Alum Stories

Alumna and Military Chaplain, Hyang Sook Choi, Sees Giving as an Act of Faith

Reverend Hyang Sook Choi (G-ETS 2011) has clear advice for today’s seminary students: “Ask questions. Keep exploring. Do not lose faith, whatever faith you have.”

Choi practices what she preaches. As a seminary student at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Choi dedicated herself to asking questions. Now as an army chaplain, Choi helps service members keep their faith—regardless of their faith tradition.

It is Choi’s belief in education and dedication to ministry that prompted her to begin supporting the seminary with a monthly gift. She considers giving a spiritual practice and hopes to increase her giving over time.

Choi grew up in a Christian family in Busan, South Korea, where her family attended a Korean Presbyterian church. Choi’s mother was the first Christian in her family, as was her father’s mother. Choi remembers her family facing religious persecution for their choice to practice Christianity.

When Choi was in her mid-20’s, South Korea suffered an economic crisis, so her father took early retirement and came to the United States. He was able to find work in his field as a broadcast engineer. Choi, her brother, and her mother—a teacher and homemaker—came to the United States a year later.

It was around this time that Choi was introduced to the Methodist church. Before coming to the United States, Choi spent two years as a missionary in Bangladesh with Korean Methodists. Left with a good impression, Choi joined a Korean American United Methodist church when she moved to Chicago.
At this church, Choi’s call to ministry leadership grew. She began as the church’s pianist, then became choir director, and finally associate pastor. “The congregation always encouraged and empowered me. I grew up there as a minister,” Choi recalls.

Choi learned about Garrett-Evangelical from the Korean Methodists. Her church encouraged her to pursue a master of divinity and seek ordination in The United Methodist Church. Choi, who had already done graduate coursework at Moody Bible Institute, followed their suggestions.

On the first day of orientation at Garrett-Evangelical, Choi was shocked. The president of the seminary asked the new students: “Does anyone believe Adam was the first human? Was Jonah really in the belly of the whale?” Looking back, Choi remembers having no idea why he asked such questions.

Choi brought her own questions to seminary. Her time as a missionary in Bangladesh during a devastating flood had left her with confusion and frustration about faith. She wondered if praying to Jesus was the only way to experience relief from suffering in a multi-religious context like Bangladesh.

At Garrett-Evangelical, Choi found professors who spoke to her interests and experiences. Dr. Larry Murphy taught church history from the perspective of the minors, not the winners. Dr. Kenneth Vaux explored world religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. “These and other professors helped me to continuously grow as a person, as a theologian, and as a minister,” says Choi.

After seminary, Choi pursued ordination in The United Methodist Church. She was appointed to a congregation as the first non-white pastor in the church’s 154-year history. While Choi was eager about the appointment, the congregation tolerated her at best. “I enjoy being in new places with new people,” Choi says. But the congregation was not open to her leadership, and the appointment ended in less than two years.

All along, Choi had felt drawn to chaplaincy. She had begun the process of becoming an army reserve chaplain in seminary but set that aside during her time in the local church. Choi decided to pick up where she left off, but she soon realized she was approaching the maximum age for becoming an active-duty chaplain.

Choi realized that the situation was now or never. She decided to skip reserve chaplaincy and signed up for active duty instead. In the parking lot on her first day reporting to duty, Choi thought to herself, “Am I crazy? What did I do?”

She hasn’t looked back since. Choi is glad not to worry about church buildings, budgets, and trustees anymore. Instead, she devotes herself to the daily activities and needs of her service members. “As a unit chaplain, I go with them wherever they go. Every day,” Choi explains. “That’s my joy.”

Choi relishes the chance to help her people improve their lives for the better. “Each chaplain has their strengths, and I see mine as counseling. That’s the most important part for me,” says Choi. “I get to deal with real stuff with real people.”

As a military chaplain, Choi is a religious subject matter expert. She provides religious support and advises her commander and staff on religion and ethics. Choi ensures that all service members can practice their religion freely whether that involves Sunday worship or Ramadan fasting.

During the pandemic, Choi combined her counseling skills and her religious expertise to handle requests for vaccination exemptions. Choi met one-on-one with each person in her battalion seeking an exemption. She listened carefully to determine if their request was sincere. “If so,” Choi says, “I supported them. If not, I did not.” Her recommendations went all the way to the surgeon general of the United States Army.

In all she does as a military chaplain, Choi emphasizes open-mindedness. “I’m a Christian chaplain, but I am serving everybody. I am their chaplain no matter what faith or no faith. I am there for whatever their religious or spiritual needs,” Choi shares.

Choi appreciates that Garrett-Evangelical was a place where she could ask questions and explore how to best serve others. Her time in seminary helped Choi see that “It’s not really about what you believe, or how you read the Bible, or what side you take. It’s more about how you live your life because of your faith.”

For Choi, giving is part of how she lives her faith. “Giving is a very important spiritual practice for me,” explains Choi. “What I value is reflected in how I spend my money.” Choi supports her home church, the chapel she serves, foreign missions, and the two theological schools she attended—including Garrett-Evangelical.

Choi chose a monthly gift because it’s easy. “I go all over the world as a military service member,” she says. “I don’t even know where I’ll be next year. If I have to remember to make a gift, that’s too much for me.” In fact, Choi set up her monthly gift online using a credit card when she was deployed.

Through her giving, Choi hopes that Garrett-Evangelical will continue to be a hub for students with questions. She encourages today’s students to “not lose heart for the Word, for people, or for God.” “Find your own identity and find the best way to use your gifts,” she says.

Monthly gifts allow you to make smaller gifts that add up over time while providing a steady stream of support for Garrett-Evangelical’s mission. Monthly gifts can be made by check, credit card, or electronic transfer from your bank. To start your monthly gift today, visit www.garrett.edu/giving or contact