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Reflections of a Korean-American Presbyterian

Julius J. Kim, Resident Faculty  |   July 26, 2010   |  Type: Articles
 
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I remember it like yesterday. He came up to me and asked, "Where are you from?" Since at that moment I happened to be in Irvine, California, I immediately responded, "I live in Corona del Mar." "No, no," he said, "where are you from?" Somewhat confused but still attempting to be respectful, I answered, "I'm from here-Southern California." Clearly that was not what this inquirer had in mind. With even more intensity, he tried one last time: "Where are you FROM?"

"A stalk of wheat hangs its head lower as it ripens"

As a second-generation Korean American raised in a Christian home, I was taught from an early age about the importance of demonstrating respect and humility not only to my parents, but also to anyone within the Korean-American community that had the age or position that necessitated it. The Korean proverb about becoming more humble as one matured was an apt illustration of how I was expected to act-not only because of cultural expectations, but also because of Christian ones. Interestingly, this cultural expectation of appropriate social interaction began to manifest itself in the way I related to members of other cultures, especially those within the dominant culture of my upbringing (read: white America), regardless of age or position. This meant that I would have to be respectful even to impolite people who apparently did not know how to ask me directly about my racial ethnicity.

Growing up in Southern California in the 1970s, I found myself painfully aware that I looked different from the majority of the people in my school and neighborhood. I not only looked different, but it was also clear that I thought differently from my Caucasian friends. This created a variety of internal and external challenges as I navigated a journey of what it meant to be a marginalized bicultural person in the predominantly Caucasian world around me. I wish I could say it got easier as I traveled from primary school to graduate school, but it didn't.

Now, as I find myself teaching at a seminary and ministering in a denomination that are both largely Caucasian in their leadership and makeup, I am forced to understand the dynamics of and provide answers to the challenges that Korean Americans like myself face when joining and serving in overwhelmingly Anglo institutions. This process becomes that much more critical as I continue to advise Korean-American students who are also on a journey of their own, not only having to navigate the ins and outs of seminary curricula, but also having to travel through a maze of uncertainty that is part and parcel of their bicultural identity formation. So what social, cultural, and ecclesial challenges do Korean-American pastors face? This is the central question that this article will attempt to answer.

It must be stated up front that much of what I write is colored by my own background, history, and experiences-especially in the denomination where I am currently an ordained minister, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). What follows then are some of my reflections as a second-generation Korean-American Presbyterian minister journeying on the margins between two cultures. Our journey begins with a brief look back at the history of Korean immigration and the development of the Korean-American church. We will then see some of the challenges Korean-American pastors face. We will finally conclude by looking ahead at what the future might hold for Korean-American pastoral leaders.

Looking Back: The History of the Korean-American Church

The spectacular growth of Christianity in Korea over the last century has been one of the most surprising realities of Protestant mission history. Ever since the first Christian missionaries began arriving on the Korean peninsula during the late nineteenth century, many were amazed by the success of their modest labors. Horace G. Underwood, the first Presbyterian missionary to Korea, also found remarkable success in his efforts when he arrived in 1885. Many church leaders in the U.S. were astonished by the numerous conversions during these early years, in contrast to the challenges missionaries in Japan faced during this same period.

One reason for the success of these early evangelistic efforts was the adoption of the Nevius Plan of missions. Named after John Nevius (1829-1893), a missionary in China, this model emphasized the self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-governing goals of the newly evangelized church. While not immediately popular in China, this plan-which stressed the self-determination of the local church and her leaders to grow their own church-was quickly espoused by both missionaries and new converts in Korea. This spirit would profoundly impact later Korean immigrants to the U.S. as they attempted to plant their own churches independent of "outside" help.

By the late 1890s, many churches in the U.S. and Canada-including the Southern Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (from which the PCA was formed)-were sending missionaries to Korea. These early missionaries began to establish schools and hospitals in addition to their church planting work. By 1910, for example, missionaries had established about 800 schools of various grades, accommodating over 41,000 students.1 This represented about twice the total enrollment in all Korean government schools combined. The success of these and other educational and medical initiatives greatly contributed to the progress of these early mission efforts. Today, close to one third of Korea's 45 million people consider themselves Christian-11 million Protestant and 3 million Catholic. Presbyterians represent the largest percentage of Protestants at 3 million members.

In 1903, the first Koreans to come to the U.S. were agricultural laborers in Hawaii.2 Though the majority of Koreans immigrated to the States after the introduction of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the Korean-American church has played a vital role in shaping the lives of Korean Americans from its humble beginnings.

In a study done in 1990, up to 75% of Korean Americans regularly attend Korean immigrant churches here in the U.S. Thus, more immigrant Koreans in the U.S. attend churches than Koreans who remain in Korea. By 2001, the Korean Church Directory of America revealed that there were approximately 3,400 Korean Protestant churches in the U.S., or one church per 300 Korean immigrants. About half of these churches are Presbyterian. As for my denomination, in 2004 the PCA had approximately 200 Asian churches out of a total of 1,300. The approximate number of members was 34,000 out of a total of 330,000-about 11%. At that time, it was estimated that there were 450 ministers of Asian descent. The overwhelming majority of these Asian churches, members, and ministers are Korean. Furthermore, out of about 70 geographic pres-byteries spread across North America, seven of them are Korean-language specific.

The majority of Korean-American churches was established in the mid-1970s with pastors who, after having received their theo-logical training in Korea, immigrated to the U.S. to lead immigrant Korean churches. As a result, many Korean-American churches (including those in the PCA) are filled with immigrant Korean adults who worship in the Korean language and are led by pastors who primarily speak Korean. Their children, however, are found in other parts of the church building worshipping separately in English. This has created one of the primary challenges for the Korean-American church and her leaders.

Our Burdens: The Challenges of Korean-American Pastors

From kindergarten to high school, second-generation Korean-American young people in church are encouraged to quickly learn the English language so they can excel in their studies and work. Separated from their parents during most of these formative years in church, the children of immigrant parents end up developing unrealistic concepts of church and family life. While they do find some semblance of community life by joining campus ministries in their college years, many of these young Korean Americans find themselves, however, wrestling with complex issues of ethnic and spiritual identity formation without helpful models and guides. As a result, many second-generation Korean-American young men and women do not join their parents back in the pews after they graduate.

By the mid-1990s, a number of studies revealed that a large amount (70-80%) of second-generation Korean-American young adults had left or were leaving their parents' churches. Some sociologists have even given this startling statistic a name: "the silent exodus." While there are many factors contributing to this departure, several within the context of pastoral leadership are worth mentioning: emphasis of ministry resources in the Korean church primarily for the first generation; resistance by first-generation leaders to share leadership; interpersonal conflicts between first- and second-generation leaders; lack of empowerment for second-generation pastors; lack of training and mentoring for inexperienced second-generation pastors; and scarcity of bilingual Korean-American pastors.

These cultural concerns between first- and second-generation pastoral leaders in the Korean-American church highlight yet another challenge. Recent studies by both sociologists and theologians have demonstrated the bicultural complexities and struggles found within inter-generational relationships in the Korean-American church context. In particular, young second-generation Korean Americans often find themselves with the unenviable task of forming their identity and finding their social location within a crucible of complex and hostile settings. On the one hand, many young Korean Americans have heard voices in their society that label them as foreign and inferior. On the other, they also hear their immigrant parents' aspirations for their success in school and career.

As a result of these pressures, many young Korean Americans assume multiple identities in their attempt to navigate between two cultures. Depending upon the circumstances, they will present themselves as "Americans" in some settings while identifying themselves as Korean Americans in others. One scholar writes, "Identity negotiation is part of everyday life for many second-generation Korean Americans. It is a strategy often employed by these individuals to feel accepted by others and to avoid marginalization."3 Often, however, assuming these multiple identities leads many young Korean Americans to feel inauthentic, isolated, and discouraged.

In addition to these identity formation struggles, many young Korean-American pastors find it challenging to locate and receive a call to a church ministry. While this is undoubtedly a challenge that many young men face once they graduate from seminary, second-generation Korean Americans face unique challenges. On the one hand, while returning to the immigrant Korean church to serve has many advantages, it also poses some problems-least of which is the intergenerational conflicts. On the other hand, though many positions are available in predominantly white congregations throughout the U.S., many of these churches do not consider calling a Korean American to their church. I speak from personal experience.

During my last year in seminary, I contacted some representatives from a denomination that was recruiting potential pastors. After spending a few minutes asking about my testimony and seminary experience, the representative proceeded to ask me what I would like to do after graduating. I told him quite simply that I wanted to be a minister of Word and sacrament in order to proclaim the gospel faithfully to God's people in the church and in the world. After a few awkward moments of silence, he thoughtfully said, "Hmm, I don't think there's a multicultural church in my denomination looking for a pastor right now." Did I hear that right? I tried again with some uncertainty in my voice, "I'm not looking for a position in a multicultural context; I just want to be a pastor." Unfortunately, he hadn't heard me in the midst of what appeared to be a genuine state of reflection as he attempted to locate a church that fit me. After a few more awkward moments of silence, he came out of his meditative state and exclaimed with a palpable display of excitement, "Oh yes, there is a church on the East Coast that is half African American!" He paused. Oh no, I thought, here it comes. "The problem is," he stated, "they're not looking for anyone right now."

These descriptions represent some of the main challenges facing the Korean-American church today. Resources and models for ministry found in our Anglo-dominated denominations have not adequately addressed these complex sociological and pastoral issues that plague a portion of her church. While some concerned leaders and denominations have sought to develop new ministry paradigms for this emerging generation, many of these attempts have inevitably been nothing more than offering models of ministry that have been deemed pragmatic and helpful due to their successful use by white, mainstream evangelical institutions.

One reason for this lack of resources and support may be due to the residual effects of living in a racially charged society like America. During the past two centuries, Asian Americans have encountered various forms of racism that have not only shaped their own identities, but also their understanding of how and where they fit in this society. Asians were viewed with racial intolerance on the one hand or with patronizing assimilation on the other. Categorized as "yellow peril" or as "model minority," Asians were thus perceived either as treacherous villains who were not desired or as submissive immigrants who must assimilate and adopt the superior culture. As one Asian American scholar writes, "Whatever it is that makes Asians different from what is considered American is construed as something that is permanent or something to be erased."4 Latent perceptions born from two centuries of misperception may have inexorably influenced white Americans-even those wh o lead and guide our churches and denominations.

Not too long ago I was invited to preach at a church populated predominantly by Caucasians. Having now lived and worked in primarily racially white contexts for over 20 years, I felt quite at ease preaching in this setting. What surprised me, however, was a comment after the service was over. One parishioner approached me as I stood by the coffee pot and, after the initial pleasantries were exchanged, suddenly looked at me and exclaimed, "My, your English is quite good!" Stunned, I took a sip of my coffee, wondering whether or not I should cry out, "It should be since I was born here and have lived here for over 30 years!" But I quietly said, "Thank you." What else could I say? I knew deep down that the comment did not precipitate from any malicious intent. At times like this, I must breathe grace.

Looking Ahead: The Future of the Korean-American Church

In his book, The Peacemaker, Ken Sande issues the call to breathe grace upon people with whom you are in conflict. He writes that as beneficiaries of the grace of God, breathed out to us in Christ, we are called upon to breathe out words and deeds of grace. As I reflect upon the future of the Korean-American church and her pastors, this is where we must fundamentally begin-with the gospel of grace. It is the gospel that can transform our characters and our cultures.

So how can we support Korean-American churches and pastors as they journey through difficult territories of self-identity and ministry formation in predominantly white institutions? First and foremost, we must once again let the gospel speak to us. Korean Americans who struggle in their bicultural existence must allow the gospel of grace to provide both the source and meaning to their lives on the margins. Ultimately, we must learn that before we are Korean, before we are American, we are Christ's. We must discover anew our privileged place with Jesus within the glorious journey of God's great plan of redemption. For in that story we discover a living God who did not spare his own perfect Son from the shame and pain of exclusion. This Jesus, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God (Heb. 12:2). Why? So that we would never be excluded but always be embraced. As we look by faith to Jesus Christ, the Marginal One who experienced the ultimate exclusion from his Father due to our sins, we will find the resurrection power to walk this pilgrim life with renewed faith, hope, and love. Because we who rest and rely upon that Savior are united to him in his eschatological journey of hope.

This gospel cannot only transform our characters, but also our cultures. As we are formed more into the image of Christ and as we understand that the church is a grace-based community, we can come before one another with a spirit of deep humility and trust. As a grace-based community bound together by our common union with Christ, we are characterized by "neither the Western practice of individualism that negates communal values nor the Asian practice of collectivism or of age-based hierarchicalism which stifles individuality."5 Within that atmosphere of grace-renewed trust and hope, we can then develop the necessary resources to foster growth and maturity in the Korean-American church, particularly in critical areas such as mentoring, placement, leadership development, and empowerment for promising second-generation leaders.

"The water has to reach the shore for the boat to come"

This task will not always be easy nor will it be fun-but it will be glorious. Empowered with the power and hope of the gospel, we can work together for the good of God's kingdom purposes. We need each other. Humble and repentant, we all can courageously take the steps to move beyond ignorance and arrogance, and develop the attitudes and resources for growth and maturity for our church. After all, as the Korean proverb states, a boat will certainly not get to its destination unless there is water.

First published in Modern Reformation, Vol. 17, Issue 1.

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