark’s turn,” she said.
The family moved to Massachusetts where Mark received his Ph.D. from Harvard University.
The two have committed to balance family with ministry and careers. “You cannot teach and preach without taking care of your own,” she said.
The Hamilton family is back in Abilene where along with Kang-Hamilton’s multiple campus and ministry responsibilities, Mark is the associate dean and professor in the Graduate School of Theology
Kang-Hamilton has been baptized again, but when she looks back to the night of her first baptism, she said she sees God’s work beginning.
“I believe that moment was God’s invitation,” she said. “He worked not through my will, but through the will of the people who prayed for me in that moment, through a community believing in prayer.”
As she continues her life in Abilene, she bases her prayers on John 15:1-8.
“If we are in Christ and He is in us, we will bear much fruit. He can dwell in us in proportion to the space we provide for him in our lives,” she said.
She said he sees her impact on those around her.
“She makes people feel better when they’re around her. She is a voice of sanity, wisdom and spiritual depth,” he said. “She makes people feel better when they’re around her because they know God loves them, and they know she loves them.”