Compassion for self and others can heal the wounds we carry. It’s a profound lesson that Paul Yoon, Program Coordinator of Spiritual Care at Memorial Sloan Kettering, has learned and embraced through some of his most difficult life experiences — from immigrating to the US from South Korea and choosing a career path to surviving cancer, coping with fears around COVID-19, and navigating his concerns around violence against Asian Americans.
“Compassion means ‘suffering with,’ and that is something that we as chaplains are called to do,” says Reverend Yoon. “I am willing to suffer with others in their struggles and that is something that has made my life more meaningful.”
He joined MSK in March 2021 and now leads a team of 10 multi-faith chaplains who are dedicated to meeting the spiritual and religious needs of patients, caregivers, and staff.
While his days are dominated by administrative and teaching responsibilities, Rev. Yoon says he most enjoys visiting patients in the hospital setting. He says a chaplain’s role goes beyond praying with patients and meeting their traditional religious needs.
“Our job is to assess how each person is coping spiritually and to listen, learn, and become attuned to what’s underneath,” he explains. “We deepen patients’ understanding of their spirituality, how they make sense of their suffering, and how they connect with themselves and others so that they can go through this tough process better and more gracefully, without feeling punished or ashamed.”
Rev. Yoon remembers struggling with a lack of self-compassion when he first came to the US at the age of 16. Born in Seoul, he could not speak English when he, his mother, and sister arrived in Fairlawn, New Jersey.
“My early immigrant experience was quite traumatic,” remembers Rev. Yoon, who was outgoing and known as a class clown back home. Once he settled in the US, he became quiet and introverted because he couldn’t communicate with anyone.
“If I could talk to a 16-year-old Paul, I would say, ‘Don’t beat yourself up. Give yourself some time to become more comfortable.’”Back to top
Finding the Right Career Path
Rev. Yoon’s family immigrated to the US for better opportunities. Despite being well educated in South Korea, his mother worked as a manicurist at a local nail salon and raised him and his sister as a single mother. “We were pretty poor, but this was a better place to live and reach our dreams. I am very proud of my mom,” he says, recognizing the sacrifices she made for him and his sister, Yoojin Yoo, now a senior pharmacist at MSK Bergen.
After a year in Fairlawn, Rev. Yoon’s family moved to Palisades Park, New Jersey, where he graduated from high school. He enrolled in the New Jersey Institute of Technology, an engineering school where he majored in mathematical sciences, and graduated in 2005. He then decided to pursue a graduate degree in mathematics at New York University.
He admits that he was not happy at the time. “I was good at math, but I didn’t want to be a professor or work in the financial industry,” he remembers. “I was actually quite lost after I graduated from college.”
At the age of 25, he decided to do something more meaningful with his life. He became involved with a church and began to consider the ministry. He left NYU in 2007 and enrolled in Princeton Theological Seminary where he earned a Master of Divinity in 2010 and a Master of Arts in Education and Formation in 2011. He was later ordained as an Episcopal priest in 2016.
Rev. Yoon says the most enjoyable part of his seminary experience was completing his clinical pastoral education requirement. “I learned how to provide spiritual care to patients in a way that best serves them. It was a decisive career point for me and that’s when I decided to apply for the residency program at NewYork-Presbyterian,” he says.Back to top
Coping with Cancer
During his residency, Rev. Yoon learned how to be both a chaplain and a patient. In December 2012, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer at the age of 31. He had two surgeries and three cycles of chemotherapy at NYP over the course of about five months.
He says that the compassion he felt from everyone around him helped him cope and had a bigger impact than the cancer itself. “The whole cancer experience was horrific, but at the same time, I was really humbled by the enormous love and support I received from my managers, pastoral care instructors, colleagues, and all the chaplains at NYP,” he says.
Rev. Yoon’s girlfriend, whom he had been dating since 2007, also supported him throughout his illness. They married in 2014 and now have two sons.
“My hope for my children is that they become wonderful human beings. I want them to be happy and be good to other people. That’s the key. Not hurting others,” says Rev. Yoon.Back to top
Acquiring ‘COVID Muscles’
The pandemic left many people without an important spiritual coping mechanism. Places of worship have since been allowed to offer in-person gatherings again, but Rev. Yoon says that things are not yet back to normal.
“The pandemic was really traumatic and chaplains and social workers will have to provide a lot more emotional and spiritual care to address the side effects of this,” says Rev. Yoon.
Rev. Yoon himself was not immune to anxiety about the virus. Before coming to MSK, he was a chaplain at NYP and was deployed to serve at NYP-Queens, where he and other chaplains were often asked to minister to COVID-19 patients who were at the end of life. He was afraid of becoming infected and bringing it back to his family.
“I had to be gentle with myself because I was never exposed to this situation,” he says. “No one was.”
Rev. Yoon has since adapted to the challenges of the pandemic and has been fully vaccinated. “I developed COVID muscles! At this point I am no longer afraid,” he says.Back to top
Addressing Unhealed Wounds
Asian American and Pacific Islander Month means more to Rev. Yoon now than ever before, coming as it does in the midst of a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes. “It’s a huge issue, but violence directed against any group is unacceptable. It’s toxic and ethically wrong,” he says.
“There are a lot of unhealed wounds that we carry, and people who are angry or in pain will hurt others in the same way,” he explains, adding that part of the solution to reduce racial tension and violence between communities is to show compassion to yourself and others.
Every day, Rev. Yoon meditates on The Eight Verses for Training the Mind by Langri Tangpa. He takes to heart the words of this prayer, which says in part:
“…In all my deeds may I probe into my mind,
And as soon as mental and emotional afflictions arise —
As they endanger myself and others —
May I strongly confront them and avert them…”Back to top