Searching for Belonging: Ministry of the Korean Church Network
How can congregations nurture a sense of belonging when generational gaps are wide and cultural narratives are misunderstood? For the approximately 100 members of the five Korean Churches and worshipping communities throughout the Presbytery of Philadelphia, they have collectively facilitated conversations that empower youth and adults to share stories, ask honest questions, and navigate what inclusion means in both their congregations and respective neighborhoods. A network whose membership includes first, one-point-five, and second generation Korean Americans, these interactions have been pivotal for community formation. “[Talking about] identity is very important,” remarked Rev. Byungil Kim. “We have different thinking, different generations, different languages, but we are the body of Christ.”
Aware of the uniqueness of their generational complexities, the network of churches and larger Presbytery even recently ordained and validated the pastoral ministry of Rev. Jeannie Lee to work as the Education and Evangelism Coordinator and convene these intergenerational dialogues. The first woman to serve in an ordained ministry alongside our Korean congregations, Rev. Lee’s gatherings have been sacred opportunities for parents, grandparents, and their children to share about personal experiences of immigrating as adults, assimilating as youth, and navigating what it means to be Korean, American, and distinctly Christian. In the end, all are included and find commonality as disciples of Jesus Christ. “Everyone of us is seeking that sense of belonging-ness and going beyond just our culture and language and all that,” remarked Rev. Lee. “And that creates a common ground for all of us to have important dialogues and difficult dialogues because we all understand that we are all children of God.”
As participants have willingly engaged these courageous conversations, many have done so for the first time and with a significant level of vulnerability. Korean Church members have humbly entered into uncharted waters, recognizing that for the gospel truly to speak into their time and place and among every generation, all must be given space to dream, to share, and to be heard as members of the body of Christ and participants in the in-breaking of God’s kingdom come. “How do we try to understand where [each of us] are coming from,” added Rev. Lee. “It is a paradigm shift for first generation parents, to show them that it is ok that they don’t have it all put together. In the Korean tradition, as parents, they feel like they have to have all the answers; they need to have everything neatly packaged. They are realizing, no, it is messy and it is complex. And for them to even have an avenue to talk about it and to voice it, that in itself matters tremendously.”
While there is indeed a high value on their unique Korean heritage, as many find the church as a safe haven from a world where they are constantly othered and isolated from the dominant culture, many are beginning to expand their perspective on what it means to be Presbyterian and a part of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. Even more, they long to be known not primarily through the clarifier of “Korean,” but as thriving, vibrant, and active. “In the past we were busy guarding our walls, thinking they were protecting us. I think the Korean Churches are thinking, no, God has called us to be a part of the greater body,” commented Rev. Lee. “It is a new frontier for us, to be honest, because in the past we didn’t understand how we could engage. There was a fear of the unknown and feeling so wholly different that it was almost unnerving to try to engage with the [larger] body when we felt so different. But I think we are starting to recognize that, no, there is a need for engaging in the greater body of Christ through the Presbytery- to also show that we belong.”
This spirit of inclusion and connection has also dared these vital congregations to reach into their neighborhood with the good news of God’s love in Christ. “[We need] to change our mind and change our perspective, not in our church but to see the outside,” suggested Rev. Byungil Kim. “We need to go out to the street with Jesus Christ and share our story with [our neighbors].” In many ways, this pastoral word demonstrates the revitalized and holistic approach to ministry of which the Korean Churches have embraced. They have expanded their vocation across generational, denominational, and community lines in efforts to assure their witness is not isolated but generous and intersectional, reaching beyond what they know and into the mysteries presented by God’s gracious Spirit. As churches throughout our Presbytery continue to explore their sense of call to cross-generational ministry, may the work and witness of faithful Korean congregations in our midst nudge us to renewed risk and courage. May our love for God and neighbor proclaim that all belong and are valued members within the Body of Christ.