WorshipWeb: Braver/Wiser: A Weekly Message of Courage and Compassion

An Unbroken Song

By Julie Yeeun Kim

“In our bodies we carry the blood of our ancestors and the seeds of the future generations. We are a living conduit to all life…. We are strengthened by who we come from and inspired by those who will follow.” 
—Sherri Mitchell Weh'na Ha'mu Kwasset, in Sacred Instructions

I can count the number of stories I have about my paternal grandfather on two hands. For the descendants of refugees and immigrants, stories can be precious commodities. Hidden by trauma and muffled by reticence, stories from my father’s side have been dissolving into history, one by one. Maybe for that reason the one I know best is the one I love most: the story of the night my grandfather died.

My grandfather was a refugee from what is now North Korea, living in what became South Korea. After the war, he and my grandmother had five children, my father being the eldest. They lived in the mountains, where my grandfather pastored the local church.

In profile, a person prays: their eyes are closed, and their forehead rests on their clasped hands.

When my father was fourteen years old, it was clear that his father would soon die. The family gathered around my grandfather as he lay on his deathbed, unable to speak and struggling to breathe. Outside, church members and townspeople also gathered—and sang:

Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to thee
Nearer, my God, to thee; nearer to thee…

As my aunts recount the story, they also break into song.

“How long did you sing?” I asked.

“We must have sat there for hours. Is that right?” one aunt wonders aloud.

All the while the song did not end: for the last hours of my grandfather’s life, he heard an unbroken chain of praise sung by his wife and children, and sustained by a whole town in mourning.

My paternal grandfather and his family are shrouded in mystery in my mind. His story feels more like a blurry legend of a hero whose distant sacrifices I have to thank for the possibility of my own life.

This story transcends the rest in its clarity, though it is obviously constructed by my own mind. There are faces I recognize, emotions I have felt, and lyrics to a hymn I can sing. I have often felt the divine most present to me when I feel dissolved into a holy community, held up by their unending song in moments when I am unable to offer anything. Perhaps this is the final story, the most intimate lesson, that my grandfather has left me.


God of my ancestors, thank you for keeping us alive in your memory. What war and death cut short, you hold for all time. May the stories of the dead be strength and wisdom for the living.

About the Author

Julie Yeeun Kim

Julie Yeeun Kim (she/her) is a Korean American artist, educator, and preacher. She likes to write about faith, family, and identity. Learn more about Julie on her website and on Instagram at @julieyeeun.


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