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Ten Unique Korean Virtues that EMs Aren’t Teaching Our Kids (But Should Be), Part 4

And on we go to the long-awaited second virtue. Up to this point, I've not given much introduction to Eric Foley, and while I have yet to meet him personally, he has been more than generous in being open to have his articles posted here and was very warm in our email exchanges. In my best attempt NOT to appear as a stalker, I would like to introduce the the author of the many articles (and more to come!) that have provoked wonderful thought and discussion with a few links from the public domain. First his profile from Peacemaker Ministries:

Eric FoleyEric Foley is the Director of Communication for Peacemaker Ministries. He has been a pastor for sixteen years, with much of his work devoted to large-scale event development for Christian non-profit organizations. His efforts include Promise Keepers' 1997 Million Man Gathering in Washington, D.C.; The Los Angeles Mission's 1998 Great Day of Thanksgiving (which drew nearly 10,000 LA residents and homeless individuals to Skid Row, where they worked shoulder to shoulder to prepare, serve, and eat Thanksgiving dinner around a common table set with linen, fine China, and real turkey); and the LA Dream Center's 1999 "Adopt-A-Block 500", the largest one day Christian volunteer outreach event in LA history, which yielded 6,000 new converts to Christ as 4,000 volunteers from churches across America delivered Christmas packages door to door to 45,000 inner city L.A. homes on 500 blocks on one day.

And specifically some press about his work with Korean churches here, here, and here. Then, with no further ado…Virtue 2.



Virtue 2: Commitment to being a diaspora people

As an American pastor, I am always shocked and grieved to see how little appreciation second-generation Korean pastors and Christians often have for their own spiritual and cultural heritage. They seem to see it as limiting and confining—something quaint for them to leave behind in order to embrace forms of American Christianity that they see as more exciting and effective.

I believe they are sadly mistaken. I believe they are too familiar with Korean Christianity to see how powerful and life-changing it can be—especially for second generation Korean Christians.

This column is passionately devoted to the belief that traditional Korean Christianity is a treasure—one that second-generation Koreans and pastors should explore more and not less deeply. This column is devoted to the idea that the spiritual descendents of first generation Korean churches should not be multicultural churches but second generation Korean churches that enable Korean Americans and the wider American society to reach more fully and deeply in Korea’s rich and unique Korean history.

In an effort to help Korean churches build EM’s that are both effective and Korean, I have identified ten virtues that are either unique or especially prominent in Korean culture that are either absent or especially weak in American culture. My exhortation to you is that unless Korean EM’s intentionally teach these virtues to second generation Koreans, Korean Americans will assimilate so completely into American culture that Korean culture as we understand it will largely disappear in the same way that traditional Japanese culture is largely unknown to most Japanese Americans today.

This month we focus on Virtue 2: Commitment to being a diaspora people.
What it means to be a disapora people is easy to understand: it means that we know that where we live now is not our true or real or ultimate home. In the words of American Christian authors Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, it means that we are “resident aliens”—people who always hold their true home in their hearts and live in ways and according to traditions that come from our real homes, not our current ones.

For first generation immigrants to the United States from Korea, this commitment comes naturally. 1.0’s may learn to speak English quite well, but Korean always remains their heart language. 1.0’s may settle down for the rest of their lives in the United States and even become citizens, but they continue to think of themselves as Koreans first and Americans second—even after they’ve been in the US for decades. Given a choice between going to Blockbuster and renting American videos or going to the Korean video store and renting videocassettes of what’s popular on TV in Korea, most 1.0’s will obviously choose the Korean video store.

As a result of this, Korean churches in the United States serve a purpose that American churches don’t: they serve as Korean “community centers” where many Koreans experience the majority of their social activities, celebrate their holidays, meet with their friends for meals, and learn about what’s happening in the Korean community (especially outside of major Korean population centers like LA’s Koreatown). As we know, many Koreans who aren’t even Christian start going to church when they come to the United States. That’s because to not be a part of a Korean church makes it very hard to be a successful businessman or leader in the Korean community.

For American Christians, their churches may be very important to them. They may spend a lot of time at church activities. They may do business with other church members. They may even draw their network of friends mostly from their church small groups. But rarely is the church so different from the surrounding culture that the Americans who attend it think of it as their cultural lifeblood and their main means of identity the way Korean Christians think about their own churches.

This isn’t because Christianity is less important to American Christians than to Korean Christians. It’s because Americans are far more individualistic than Koreans. American Christians are church consumers: They will frequently switch churches until they find one where they feel spiritually “fed” and where their needs are met. American churches rarely eat together or join together for morning prayer. They offer the services their members want to consume—and most of those services are oriented towards individuals and families rather than building a group identity or sense of family in the church as a whole.

The other reason why American churches don’t serve the same community center purpose as Korean churches is for the practical reason that for Americans in America, there are many institutions other than churches that sustain American life and a sense of community. Organizations like the PTA, Boy Scouts, Kiwanis Club, Little League, the Chamber of Commerce, the neighborhood association, military groups, addiction support groups, hobby clubs, and literally hundreds of others provide Americans with many choices for experiencing community.

American Christians rarely eat at church; instead, they go to restaurants after church—and they go as individual families or small groups, not as whole congregations. If American Christians gather in the morning, they do so once a week with their small group at Starbucks, not every day with the whole congregation for prayer at the church. For first generation Koreans in America, however, the church building and the whole church family have an importance that is far greater than for their American counterparts.

A fair question to ask, however, would be: is it a good thing or a bad thing that first generation Korean Churches usually meet and plan and gather away from the rest of society? Some second generation Koreans criticize first generation churches for being too isolated, and I think that criticism is valid: Korean churches do need to become much more active in outreach to their communities. However, I believe it’s possible for Koreans to do this as they do everything else: as a large group, making a large impact, taking on large projects, and valuing their identity as a group.

From beginning to end, the Bible is a story of diaspora people: First, the Israelites called out to be God’s chosen people, and, second, the church or New Israel composed of Jews and Gentiles made into one people. The Bible is not a collection of stories of individuals who made a powerful impact in their world; instead, it is a collection of stories of the people of God—acting as a people, not as individuals—to transform their world.

And this is the key point of what it means to be a diaspora people (a point that has been almost entirely lost on American churches today): Diaspora people make a public witness to the world by the way they live and interact as a group, not as individuals. As Willimon and Hauerwas note in their book, Resident Aliens, “[The Sermon on the Mount] is not about how to be better individual Christians, it is a picture of the way the church is to look.”

It’s true that, so far, first generation Korean churches have not fully made that witness; while they have a wonderful and powerful life together, they don’t put it on display before the world—and they should. But when second generation Korean Americans adopt American church models, they move too far in the opposite direction: They think and act and orient themselves as individuals, who, at most, make an individual witness to the world.
Several issues ago I quoted the website of one the largest Korean EM’s in the US as it describes why second generation Koreans should come to their church. This is what the website says:

“_____________ is a church designed to help you discover purpose, meaning, and joy in life. At __________ you can meet new people and get to know them in house churches, enjoy contemporary praise music, and hear positive, practical messages which encourage and challenge you each week.”


Note how the focus here is on the individual (“you can discover purpose; you can meet new people; you can enjoy music and messages”—“you you you”) rather than the group (“us us us”). Focus on the individual is the essence of American style Christianity—but it loses the power of the first generation Korean commitment to live as a diaspora people. There are other options—better options, I believe—that can enable our second generation to enjoy a vibrant Christian life while still accepting fully God’s calling for them to be a diaspora people, eating and praying and working and celebrating together daily like their parents, but doing so publicly so the world can see that following Christ makes us members of a whole new family.

About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

4 responses to “Ten Unique Korean Virtues that EMs Aren’t Teaching Our Kids (But Should Be), Part 4

  1. Elizabeth ⋅

    What does EM refer to?

  2. Elizabeth, Sorry for the esoteric language. EM refers to “English Ministry”. Since most immigrant churches are planted with the immigrant group in mind, the first generation church services are typicall held in the mother tongue. The children of the immigrants or those raised here who feel less comfortable in the mother tongue and more comfortable with English either create a need for the formation of an “EM” or the 1st generation will see the need and try to meet it. In Korean churches, the 1st generation or recent immigrants become referred to as “KM” — The Korean Ministry and the 2nd generation, or others comfortable in English become the “EM”. Hope that helps.

    I’ll try and start a “Glossary” Page in the future to make sure terminology like this gets explained. Thanks for asking!

  3. Grace Kim ⋅

    Thank you for this article. I grew up in a Korean church and attended an English-speaking Children and Youth Group within that church. Now that I’m about to leave for college, I fully appreciate how much the church has done for me and my family – spiritually and otherwise. My church has a very active KM and my worry is that the younger generation, students like myself, will leave and move out to other churches without giving back to the community that gave them so much. My church acts as a community center at times – providing social services, administering a Korean school and EM and Youth Group on Sundays. For us second-generation children, the Korean church is a lifeline to our past and heritage.

  4. Thanks Grace for the comment. I do hope that many students like yourself will return and invest back into the community. I believe the Korean church has done a great deal in terms of social services and hope that we can continue to grow in that area while beginning to grow deeper roots in this American culture and community as well. We are not only to be a road back to our past, but a bridge to the future to create sanctuaries of worship for new believers born here and to equip those believers to carry out good works that were prepared in advance according to God’s purposes.

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