SEOUL, South Korea — After a long day of seeking out new students on the drab and grimy, windswept streets of Geumcheon, one of Seoul’s poorest areas, English teachers Jared Turley and Spencer Gunnel sit inside an empty classroom, waiting for a shy 12-year-old student nicknamed Superstar.
A thin boy with glasses, he finally arrives and sits down in a single chair opposite the two teachers. Despite Superstar’s tardiness, the instructors appear thrilled to see him and inflect their voices generously when speaking to him. In a mix of English and Korean (a language Gunnel and Turley have spent countless hours studying) the lesson begins.
Superstar is a stellar student with a passion for English. But that’s not how he earned his name.
He never misses class and usually brings along friends, some of whom are interested in sticking around for the second part of the private lesson — learning the Mormon gospel. Superstar converted to the faith in late 2009.
Turley and Gunnel are on a mission that’s part rote learning and part religion. For the pair of strait-laced missionaries known as elders, who are on a two-year assignment in South Korea, the English classes are a way to attract new sheep to their flock.
South Korea is home to 80,000 Mormons and 500 missionaries, according to church literature, representing one of the Mormon’s Asian strongholds. It ranks third in overall population, behind Japan and the Philippines.
Unlike in those countries, proselytizers here have a special tool to lure converts — offering classes to a citizenry that views English proficiency as a prerequisite to success.
On many days, these pious peddlers stand on crowded Seoul street-corners hawking a sure-fire come on. In a city where language schools are expensive and private lesson rates run as high as $65 an hour, their classes are free.
But there’s a catch. Most lessons require students to remain for a second session discussing the Book of Mormon.
“A lot of people think we’re English teachers,” said Gunnel, a slim blond college freshman who, like all Mormon missionaries, is required to wear a conservative dark suit, white shirt and nametag.
Added missionary Brian Booth: “Probably most people drop out [of the bible lessons] because they’re in it for the English.”
The missionaries say they don’t consider the ploy to be any false advertising. They’ll do whatever it takes to promote their religious cause.
But not all Koreans see it that way.
Some students have complained that the teaching sessions take on the tone of a pushy time-share pitch.
“They say ‘Oh, we can teach English’ but the truth is that only if we go to church can we learn English, and we have to believe in their God,” said Shin Ayeong, 22, who went to a few classes before dropping out.
Still, the missionaries sent her telephone texts for months, imploring her to return, she said.
The street solicitations are known as “boarding,” when missionaries use placards and fliers to stop passersby. But their tactics are not exactly forthcoming as neither the missionaries nor their advertisements usually mention the religious requirements of the free language lessons.
“You can’t put everything on a billboard,” said Korea Seoul West Mission President Craig Burton.
Every one of the 15 or so private English lessons Turley and Gunnel teach each week has a religious requirement. Students must show interest in the faith or they’re shown the door.
“If they’re not showing any interest [in the religious aspect] probably by the sixth week, you’d ask them about it.” Depending on the answer, lessons would stop or continue, Turley said.
For Gunnel and Turley, a tall, handsome Utah native with mission-regulation cropped hair and a rich, sonorous voice, the Mormon regimen here is rigorous.
Each day, they study Korean and the Mormon gospel from 6:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. Then, until at least 9:00 at night, the “companions” must proselytize by wandering the streets, knocking on doors and teaching English and religion lessons to students.
They also visit members and “less-active members,” who sometimes have not heard from the church in 35 to 40 years, Turley said.
Known in church lexicon as “companions,” the pair does everything together — literally.
Their missionary handbook stresses that while soliciting they shouldn’t even be on different floors of the same building. Separations are allowed only “in an interview with the mission president, on a companion exchange, or in the bathroom,” the manual says.
The duo said they understand why. “There are lots of temptations on the street,” said Gunnel.
“Hey, don’t look at the ground,” they tell each other when roaming streets littered with adult entertainment and prostitution leaflets, he said.
Other rules forbid them from watching TV, going to movies, listening to the radio or using the internet “except to communicate with your family or your mission president or as otherwise authorized,” the handbook says.
Wolfing down a dinner of Korean omelets, Turley and Gunnel admitted that they knew little about the U.S. war in Afghanistan or even the 2008 global financial crisis.
Instead, the missionaries spend their days looking for new language students — and converts like Superstar. But they’re not the only ones with a game plan.
One Korean mother sent her teenage son to English classes for five months, all the while delaying her child’s baptism.
Finally, after giving about $1,500 worth of free English tutoring, the missionaries put their foot down.
They canceled the lessons.