“In 586 B.C.E. Israel went into exile.” Because of Roger Nam’s effusive enthusiasm for the Hebrew Bible, when he speaks these words one hears them like a child hears “once upon a time” at the beginning of a tale brimming with potential. Nam goes on to tell the story of the people of Israel returning to their homeland and attempting to resettle in 539 B.C.E., 47 years later. As Nam and his family prepared to spend Nam’s sabbatical in South Korea, the place of their ethnic heritage, the George Fox Evangelical Seminary associate professor of biblical studies called his mother to review family history, and a serendipitous parallel emerged. Nam’s parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1967, and it was exactly 47 years later that Nam and his wife, Samantha, were taking their family back to South Korea.
While on sabbatical Nam served as visiting professor of theology at Sogang University and worked on writing a book manuscript called “The Political Economics of Diaspora: A Socio-economic Study of Exile and Return.” As someone with career experience in finance, Nam is fascinated to investigate the economic ramifications of an exiled group returning home.As a biblical scholar and seminary professor, he also views the experience of the repatriate through a more overtly theological lens, and zealously probes the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah in this pursuit.
Actually living the repatriate experience this past year thoroughly enriched Nam’s reflection, research and writing process. He says the sabbatical was a “self-exploration,” and not without challenge. In addition to practical changes as long-term residents – such as navigating the complex immigration process – the Nams faced deep cultural adjustments from the start. Although the family has its roots in South Korea, people regarded them as outsiders. “There is a trauma in being an alien in your own home,” Nam divulges. Was this similar to what the Jews of the Old Testament experienced in their return?
Nam readily clarifies his family’s experience is in many respects different from that of the returning Jews, yet he sees certain themes as universal, specifically trauma, power, identity and hope. The Jews of the Hebrew Bible experienced them; Nam and his family experienced them; and they emerge throughout a variety of repatriation literature. Furthermore, Nam believes these themes have the potential to resonate with many people, and exploring them theologically is especially important as churches become more ethnically diverse.
The Nams’ most recent homecoming – returning to the U.S. – offers yet another opportunity to experience repatriation. Seven-year-old Asher and 12-year-old Jared are delighted to reunite with the Legos they left behind, with their Oregon friends, and with American-style pizza. But the two boys return with a changed sense of identity. When Nam asked Asher whether he feels Korean or American, Asher responded that he is both. This broadened sense of self, although strenuous to navigate, is what Nam and his wife hoped their sons would attain.
Nam himself comes back to Portland Seminary with an expanded, more culturally astute view of theology. “Even though I am Korean, [the experience of] presenting papers there, being a professor in a Korean Jesuit university with students training for the priesthood … it was eye-opening.” Nam shares that in living into what he studies academically, he has seen vivid evidence that Christ is present and essential in the continuously unfolding stories of the world’s people.
By Sierra S. Neiman