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A Korean Congregation Reaches Out

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"Moses says, 'God, I am a wimp!'" Pastor Stephen Ro shouts the words. His audience, mostly Korean American teenagers and twentysomethings, laughs appreciatively at the way he can reduce larger-than-life biblical characters to normal size. "'I cannot speak. I cannot lead the people. Pick someone else!'"

"God says, 'You're right, Moses. You are a wimp. You are a nobody.'" The words of the Almighty, translated into nineties-speak. "'But I can use you.'"

Pastor Ro's voice grows softer, more convicting. "'I use nobodies to declare My glory.'"

Moses was unwilling to follow without negotiation God's design for his life. Ro compares this to modern Christians, who are so unsure of their own abilities to evangelize that they don't reach out at all. This is a grave mistake, he explains; this is Satan working through the sin of pride. In reality, it's not about our abilities, or about us at all. It's about God's ministry.

Ro speaks candidly about his own insecurities: his imperfect English skills, his voice that is a mix between a Korean accent (where he was born) and Baltimore ghetto slang (a former place of ministry). He challenges himself to live up to God's desires for his life, and in doing so issues an identical challenge to his congregation: to be more friendly toward outsiders, visitors, and non-Christians in their neighborhood.

I squirm in my seat. Worshiping here for the first time, a participant but also an observer, I hoped to remain unnoticed, but was pounced upon cheerfully by the welcoming committee, given a name tag, made to stand up during the announcements, and chatted with at least 15 times before finding a seat. The members of the congregation are friendly, gregarious, and on fire for their God, and I'm a little overwhelmed by it all—but I feel very much at home in a place where I would normally feel quite foreign.

Now their pastor exhorts them to reach out more. I anticipate further zeal after the closing hymn.

Pastor Ro, the youth leader and pastor of the English-language congregation (also known as Grace Fellowship Chapel) at New York Presbyterian Church in Queens, is emphatic about getting his congregation to follow a path of evangelism. I hear about an upcoming prayer march modeled on the Battle of Jericho: for seven Sundays, the youth and their leaders will march around Long Island City praying for its hurting citizens. (They don't say whether the trumpets will be included on the last day.)

Young Hee Lee, head pastor of the church and leader of the Korean-language congregation, is also concerned with the plight of those around him who are living without Christ. He speaks compassionately about healing the city: "People nowadays, their ideas, their thinking, their heart, body, relationships, everything is—" He pauses again, searching for the right word. "Broken. This city is wounded."

The new building across the parking lot, the one that is not yet completed, is also a form of evangelism. The huge cross on the front facade, made out of steel I-beams, is visible from far beyond the adjacent shopping center, and on sunny days, the metal-edged folds gleam in contrast to the dark gray stucco. Among the drab factories and car dealerships of the Long Island Railyard area, this façade—with its tiled windows and bold, flourishing Korean characters—stands out. In the same way, Lee and Ro hope that the church body will pump life and light into the apathetic and troubled world around it.

This is not a congregation that takes anything lightly. And with good reason: it serves as a governing and stabilizing force for the 3,000-plus people who attend each week. Most members are recent or second-generation immigrants from Korea. They need English classes, playmates, counseling and Bible studies; the church provides this for them. A main goal is acclimatization, helping ethnic families adapt to American life and trying to make the transition easier, while keeping close ties to home.

The church's English-language ministry is dedicated to and run by the teenage and young-adult crowd; services in English are conducted on Sunday afternoons, followed by fellowship time and various social functions. But they will never be accused of acting clannish; in fact, for the English congregation, a main goal is their ministry toward non-Koreans. They don't want this to be an ethnic church, but one that embraces Christians of every race and background.

The struggle to move from "Korean church" to just plain "church" is a tough one, Pastor Lee observes. "As an immigrant people, our people, they are experiencing difficulty because of the language barrier and the struggle between two cultures. Our young people especially—they have two kinds of ideas, two identities. They are stuck between."

In theology, New York Presbyterian Church is conservative Reformed. The congregation recites the Apostles' Creed and the Westminister Shorter Catechism. For such a church, one might expect the traditional multipurpose gymnasium/sanctuary/classroom complex, not this bizarre collection of forms that seems alarmingly … liberal. Their first choice of an architect was a Korean, but after seeing his drawings— "No," Lee says, with a dismissive shake of his head. "They weren't radical. Not exciting."

It surprises me that Pastor Lee and his leadership team would deliberately seek out a firm that had never built anything before, only published some books and designed a really groovy website, and whose designs looked so strange to the average churchgoer. Perhaps this was part of the church's struggle to come to terms with its identity; certainly, the aggregational model seems to fit the shifting, changing climate of immigrant parents and Americanized children.

They wanted a new image, Lee says. They wanted visitors and community members to stand up and take notice—this is a modern church, one that understands the needs and wants of the time. Instead of passing by with eyes downcast, passersby stop, squint, and look puzzled. They might even stop in for a visit.

So the New York Presbyterian Church, as a body, functions as a reminder both of things past and things to come, a citadel for the Koreans whose arms extend far beyond its own walls to embrace the entire community. Certainly, those functions are among the most sacred: caring for God's children while, at the same time, striving to increase that number to his greater glory.

Lee doesn't think the eye-catching structure holds any eternal significance. He espouses the widely held Protestant belief that a building is only an empty shell, and cannot be either sacred or profane. Worship, God's presence, is what makes the building holy. "Building by itself is … is building," he says.

And yet, his Korean upbringing demands a particular kind of respect for the building itself: "The sanctuary, we are using for services. Only services and prayer. Not for worldly and social activities." He tells me that no food is allowed in the "Holy room," and that before going up onto the altar to pray or lead services, the faithful take off their shoes.

I am reminded again of my first visit to the site, when the half-finished building seemed so alive. The people of New York Presbyterian Church exude the same kind of spiritedness; a work that is not completed, but working to become so. The building and the congregation, the home and the family: the tension between architecture and the people it serves is what makes it a fascinating discipline.

"For instance we know that when these bodies of ours are taken down like tents and folded away, they will be replaced by resurrection bodies in heaven—God-made, not handmade—and we'll never have to relocate our 'tents' again (2 Cor. 5:1, The Message). In the meantime, even as we hold firmly to that promise, there's plenty of work for tentmakers.

Photo: Porte de l’eglise - Provins, May 2003

Copyright © 2009 Emily Jorjorian Lowe. All rights reserved.

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