South Korean churches across the country are uniting together following the horrific sinking of the ferry Sewol, holding prayer vigils and dedicating Easter services to the victims of the tragedy.
Six of the Danwon High School students trapped on the ferry were members at Ansan First Presbyterian Church, just south of Seoul. Thousands attended a vigil held at the church this past Wednesday, tearfully lighting candles and praying for the victims and their families.
"This is an unthinkable tragedy," said one member. "All we can do is pray with all of our strength for the families of the children. We know that will see them again, if not on this earth, certainly in heaven."
On Easter Sunday, Ansan Vitna Presbyterian Church's senior pastor, Yoo Je Myong, comforted his congregation, saying, "Today is Easter, but we gather here with an extraordinary heart seeking extraordinary grace. I pray that the hope and desire of our resurrected Jesus Christ will be with the victims of the ferry tragedy-the surviving families who lost their children and the children who suffered. May the grace of recovery be with them."
The Sewol sank Wednesday off the coast of Jindo, with 476 passengers on board. More than 300 of them are students from Ansan's Danwon High School. According to reports from 19 local churches in Ansan, 47 out of about 270 missing students are church members.
Many pastors from local church instantly rushed to the site, while other churches held prayer services and reached out to families and teachers at Danwon High School.
Min Sung Woo, who leads the high school ministry at Ansan Kwanglim Methodist Church, told South Korean newspaper Kookmin Ilbo that when he heard the news, all he could visualize were the faces of his young students. "I can't believe it. In my eyes, I can still see these good kids. I only wish for their safe return," he said.
South Korea remains in a state of shock and devastation at the tragic unfolding of events. On Thursday, 170 ships and 500 divers continued searching for survivors around the downed ferry. However, hope for the survival of the missing passengers dwindled by the hour, as exhausted members watched hundreds of recovered bodies carried away on stretchers.
Ansan Jeil Church senior pastor Go Hun says he could not stop thinking about the missing children when preparing his Easter sermon. According to South Korean news source Christian Today, he stated, "Today our Ansan is a land of tears, a land of wailing," he said, comparing the grief to that of Bethlehem when King Herod ordered the murder of all 2-year-old boys.
"Easter is supposed to be a celebration of great joy for Christians who shout out, 'The Lord has risen!'" Go said. "But whenever I think of the kids who are trapped underwater, I am unable to eat, unable to sleep. ... I cannot do anything because I am so blinded with tears. Oh, if I could solve this problem with tears, I would shed tears of blood!"
As of Friday, the confirmed death toll was 28, with 179 survivors rescued. Among the dead were four 17-year-old students, a 25-year-old teacher, and a 22-year-old female crew member. More than 270 remain missing.