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The Gift of Letting Go

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My father was a Korean American United Methodist pastor who loved his church. He is from a family of Methodist pastors, including his father, brothers, uncles and many cousins. His grandmother was an early convert and church leader during the early years of the mission in Korea started by Kate Cooper of the Methodist Episcopal Church at the turn of the twentieth century. With such a rich heritage, no one would have faulted him for wanting his first-born son to join the "family business." However, no matter what he may have felt, he never pressured or even once suggested I become a pastor as well. No matter how tempted he might have been to try and make me into his image, I assume he respected greatly God's working out his image in me and so was willing to let me go -- to go in the way God was shaping me, to go where my passions and gifts led me, to go and simply be me.

I ended up becoming a United Methodist pastor anyway, but not because I thought it might please my father (although it did), but so that I might please my heavenly father who called me by grace to this wonderful work. I didn't know it then, but I realize today how precious a gift my earthly father had given me; and I hope to do the same for my own children -- to let them go and follow God wherever they might be led.

Now what does this have to with the church and the task of sharing Jesus from generation to generation? First, let me explain how generations are understood in Korean American churches.

In Korean churches people are not identified with generations according to when they were born, but by where they were born. If you are a Korean-born adult who immigrated to the United States, you are considered first generation. The children born in the United States to these first-generation Koreans are known as second-generation Koreans, and so forth.

What about the children born in Korea but raised in the United States? Depending on their age when they entered the U.S. and how well they retained the Korean language and culture, they can fall anywhere in between the first and seconds generation. The 1.5 generation is made up of those people born in Korea who came to the United States later in their childhood. Because they came later to the U.S., chances are they have a strong grasp of their native language and culture, but are able to learn English and assimilate. They fit right in the middle. They can worship in English or Korean, but they often prefer Korean because it is their mother tongue, and they feel a strong bond with the culture.

But what about those who, as I did, came to the United States at age five? I received my education in this country. I grew up with McDonalds, Mickey Mouse, and bell-bottoms. Although I still feel a strong bond to my Korean culture, English is really my mother tongue; my Korean is now rather poor. I appreciate my heritage, but I consider myself more a product of this country than Korea. I definitely am not 1.5. For lack of a better term, I identify myself as being a part of the 1.75 generation.

The reality is that it is difficult for these generations to do church together. The first generation worships in the Korean language, and the way they relate to one another is informed by their faith and the mannerisms of the Korean culture. However, they have children who are not able to worship in Korean; and their children's mannerisms are ruled more by Western culture.

Although physically they may seem like the same people, at times it seems as if strangers are sharing a house. The youth and young adults are critical of the Korean way -- "the old way" -- of doing things; and they are not being spiritually fed in a worship service where Korean alone is being used.

The first generation, on the other hand, has a difficult time understanding and working with their offspring. What can be done when there is such a language gap on top of the generational and cultural barriers? The unfortunate outcome has been what is known as the "Silent Exodus" of English-speaking Korean Americans from the churches of their youth. What is so disturbing about this exodus is that younger generations are not just leaving Korean churches, but the church in general.

What can the first generation do, not only to keep the second generation (and younger) in the church, but also help them be faithful followers of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?

There are several different models of how first and second generations are attempting to relate to one another as brothers and sisters in the Lord. Emmaus United Methodist Church in Richmond, Virginia, offers one model of what is happening in many Korean churches across the nation.

Emmaus is a Korean ministry (KM) with a seventeen-year history of excellent ministry to the Korean immigrant population in the Greater Richmond area. On an average Sunday, the Korean ministry will number about 300 first-generation members and about 100 children and youth, most of whom are second-generation. The church has held an English-language service for about ten years, primarily geared toward the youth and the college-age volunteers in the youth ministry. It was the dream of the Korean ministry to build up this English language service to become an English Ministry (EM) that would be able to take this small congregation and develop it to be a church.

The Korean ministry dreamed of a new faith community startup that would mature to be a chartered United Methodist congregation to stand alongside them as partners and minister together in the community. Where before the English language service was a subset of the Korean ministry to the second generation, the English ministry would be an equal partner in ministry with different talents and gifts. This would vastly improve the Korean ministry's ability to have an impact on the community. The English ministry would benefit from the support of the Korean ministry in the earlier years as it develops a core, vision, and structure. Because they are together in one church building, the English ministry can learn from the Korean ministry the power of prayer that Korean churches are known for and the sacrificial spirit in service. And of course, financial strenghth in the planting years is essential. Because the English ministry members are few in number and in most cases are younger, they do not have the ability to support a full-time pastor and programs. The Korean ministry, as an anchor church, commits to support the English ministry as it grows and weans itself off the financial support of the Korean ministry.

The Korean ministry benefits in many ways as well. By committing to support an English ministry and sharing, the Korean ministry actually strengthens its own ministry. By planting a new congregation, the Korean ministry is able to share some of the burdens of caring for the facility. A growing English ministry will participate in the maintenance of the facility and share the financial and volunteer needs. Further the English speaking members of the English ministry are often able to communicate with and mentor the American born and English-speaking youth and children of the Korean ministry. The education arm of the Korean ministry is often staffed by volunteers from the English ministry, without whom raising spiritually fed youth and children would be very difficult. The Korean ministry and English ministry are able to engage in mission together. The Korean ministry members have English-speaking friends, co-workers, patrons, and even family members they would like to invite to church. Having a strong and vibrant English ministry gives them a place to bring the English-speaking guests, and it supports their work of evangelism. It is not uncommon for Korean-speaking first-generation parents to worship in the Korean ministry while their English-speaking second-generation children worship in the English ministry. Although they attend different services, being together in one church building gives them a sense of cohesion and unity important to family bonding.

The above vision is ideal, but difficult to make a reality. In my experiences of working within Korean ministry and English ministry circles, the greatest challenge is the temptation by the Korean ministry to mold the English ministry into its image. Rather than looking at the English ministry as a church plant, the Korean ministry is often tempted to keep the English ministry under its sphere of influence and maintain a level of control that disables the English ministry from fully maturing and owning its ministry.

At times it is difficult for the Korean ministry to fully embrace the notion that, although they look just like them, the second generation feels and thinks in different ways from first-generation Korean Americans. Many English ministry members feel second class or outright disrespected when they come to their church because they do not speak the dominant Korean language or fully understand the cultural nuances of the first generation. If this issue of cultural differences were not big enough, there are further issues of sharing limited space and resources. For these reasons, many English ministry congregations have elected to move out and start their own churches away from the influence and intrusion of the Korean ministry. Although I understand why some English ministry churches would choose this route, I still believe the benefits of the Korean ministry and English ministry congregations staying together are worth pursuing and building upon.

The Korean ministry can give the gift my father gave me during those years when I was searching for identity, purpose, and direction. The Korean ministry can choose to let the English ministry be who God created them to be. The Korean ministry can offer the gifts of fervent prayers and financial support without expecting the English ministry to fulfill the Korean ministry's expectations of how church should be done. The Korean ministry can give great encouragement by affirming that God is just as active in second-generation Koreans as God is in first-generation Koreans.

The English ministry may not do morning prayer each day of the week as the Korean ministry does. The English miistry might not meet as often in the church buildings as does the Korean ministry. It may not even look all Korean because many English ministry communities are becoming multicultural communities where people of all different ethnicities are welcomed and nurtured.

The Korean ministry can give the gift of letting go and allow the English ministry to be faithful to how God is moving in and through them to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

The Korean ministry can adopt the role of benefactor. For the sake of faithful and authentic discipleship in the second generation, the first generation can give up their control to God and allow God to lead the congregations into a partnership that will give life to each other. This may mean that at some point, due to size or mission, the congregations will have to separate. God will lead, and by the Holy Spirit will give us the discernment to do ministry in a way that will bless one another and give witness to the Kingdom of God in motion.

I am glad to see many Korean churches actively working to partner with English mninistry congregations. I find myself fortunate to be in one of those churches where I feel we are moving toward this expression of God's kingdom among us. The Korean ministry of Emmaus is a generous congregation that sincerely prays for the growth and health of the English ministry as a new faith community. Although I was officially appointed to the church as an associate pastor for the English ministry, I am treated more as a planting pastor and given the freedom to dare and dream what God may have in store for us. The first generation members have helped me and helped the members of the English ministry take greater ownership of our future as we place our faith in what we believe to be a God-given vision of how we can serve our community. This Korean ministry is giving the gift of letting go, and it is helping us become more authentic and faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Jonathan Park is the Pastor of Emmaus United Methodist Church in Richmond, Virginia.