Enforced COVID-19 isolation recalls days in prison

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The Rev. Thomas Kim. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UM News 

The Rev. Thomas Kim.

Photo by Kathleen Barry, UM News.

Nearly four decades ago, I was in a prison cell smaller than 24 square feet with no openings except a hole through which a jailer watched over me.  The coronavirus has brought those days back to me.

Every morning I got up around 5 o’clock, did push-ups, cleaned the cell, read a book and waited for breakfast. After that, I read until a jailer came to take me out of the cell for my 30 minutes of exercise. There was no one except for him and me in the yard and if I encountered any other inmates on the way, I was not supposed to even say, “Hello.”

I had to be invisible to other inmates. After exercise, I was taken back to my cell.

This time was very precious and treasured for me even though I could not meet anyone out there. It was enough that I could take breaths of the fresh air in the yard.

I could see and feel the changing seasons, and expand my vision beyond my nearly 24-square-foot cell. I could touch the earth, see the clouds, the sun and the sky, and I could watch airplanes flying over me. 


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I was allowed to write a letter to my family once a month and I was allowed to see them through a glass once for just 10 minutes once a month.

At this point you may be wondering where I was, and why I was imprisoned. In the Republic of Korea in the 1980s, I was accused of violating the law of assembly and marching during a time when the country was under an authoritarian government.

Now in 2020 in America, I feel like and act as I did when I was in prison.

I get up at 5:30 a.m.

I open the windows of my small apartment to circulate the air in my room, and change my clothes to go out and breathe fresh air as I walk for 50 minutes – longer than allowed in prison – and I always hurry back to my apartment before 7 a.m. Then I sit in front of monitors to write stories and search the news. I often check what is going on in Korean churches, especially in The United Methodist Church. There is not much space to move around in my apartment.

The biggest enemy of working from home is isolation, separation and no physical encounters. I am from an analog generation.

I felt lonely when I was in a small prison cell in Korea, but I was not discouraged — rather hopeful for the freedom of the country.

Now, I again feel lonely in a small apartment in America, even though I am free. But this time, I am discouraged because I do not know when it will be over, and all I can do is keep social distancing.

We practice social distancing for my safety and the safety of others.

But I also feel something I did not expect at all. I feel fear and disappointment.

I am a people person. I like to chat with passersby with a smile and greetings. However, nowadays when I go out, I act very timid, and if I see people on the street, I feel uncomfortable to face them alone. I do not feel safe in the country where I have lived for 33 years, and where I came for freedom.

Let me make things clear.

I feel lonely but I can take it. I can call and talk to my children. As long as they are healthy and safe, I am fine.

I love my workplace and miss working there with my loving and caring co-workers and colleagues, but I can settle myself through Zoom meetings — though sometimes the sound is not that clear.

To stay in a small apartment for 24 hours is tough and sometimes terrible. But I can take it for the safety of all. We all can stand together.

Some things I cannot take.

On March 26, NBC News reported that Asian Americans reported over 650 racist acts over the last week.

My fellow Asian sisters and brothers are also fighting against COVID-19, and they are afraid of it as well. Why do they have to face an additional, unnecessary fear and frustration on top of the fear that we all face together? Why do we need a scapegoat? Don’t we all have to work together to overcome COVID-19, the common enemy of all?

Has the country become spiritually too small? Are we smaller than COVID-19? Are you smaller than COVID-19? Is the United States of America smaller than COVID-19?

The United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race says, “Let us be who we have been created and called to be — and refuse to engage in, make excuses for, or deny the real consequences of racism in word, thought, or deed — always — but especially as they are perpetrated by the most powerful among us.”

We are not a virus! Asians are not a virus!

Christians, remember that Abraham, Jacob and Joseph were immigrants, and that the Holy Family were refugees.

I know we are bigger and more powerful than COVID-19.

We can do better! There are so many good people working to get through this crisis as one country.

I received an email recently from Flushing First United Methodist Church in Flushing, New York. The email from the immigrant church told how church members were teaming up to make reusable face masks to support local communities in the face of COVID-19.

“We hope these small acts of sharing will gain momentum and continue to unfold, encouraging people to overcome the pandemic with love. Today we made our first deliveries of disinfected masks to senior living communities — Sapphire Rehabilitation Center and Flushing House.”

We can be a positive influence to the community around us in the midst of the COVID-19 threat.

I don’t know much about other religions, but according to the Bible, Jesus came to the world to break down divisions. “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2:14, NRSV)

I pray that God heals us, not only from COVID-19, but also from xenophobia and racism.

Some of you may be wondering whether the stay-at-home order is as tough as imprisonment. The answer is “sort of.”

I was released eight months into my sentence due to special amnesty, and years later I was recognized as a contributor to the democracy of South Korea, which is now one of the outstanding democratic countries in the world.

I am very optimistic. I hope that this boring and tiresome stay-at-home order and working from home will soon be over, and that we can recognize that we all worked together to overcome COVID-19.

“But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” (Malachi 4:2, NRSV)

I pray that you and I go out leaping like calves from our stay-at-home order, greet each other, hug and embrace altogether without fear and hesitation.


Kim is director of Korean and Asian news at United Methodist Communications. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests

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