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Pastors find strength, balance in their Asian heritage

Pastors find strength, balance in their Asian heritage


Editor’s Note: Across the Florida Conference, numerous churches are blessed with the membership of Asian-American Christians from a variety of countries including Vietnam, Cambodia, South Korea, Japan and China. From language to cuisine to different styles of worship, their presence enriches a diverse family bound together by Christ. Below are a few of their stories.

Giving back to America

When Joseph Kim, pastor of Riverview United Methodist Church in Ormond Beach, looks back on his life, he clearly sees God’s handiwork. “I can say all this is God’s grace, God’s amazing grace,” he said. “I had no clue what I was going to be, but God knew.”

Joseph Kim, who grew up in Seoul, South Korea, immigrated to the Bronx, New York, with his family in 1988. He later attended Stony Brook University in Long Island.

Growing up in Seoul, South Korea, he was not raised in a religious household, though his mother and grandmother attended a Buddhist temple. But he was familiar with Christianity because he had Christian friends who were continually inviting him to camp activities and church services. When an 18-year-old Joseph and his family immigrated to the Bronx, New York, in 1988, he gravitated to those same kinds of children—Korean teenagers with an active Christian faith.

“They would go to the beach to play basketball but you had to go to the prayer meeting first, so I would go because I wanted to make friends,” he said. A few years later, while in college at Stony Brook University in Long Island, he became a believer during a Campus Crusade for Christ event.

“God sent me a lot of Christian friends,” said Joseph, who went on to serve in the U.S. Army and eventually graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary.

Years later, after serving at multiple Korean-speaking churches, he felt called to a new challenge and requested an appointment at an Anglo congregation. “This country has been a blessing to me, and I wanted to be a blessing,” Kim said.

His request was granted, and today he and his wife Grace and their two children—13-year-old Esther and 10-year-old Samuel—are celebrating seven years at Riverview UMC.

“Our congregation is very accepting,” he said of the predominantly white church. “I sing in the choir and there are several times I sing in the Korean language. They love it—not that I am a great singer—but it’s different, and they told me they feel the presence of God even if they don’t understand.”

In a photo captured in the fall of 2016, Pastor Nako Kellum is shown here with her two daughters while visiting Tokyo. She was raised in a Buddhist home in Yokohama, Japan.

“I wanted to be a nun”

As a pastor, Nako Kellum enjoys ministering to all age groups and backgrounds, but she has a special fondness for those believers who have no prior knowledge of Christianity.

“I have been there,” said the associate pastor at Cape Coral First United Methodist Church. You wouldn’t know it by watching her today, but when Nako became a Christian, she was, in her own words, clueless.

“I had no idea what was going on!” she recalled with a laugh. “When I first went to church, I had no clue about the Apostle’s Creed, what the Lord’s Prayer was, no idea!” Her saving grace was a woman who sat next to her, quietly guiding her through every step of the worship service. “She opened up the Bible for me,” Nako said.

Growing up in a Buddhist home in Yokohama, Japan—a country where less than 1 percent of the population practices Christianity—she heard little about Jesus. “I learned about him in history books but that’s pretty much it,” she said. Yet she was intensely curious about his life and drawn to the ideas of church and God.

“I didn’t even know there was a creator God,” she added. “I hoped there was, but I didn’t know.” So Nako sought him out.

“I remember my mom sent me to an English class taught by Catholic nuns when I was in kindergarten,” she recalled. “I really liked the nuns and I wanted to be a nun, and I had no idea what that meant!” When she was in the second grade, she begged to go to church on Christmas Eve night until her mother contacted some family friends who were devout Catholics, and they took her to Mass.

“I feel like that was God kind of working in my heart,” Nako said. But it wasn’t until 14 years later, at the age of 22, while attending a Christian concert with a college friend, that she gave her life to Christ. “It was almost like God grabbing me,” said Nako, who went on to graduate from Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. “It’s not like I didn’t have choice, but God’s love was so strong.”

Today she draws on her own experience to help new Christians feel more comfortable and welcome, especially when their new beliefs run counter to their native cultures and traditions. “That’s something I try to be sensitive to,” said Nako, who has two daughters with her husband Edward, also a UMC pastor.

“Some of the older people, like World War II and Korean War veterans, they actually lived in Japan when they were younger and they want to talk to me about their time,” she added. “It’s kind of fun to see Japan from their perspective too.”

Building bridges

Pastor Erik Sue loves to look out over a church sanctuary and see people of all different colors and backgrounds. “To me, that’s the most beautiful thing,” he said. “That’s my hope for our church. I believe the church should be more like heaven where we’re not separated or segregated by any particular color or race.”

Pastor Erik Sue left his native South Korea when he was 8 years old. But he remembers his time there as "adventurous." The photo displays the Namdaemun Market in Seoul.

An English ministry pastor at Tampa Korean UMC in Wesley Chapel, he works with people from varied backgrounds, and for someone who’s had a foot in two distinctly different cultures since childhood, it’s a good fit. Erik was only 8 years old when he immigrated to the United States with his family from their native South Korea, but he remembers almost every detail.

“It’s very vivid,” he said. “I have lots of adventurous memories.” They arrived in the late 1970s, settling in rural Fredericksburg, Virginia.

“I faced a lot of (racism) growing up in a trailer park,” he recalled. “That was obviously a culture shock.” After becoming a Christian in college, he worked in the Washington, D.C., area in corporate marketing before answering a call to full-time ministry in 2001.

Today, as Erik ministers to young Korean-Americans finding their way in the world, he knows his early hardships were an important part of God’s plan for his life. “I’ve been able to find commonality,” he said. “The fact that I immigrated and understood the struggles of racism and of cultural and language barriers, and when I would speak with young people and they face the same struggles, it’s like, ‘Oh, you too?’…a bridge was built.”

His personal experiences lend him credibility with young Korean-Americans struggling to deal with extremely high parental expectations and the shame culture and shame words so prevalent in many Asian societies. “I think the Lord has given me insight,” said Erik.

That same insight allows Erik to use the unique blessings of his Korean heritage to enrich his TKU family. “What makes our congregation unique, as an immigrant church ministering not just to Koreans but to everybody, is that we offer the hospitality of Koreans,” he said.

As a people, he added, Koreans like to welcome and feed and care for newcomers.

“As a church here, we believe that every person matters and we want them to know they are welcome to return. Even though I serve in a Korean-American church context, I love every color who would come.”

--Kari C. Barlow is a freelance writer based in Pensacola

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