The Very Reverend Dr. Sang Chul Lee, the 32nd Moderator of The United Church of Canada, died peacefully at his Newmarket, Ontario, home on Saturday, January 28. He was 92.
During his time as Moderator from 1988 to 1990, he faced many contentious issues, including a rift in the church over the possible ordination of gay and lesbian ministers. Although the Rev. Lee admitted he felt conflicted on this matter, as Moderator, he handled the issue with grace and compassion, urging church members to “live together, struggle together, and grow together.”
“I’m an optimistic man,” he told one reporter when asked about the controversy. “I feel there is a willingness to walk together.”
Today’s United Church benefited greatly from the Rev. Lee’s leadership.
“He provided leadership for the church in a time of great division and nastiness in the church,” says current Moderator the Right Reverend Jordan Cantwell. “I remember someone telling me that when he was asked how he felt about leading the church through such a fraught time, he responded that he had lived through occupations, revolutions, and brushes with death, so he thought he could handle some church controversy.”
The Rev. Lee was born in Siberia, the son of Korean immigrants. When he was seven he moved to Manchuria, where he converted to Christianity while attending a Canadian Mission Board school. “I did not know what was going on, but God had plans,” he later noted.
He received his theological education in Korea, Switzerland, and Vancouver, with his ordination in the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK). He came to Canada in 1961, first living in Vancouver. There he served a three-point charge comprising English, Japanese, and Korean-speaking congregations, requiring him to preach three sermons every Sunday in three different languages.
He grew very fond of his adopted country and its place in the world. “I believe God loves Canadians so much that God brought so many people in,” he once told a reporter. “God is training us, asking us to show leadership.”
The Rev. Lee came to Toronto in 1969 and was minister for the Toronto Korean United Church, where he served from 1969 to 1988. His contributions to the Korean community in Canada are significant, as he was the first Chairperson for the Korean-Canadian Association in Vancouver. He was also a board member of the Korean-Canadian Association, Metro Toronto, and was involved in many other groups that worked to better the lives of Korean-Canadians.
He was active in Toronto Conference on various justice and human rights committees before being elected Conference president in 1985. He was then elected the 32nd Moderator of The United Church of Canada in 1988, serving a two-year term.
The Rev. Lee’s election as Moderator in 1988 surprised many. However, his simple homespun wisdom—coupled with his twinkling eyes, long white beard, and wonderful sense of humour—captured the attention of commissioners when the seven candidates for the position were interviewed on stage. Following his election, he claimed to be equally surprised. “I just didn’t think the church was ready to elect an ethnic person,” he said.
As Moderator, the Rev. Lee lifted up the voices of the isolated and oppressed, tackling issues relating to LGBTQ rights, racial equality, and Indigenous affairs. The United Church of Canada’s intercultural vision owes much to him, as he built bridges between our church and the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea.
Lee was named Rainbow Chief at the All Native Circle Conference in 1989 and from that moment became an honoured member. He was appointed Chancellor of Victoria University in the University of Toronto from 1992 until 1998.
He said the United Church had a special role in the world. “The religious community is the one constantly supplying dreams and visions and hopes, not despair and destruction,” he once said. “Sometimes our dreams are so small. God’s dream is so much larger than ours.”
The Rev. Lee’s funeral will be on February 1 at 11 a.m. at Alpha Korean United Church (300 Bloor Street West, Toronto), with visitation the night before at R.S. Kane Funeral Home (6150 Yonge Street, Toronto). In lieu of flowers, donations to the Mission & Service of The United Church of Canada or Victoria University/Emmanuel College would be greatly appreciated.
Expressions of condolence can be sent to the Rev. Lee’s daughter, Irene Dirks, c/o Alpha Korean United Church, 300 Bloor Street West, Toronto, ON, M5S 1W3.