“The transition from first generation to the second generation will take place slowly and gradually and . . . it will take more time than we can expect,” the North Georgia Presbytery wrote. “It is the privilege and responsibility of the PCA regional presbyteries to help alleviate the unnecessary tensions and frustrations of Christian brothers within the same fold and to extend warm hearts toward them.”
When Joel Kim’s father told his five children that they would be moving from South Korea to the United States, Kim thought hard. Then he had a question.
“Do they have milk in America?” the 9-year-old asked.
Assured by his father that they had both his favorite foods—milk and bananas— Kim had no further objections. In 1982, his family left Incheon—the city where he was born (and where General Douglas MacArthur’s daring landing launched the push to retake Seoul from the communists during the Korean War).
This May, Kim became the first Korean-American president of Westminster Seminary California (WSC). Five weeks later, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) General Assembly (GA) elected ruling elder Alexander Jun as its first Korean-American moderator.
At the same time, the nine Korean-language presbyteries of the PCA held their annual assembly at the GA, resulting in a record number of Korean-language representatives to the larger meeting.
All seem to be steps the PCA and its Korean-language presbyteries—which contain 10 percent of the PCA’s congregations—are taking toward each other. After 35 years apart, will the Korean-language churches follow the path of the Dutch Reformed and assimilate into the predominately white denomination?
“That’s the $64,000 question,” said Julius Kim, second-generation Korean American and dean of students and professor of practical theology at WSC. “How do we go forward?”
South Korea came to Christianity late but eagerly; the share of Christians shot up from 1 percent in 1900 to almost 30 percent in 2010, according to Pew Research Center. Thanks to the early influence of Scottish Presbyterian missionaries in the late 1800s, Presbyterians make up more than 9 million of the country’s 15 million Protestants.
A dozen years after the Korean War ended, Congress lifted restrictions against Asian immigration, and South Koreans flooded across the Pacific to the United States. The number of Korean immigrants skyrocketed from 39,000 in 1970 to 290,000 in 1980, then to 568,000 in 1990 and 1.1 million in 2010.
“South Korea was a mess after the war,” said Alexander Jun, a diversity and social justice professor at Azusa Pacific University and the GA moderator this year. “It was economically devastated, so people came to the United States. They brought their faith with them.”
Julius Kim’s father came early, in 1959, to study at the University of Southern California. Kim was born in Los Angeles, then moved back to South Korea with his family in 1970 when his father took over an engineering firm there.
His parents sent him to an English-speaking school for the children of soldiers and expats. He remembers being in kindergarten, staring in bewilderment at “a room full of kids with yellow hair, wondering how they got that.”
When Kim was 12, his family moved back to the United States.
Then, like most other Korean immigrants, they joined a Korean church.
“I don’t remember a Sunday when we didn’t have 30 to 40 adults and kids in our home,” Kim said. “We’d all eat dinner together, and then the adults would do their Bible study and the kids would play games or watch TV. . . . Monday through Friday I’d go to school with white kids, and on the weekends I’d go to this immigrant church and hang out with Korean kids who were trying to make sense of this bilingual life.”
Perhaps drawn by both the faith and the community, a disproportionate number of immigrants were or became Christian—a 2012 Pew study found that among Korean Americans, 71 percent identify as Christian, most of them (61 percent) Protestant. Among the Protestants, 43 percent are Presbyterian.
In Korea, Julius Kim attended a Baptist church, while Joel Kim’s father and grandfather were both Presbyterian ministers.
But the Presbyterian denominations in Korea didn’t have American branches, so immigrants like the Kims looked around for the closest equivalent. The Korean Presbyterian Church in America—now the Korean Presbyterian Church Abroad—formed in 1976. Two years later, the more conservative Korean American Presbyterian Church (KAPC) was formed.
Other immigrants, like Joel Kim’s father, chose the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) or other Reformed denominations with familiar Calvinistic theology.
Meanwhile, the PCA was separating from the Presbyterian Church in the United States—now part of the PC(USA). The new denomination organized itself in 1973 and grew quickly. By 2016, the 260 founding congregations had climbed to 1,545.
The conservative PCA caught the eye of many theologically and socially conservative South Korean immigrants. (Although neither of the Kims, at least at first.)
“They were also looking for a way to be connected to American Presbyterianism,” Joel Kim said. “Often times people think [Korean-language presbyteries] are a way for Korean Americans to remain separate, but I don’t think that was the intention. Although they could have joined Korean-speaking denominations, many chose the PCA. It’s about connecting while seeking ways to overcome practical issues of language and culture.”
By 1982, there were seven Korean-language churches in the PCA, scattered from Georgia to Pennsylvania to California.
They needed “the stability of a denomination such as the PCA, but language problems make it very difficult for them to participate in the courts of the church,” the 1982 GA minutes record. “Probably more important, however, are cultural differences which make many of the discussions in the church courts irrelevant to them. On the other hand, these same differences rule out discussions that would be very meaningful to them.”
So the GA set up a separate, Korean-language presbytery, and said they’d reconsider it after 10 years. “As second and third generation Koreans come to positions of leadership in the Korean churches, this structure, with its built-in reconsideration plan, can be phased out if that seems needful,” the minutes say.
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