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[The Calling] Once Buddhist, nurse turns to Bible for healing

By Choi Si-young

Published : April 10, 2024 - 15:04

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Sovan Meta, a lieutenant in the Salvation Army’s Korea Territory, at the commissioning ceremony held at the Salvation Army’s church in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province on Jan. 20. (Salvation Army Korea Territory) Sovan Meta, a lieutenant in the Salvation Army’s Korea Territory, at the commissioning ceremony held at the Salvation Army’s church in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province on Jan. 20. (Salvation Army Korea Territory)

For Sovan Meta, nursing was less a calling than finding a job with few ups and downs. Then an encounter with Korean Christians reaching out to the Cambodian national to volunteer as an interpreter led to the soul-searching of a lifetime. She ended up becoming a Christian minister.

“In Cambodia, many people become nurses but few become ministers. I decided to become one and preach to those without the benefits of spirituality,” Meta said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald.

In January, the 33-year-old Buddhist-turned-Christian became the first foreign national to be ordained by the Salvation Army in Korea upon earning her master’s degree in divinity at the Salvation Army Graduate University for Officer Training in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province.

The school is one of many institutions training officers and soldiers, known as Salvationists, approved by the London-based Protestant church.

The two-year program followed a 2018-2022 special transition course the church organized for Meta in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, where she had been a nurse studying Korean.

There, in 2016, she came across a Salvation Army official looking for interpreters to help Cambodian kids with heart problems seek church aid, one of the charity efforts of the church in place since 2012. She felt moved to lend a hand, so she took a step further.

“I volunteered to help with the sermon next,” Meta said. She pored over what ministers prepared for the congregants in Phnom Penh because she wanted to help deliver the words of God with meticulous interpretation.

It didn’t take long for her to identify herself as a believer.

“That was between 2018 and 2019. I started the side job in 2018,” Meta said, noting her ability to speak Korean in the first place owed to the grace of God. Speaking in Korean is like “speaking in tongues” for her, she added, citing a common practice among believers trying to connect with the Holy Spirit during prayer and worship.

Still, Meta acknowledges the hurdles she faces in Cambodia, a Southeast Asian nation where the constitution recognizes Buddhism as the state religion.

“My family still doesn’t get why I’m doing what I’m doing,” Meta said of her parents who contend they can’t embrace Jesus Christ the way her daughter has done. “It’s better to show them what my faith looks like than teach them what it is. I will persist in doing that and continue to pray for them,” she said.

The 33-year-old Christian minister said that joining a religion -- let alone switching to one that is completely foreign -- would require time.

“So my approach is that I tell people to think about Jesus when they’re going through a rough time, rather than just try to have them follow him right away. I will then ask them to say a prayer,” Meta said.

She underscored the old playbook when it comes to evangelization efforts.

“We believers should put the best of ourselves out there first -- doing all the faith activities at church with sincerity. And we have to be able to stand up before all the nonbelievers and declare God’s love prevails,” she said.

Meta, currently engaged in missionary work in Cambodia, calls herself living proof of the way God reveals his intentions.

Had she not joined the Salvation Army, “I’d still be a nurse. I’d be going to church every Sunday to help with whatever is needed there,” she said, speaking hypothetically.

“Yet, here I am a minister because God has opened the path for me.”

This article is the first in a series of interviews with religious figures, exploring their lives of spiritual calling. --Ed.