Why Korean American Churches Need a Makeover

January 7, 2011

Last year, I gathered with some two hundred other Korean Americans for a church wedding. I was perhaps one of three women who arrived without a date and one of two atheists in the entire crowd. The couple to be wed was, of course, Korean American: the groom, a youth pastor I knew from college; the bride, a bubbly woman he had met at church in California. As I lined up to tender my gift and find my seat in the pews, I already felt the chill of alienation.

The wedding was a full church service, replete with prayers and praise music. When it came time for the scripture reading, a young woman rose to the dais. She called out “Ephesians 5:22,” prompting the shuffling of tissue-fine Bible paper:

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church -- for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery -- but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

(Ephesians 5:22-33, New Testament, New International Version.)

After the reading, the young Korean American pastor approached the pulpit. He opened with disarming stories about the bride and groom and offered sage advice from his own, apparently blissful, marriage. His “my wife’s always right” brand of self-deprecation, however, was the prelude to a very conservative sermon. He took the Ephesians verses at face value, emphasizing that wives must be free of blemish and subordinate themselves to their husbands, not because women are inferior, but because gender-delineated roles lead to a happy home.

As he preached, I searched the audience for signs of incredulity. To my dismay, each guest was more attentive than the next, laughing on cue, nodding, taking notes. The groom’s side of the church was filled with Yale graduates, many of them women I knew, but their eyes betrayed not a hint of surprise or skepticism at the message being espoused. These were women of high intelligence, ambition, and worldliness who had, inexplicably, subscribed to an orthodox, purportedly Biblical notion of gender relations that rendered them subservient to their male partners.

Since the wedding, I have reflected at length on how it felt to sit in that church. Although I am not a believer, it was neither the liturgy nor the scripture that got to me. Rather, it was the sense of displacement, the feeling that I could not be properly Korean American outside the confines of that place. An astounding 70 percent of the 1 million-plus ethnic Koreans in the United States identify themselves as Christian. Of this, approximately 131,000 belong to either the Southern Baptist Convention or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), two of the most conservative evangelical denominations. Another 90,000 Korean Americans are adherents of the Catholic Church. On college campuses, Korean American students are overwhelmingly active in Protestant student organizations, including ethnically specific campus ministries, according to Rebecca Kim, a professor at Pepperdine University and the author of God’s New Whiz Kids?: Korean American Evangelicals on Campus.

Ironically, during high school and most of college, I was a committed, if not entirely credulous, Christian. And to some extent I had grown up in the church, for although my parents were and still are atheists, they took us to services in the hope that my brother and I would befriend other Korean American kids. Indeed, church for me was as much a social experience as a religious one, but it was the political culture of Korean-style Christianity that ultimately led me to reject its tenets.

Raised as a feminist with leftist leanings, I understand Jesus’ gospel to be one of liberation and justice, meaning a real commitment to equality and social engagement. Over the years, as I wound my way through a number of Korean American congregations on both coasts, it became clear that my political views were terribly out of sync with these churches’. Even in English-speaking, second-generation services, women were shunned for leadership roles, homosexuality was demonized, and social justice was limited to the occasional food drive. In the churches that boasted considerable aggregate wealth, there was no tradition of philanthropy or dialogue about societal inequalities. Second-generation churchgoers -- acculturated, upwardly mobile, and, unlike their parents, not reliant on church as a linguistic redoubt -- were nevertheless practicing their faith in an insulated, anachronistic bubble.  Even now, as we move into our third generation of immigrants, church remains ascendant as Korean America’s cultural center.

The time has come for a reorientation. While I have nothing against any individual’s religious commitments, I strongly believe that Korean America needs a new locus, or new loci, of community outside the church. If we care about social justice and believe that Korean Americans as a group -- as opposed to individual Koreans participating in non-ethnic collectives, for instance -- can contribute something unique, then we must take stock of where we are and where we hope to go. Progress will mean rejecting certain of our parents’ and churches’ teachings -- passivity in women, social disengagement, acceptance of the status quo, and a disturbing insularity -- and channeling some of the traditions we have forgotten, such as Korea’s long history of activism and class struggle.

To move us forward, I first want to trace us back. Our English-speaking, second-generation congregations derive from and are often housed within first-generation churches. It seems to me that this provenance and patronage has shaped our community in some unfortunate ways.

Growing up in Tacoma, Washington, I attended Korean churches mostly populated with working-class, first-generation immigrants. These men and women spent their days in corner stores, dry cleaners, and nail salons, sometimes as the bosses but often as employees. Many of the elderly attendees lived on public assistance and in government apartments. There were also a number of women wed to US servicemen, raising issues of identity and belonging. They were congregants, in other words, who had a lot to say about gendered and raced hierarchies and the burdens of economic survival.

For these members of the American underclass, Sunday could have represented an opportunity to apply Jesus’ egalitarian teachings. Every church meeting could have been a chance to problematize hierarchies and conservative politics, none of which had ever operated in their favor. But no culture of protest, no liberation theology akin to that in African American churches, ever emerged. Church instead became a theater in which to enact compensatory social dramas. Dressed to the nines and seeking legitimating titles such as “elder” or “director,” first-generation members played the role of people who had made it in American society. The churches I saw in my adolescence were awash with business dealings and competitive capitalism: the show-and-tell of expensive purses, luxury cars, overlarge tract houses, and entrepreneurial success. In one such church, the weekly bulletin would announce the top offering-givers from the previous Sunday. That same church, in a year of Pacific Northwest flooding, refused to store the soggy belongings of displaced elderly Koreans.

Church was a place to feel self-satisfied and to distinguish oneself from the under-underclass. First-generation pastors preached on the subservience of women, encouraged their parishioners to attend anti-gay protests, and lent credence to the prosperity gospel, the idea that faith is rewarded materially. Under the aegis of bourgeois Christianity, immigrant men could pad their egos by mistreating their wives and children. Even if life wasn’t perfect in that 24-hour deli, the thinking went, it was still better than being a woman or poor or gay. I recall one pastor’s vituperative sermon against homosexual marriage. He railed against the immorality of this concept, while his son, who had come out to him a few months earlier, sat quietly in the rearmost pew. Around the same time, this church upheld the “elder” status of a repeat batterer, revoking his title only when his wife showed up with a broken arm.

These may be outlying examples, and it is easy enough to criticize our parents’ generation of churches. But my concern is that younger congregations exhibit similar features. Queens College Professor Pyong Gap Min has observed, for example, that second-generation churches are as patriarchal as their forebears, but under the banner of scriptural rather than Confucian authority. As my opening anecdote illustrates, the Korean American church continues to incubate a culture in which women accept lesser roles and authority goes unquestioned. Second-generation churches, divorced as they are from a social justice gospel, fail to challenge middle-class values focused on consumption, accumulation, and social stability.  

This would be less problematic if Korean America were tangibly located outside the church. After all, every ethnic and racial group has its conservative members. But with so many Korean Americans raised and trained in the ways of the church, our community is disproportionately under the influence of these institutions and their regressive politics.

What this points to -- insofar as we care about social progress and choose to approach it in part as “Korean Americans” -- is the need to imagine ourselves in new, open-ended ways. Here our lineage may help us, for embedded in Korea’s troubled history is a long tradition of revolt and self-determination. Groups like Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance in Los Angeles and Nodutdol for Korean Community Development in New York City are organizing working-class immigrants and second-generation Korean-Americans according to this particular strain of progressivism. There are social services providers, political action groups, arts collectives, LGBTQ centers, and feminist organizations who offer other, unorthodox visions of the Korean American community. None of these are necessarily incompatible with religion; they instead signal the diaspora’s many moving parts and suggest the limits of Korean American church dogma.

Without the balancing effect of secular community networks, a church-centered Korean America will risk succumbing to the demagoguery and political opportunism of the Religious Right and the Tea Party. Glen Beck and Sarah Palin, rallying some 300,000 acolytes at the Lincoln Memorial in August, preached a dangerous conflation of ill-defined Christianity, conservative morality, and uncritical politics. I should hope we can, collectively, do better than this.

A broadened base of Korean America will hardly sound the death knell for Christian institutions. Rather, with parishioners rooted both in their churches and other Korean American organizations and community spaces, a diversified discourse will open up, one that attends to global concerns and honors its participants equally. Churches themselves could involve Korean Americans in progressive political dialogue, raise women leaders, and encourage support for class struggles. It is a necessary step in our evolution and a timely project of reform.

Adapted from “Toward a Korean-American Reformation,” originally published in Senses: The Korean American Journal, Yale College, Fall 2010.


Tammy Kim


Tammy lives in Brooklyn, where she writes, works as a social-justice lawyer, and teaches. She grew up in Tacoma, WA and was educated at Yale and NYU.



...for this article. I had to agree with you on so many points. It will be a better future when "Korean-America" can largely exist outside of organized religion. On that passage in Ephesians, seeing that the New Testament says, "We love because he first loved us" (1 Jn 4.19 NIV), if we are to take this analogy that Paul brings out in Ephesians, that the husband should love the wife as Christ loves the church, it goes to show that the burden to love to the extreme is on the husband, which is a radically pro-female statement considering the female-oppresive culture of the Ancient Near East in which the biblical texts were composed. I was saddened to read of your experience in the Korean American Church; it is certainly a far cry from who the church is supposed to be, far removed and disjointed from what we see in the book of Acts. They were a people radically multi-culitural. And radically loving the unloveable. Sharing the Good News of Jesus even to those who would seek to kill them, burn them, feed them to the lions because they believed the love of Jesus was the greatest good they could share with their fellow man. This is why if "Korean-America" can have an identity outside of the four walls of the so-called church, it will be a redeeming factor for the Korean American community, and I for one as a young pastor serving in a Korean American church, will be grateful for such an exodus. Not because I don't care about the souls of those who leave, but rather because I believe God doesn't need a "Korean-American Church," especially if it's going to go on being as disgusting and hurtful as you described. After all, the Good News, which had its origin point in Palestine (not Korea! not America! how shocking!), is a call to every kind of person to follow the Way of Jesus -- God who came near, whose life begs us to befriend him as a Person, not hold him at a distance as a Concept. (This final phrase synthesized from a quote by Dr. Tim Keller.) Peace, raddestnerd

Thanks for your comment, but I'm a bit confused: you say you agree with the thesis, but the example you give of social-justice intervention is fighting cigarette smoking, which is precisely the kind of thinking I am critiquing.

Tammy, this article really hit home for me, even though I come from the perspective of a Korean-American believer/Christian. I agree with pretty much everything you said about the flaws of the Korean-American Christian experience.  I think it's not just the Korean-American church...it's the Western, affluent church that has forgotten the message of the Christian gospel. Justice. Freedom for captives. Lifting up the poor and afflicted. Suffering with those who suffer. Not stockpiling goods, but practicing generosity. Scorning appearances and status. Removal of divisions between cultures, genders, economic classes. The message of righteousness, hard work, integrity, obedience, purity is part of Biblical Christianity, without a doubt. I'd never want to see that watered down. But overemphasis on this, without attention to social justice, is like kimchi without garlic or pepper (i.e., limp salted cabbage).  About 15 years ago my eyes really opened to this issue. A youth at our church confided in me her father (and elder and leader) secretly smoked. Their entire family knew this was not to be mentioned, referred to, etc. because of the shame. I was pained to think of this man hiding for years the fact that he struggled with nicotine addiction. Church isn't a place where you clean yourself up and impress people. It should be a place where you are authentic, broken, honest, walking the journey together, stumbling and picking one another up. I think the most poisonous part of Korean churches is that culture of striving to impress each other and wear the masks of perfection. It's so false and hollow. Although I've seen some of this, my own church experience has been quite a bit different. I attend a Pentecostal Korean church, so it's even more working-class than most. Surprisingly, like their American counterparts, these kinds of churches are way more democratic, have many more women in leadership (we had a woman senior pastor at one point), have more mixed raced kids and non-Koreans who attend, and have a broader range of socio-economic classes.  I love my church and the church experience, so I'd personally want to see the Korean church continue in the center of our life here in the U.S.--but with the old Confucius system lessened and definitely not replacing that with Western materialism and the cult of conspicuous consumption. If the we who belong to the Korean church lived like the person we claim to follow...a man who was on the periphery of society, with few possessions, persecuted by those in power, dying a shameful death at the hands of a self-righteous theocracy...if the church honored this man who lived simply, humbly, graciously, authentically and joyfully, and who in the end died so that others might share in his good things...a lot of these grievous faults that you mention would have no place in our pews. I hope every Korean (and Asian) Christian who reads this article asks themselves, am I helping to make my church a hospital, a revolutionary movement, a repair shop...or am I part of a system that's simply a plastic surgery center: where people come to get religious Botox injections and fake spiritual implants to impress each other how wonderful we are, how blessed we are? God forbid!!   
without repeating much of what's been said, I just wanted to say that your perspective is not wrong at all. like those before me, i am also a korean-american and christian. but what may or may not be similar, i am female. college educated. conservative. a fan of people like glenn beck, whether to agree with or question him comes with the topic of discussion. and not afraid to say it. anyways. despite the facade people are concerned about. something i've noticed is that there are only a few things as far as social justice go to stir the hearts of our korean-american congregations: north korea, the hungry in north korea or africa, and... maybe a few other things here and there, like the occasional mexico or native american mission trips. i think that, for the most part, this can be blamed to our INTENSE ethnocentricity (is that even a word). also, i can't stand how church is more of a social thing for "us", religion has become a religious thing (i know, it sounds like a huge "duh" thing). this thing called christianity, as i am sure you've heard before, is a relationship. to reduce it to a list of dos and don'ts for salvation or to save face is ridiculous, depressing, and completely missing the point. to use it as an insurance plan to live life foolishly, materialistically, etc., is an abuse of everything that it represents. but i am unapologetic of how stubborn "we" are. how we are able to dig our heels into the dirt to try and hold to what we know is right despite what everything around us says. to say we are regressive to say that we don't know how to embrace the new and improved, may be true to a certain degree. in fact i know it's true when you consider how we are so self-consumed, even in our prayers and reasons for fasting, giving alms, offerings, etc. however, much the "progress" that is aimed at by many organizations out "there" is not real progress. it merely responds to swayed emotions, false love, a misconception of justice, and a lack of an encounter with the almighty. don't worry, i'm full aware that the exact same can be said to me and my beliefs. but i guess we just won't really know until the end, will we? sorry. totally didn't mean to preach at you. but i am glad that some people are noticing the problems that exists. they are some of the exact reasons that i left the korean-american church. i am currently more than happy at my overly charismatic, multi-ethnic, in the "hood", with people from every class and situation, size and shape church, whose youth group is very saturated with kids that have at least one parent incarcerated, lol. hopefully, you'll come to meet a god that not only shows you what you think "love" is, but that you'll come to meet a god that "wows" you in ways you never thought could happen. so far, thanks for giving the whole church thing a try. sorry we failed as examples.
I'm not Korean but what you describe does sound more or less like the many Korean churches i know. But at the same time, it sounds like many Southern Baptists churches (Male dominated, lack of concern for social justice, homophobic, etc.). Maybe Korean Ameircans have the problem compounded because of the combination of conservative Christianity AND tradtional Confucian practices. One point of correction: The Korean churches in the Presbyterian Church (USA) are more conservative than the rest but the denomination is far from Evangelical. PC(USA) is a traditional mainline denomination, many would consider them liberal. They are very much active in social justice works and promoting women's rights. The conservative Presbyterian denomination is Presbyterian Church of America. PCA was formed as a protest against racial integration and ordination of women into ministry.
COuldn't wait to get back to my padded-leather office to comment on this one. No, but seriously, this K-Am pastor is in complete agreement w u. Yes on all counts (and some quite emphatically) but disagree on one minor detail which has been raised already - the PCUSA thing. It's not as ultra-conservative as u portrayed. As for the K-Am Church makeover - it's happening as we speak. It's not thorough, but there are pockets of 2nd - 3rd gen pastors who are actually egalitarian in theology, in dialogue w the LGBT community, eschewing of the ethnic enclave ghettoization, socially-progressive-minded, and not just "limited to the occasional food drive" (what a scathingly concise analysis, btw!). So much more to say, but let's leave that out there and see how the convo goes. Great stuff btw.
The interesting assumption that you are working from is the idea that the Bible is a vast reservoir of narratives, of which selective parts are picked and discarded, deemed as either salient or less relevant parts of the Gospel. The church picks and chooses. Seeing it this way, it describes a church that is much more active in proliferating a belief system, and less like an efficient and transparent vessel of Jesus' teachings. Suddenly every church's mandate to its parishioners can vary widely from congregation to congregation. It can carry a message of Liberal Progressivism that calls us to social citizenry, philantrophy, or equality, or, in other instances, create Conservative themes around gender and class hierarchies, as you mentioned. One of my major problems with church was this clay-like mutability of its message, under the pretense of being God's Word, which makes for a very disturbing combination. If it can be so malleable, and not necessarily towards a divine purpose, then to what end? Whose or what agenda does it serve? Whose hands rends and molds this clay? As a kid, oftentimes the emergence of an ostentatious church community seemed to answer that question for me, that our fellow churchgoers are too easily subject to human flaws, under the guise of sacrosanct trappings.   Also, why do you presume that Korean-Americans actually need a "locus" of community in the first place? When we first came here, perhaps we needed such places? It made sense to have places that spoke the same language, preserved the mother culture, and offered us a sanctuary from the outer world. That said, after several waves now parting a generational divide, do we need it still? Is the whole notion of a "locus" a vestige of that first wave of immigration? If not, shouldn't such loci adapt themselves to contribute to the contemporary generation in a useful way, or else rendered obsolete on the sidelines?  

Indeed, the question of locus/coherent identity is key. In the article I disclaim it, set it out, as a premise, but why--well, I think it's because we're still a discrete, distinguishable diaspora with certain defining characteristics and community boundaries. It's not for everyone, and we see that K-As and other APIs often choose not to affiliate. To the extent we do choose to affiliate, however, we can go in a better ethical direction.

In general, I agree with the author's assessment.  I would add to the laundry list: a sense of ethnic supremacy vis-a-vis other colored peoples, domestic violence, and that second-generation congregations more closely resemble homogeneous social clubs that are simulacra of the singles' touch football league in Central Park. That said, while a critical assessment is essential to move forward, I find that the author's assessment is a bit shortsighted and a bit more ungenerous - exposing the poverty of the author's analytical categories and suggesting that it may have been a piece more venting frustration than examining well thought out ways for constructive progress.  The author seemingly fails to accept the fact that conservative, neo-orthodox (Barthian) theological perspectives will persist no matter how much we rail against the kyriarchy.  That is, in times of relative peace and stability, people have sought religious sanction for a "stable" way of life (as the author pointed out).  Specifically for Korean American immigrants and 2nd generation congregations, a neo-orthodox theology and a literal, technical, prescriptive interpretation of Scripture (as opposed to a contextual reading) have reinforced conservative, ethnocultural values.  Though this conservative extreme brings along with it many problematic social views, it also is the basis for religiosocial cohesion for KA religious communities.  It is important to not dismiss this cohesion, nor the limited ethnic empowerment it brings.  For many, KA churches bring at least some prestige or recognition or social acceptance to those who may feel discriminated or not-at-home in the US. Next, the author cites the analogy of Black liberation theology that seems widely ignorant of the development of this theology. A loose framework of this development is as follows: 18th century evangelism to slaves, Holiness Movement, slave religion (e.g., Zilpha Elaw, Jarena Lee) -- early to mid 19th century appropriation of the Exodus story which provided the theological underpinning for the radical call for Abolitionism (e.g., Nat Turner, David Walker, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas) -- Reconstruction and anti-lynching -- WEB Dubois/Marcus Garvey vs. Booker T. Washington -- the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement (James Cone's theologizing of both movements and Malcolm X).  In other words, this was a centuries'-long struggle for equality that had its roots in slavery.  Of course no liberation theology has emerged from KA churches - have social conditions deteriorated to a point where an appropriation of the Exodus story was necessary to engender belief in a God who liberates the enslaved?  No.  Is the KA community a relatively new and young, educated, and wealthy minority group? Yes.  Is the author intellectually dishonest by extrapolating a concept of han onto our vastly different social context? Maybe.  Is the author taking some liberties by providing anecdotal evidence and presenting them as empirical? Maybe. Moreover, the author also discounts that with the growth of the Black middle class, many Black churches have "lost their prophetic voice and agency" and have adopted similar conservative theological values - prosperity gospel, homophobia, the notion that women are subservient, etc. In fact, hypercriticism puts conservative religion on the defensive. Therefore, while this piece may have been rhetorically satisfying, it may prove to be counterproductive in that it creates the space for religious conservatives to say that they're being attacked and further entrenching them in their theological bubbles.  In other words, it is frankly stupid to introduce (or impose) a foreign a concept as liberation theology to theologically conservative settings (on a side note, liberation theology is still very much neo-orthodox - it's not as radical as it is perceived to be).  Feeling liberated may be nice for you and me, but some people, or in this case most KA's, just may not get it (further complicated by literal Biblical interpretation).  In any case, you may have much more luck re-orienting theological perspectives not by imposing a wholly different "radical" theology, but by re-defining and re-appropriating orthodox terms for social progress.  As such, you may enjoy Elizabeth Johnson's "She Who Is." Lastly, don't take this the wrong way, but if you really cared, you wouldn't leave the work of reforming KA churches to others.

Thanks. Some of your comments are interesting, others flip and less helpful. In any case, perhaps you noticed in the article that I'm an atheist; I'm not in seminary like you. So I'm not sure why I'm responsible for directly participating in church reforms. Moreover, according to your logic, no outsider, no ostensibly "foreign" theory or history, is applicable to a given situation.

First, I thought the article was very thoughtful and engaging. But I did detect a kind of intellectual snobbery that is unbecoming. Why did it surprise Tammy Kim that many of the women sitting in the pews who nodded in agreement with the sermon's point about gender roles were highly educated, intelligent people? Why should it be that only uneducated or unintelligent people can believe in gender roles? It's one thing to disagree with classical Christian beliefs, but it's another more vicious and alienating thing to dismiss those who believe as stupid and uninformed. We ought to respect both sides and not resort to demonization.
As a Korean-American Christian who grew up in the exact setting you describe in this post, I found myself looking for ways that I could possibly defend the KA church. (Perhaps it's a combination of both personal and cultural pride making me feel this way.) Alas, I have no defenses. It is, more or less, true what you've stated and much of your critique is exactly the reason I have left the KA church.  It has become much less about Jesus Christ and more so about being a cultural enclave. Our reliance upon the church to serve as a religious, cultural and social community seems to be a blessing and a curse. I guess you'd say more of a curse. Thankfully, I found a multi-ethnic church here in NY and the last 5 years of attendance have proven to be a redeeming experience for me.  I still have several friends who remain in the KA church and though I've seen some progress, it's slow, pain-staking and at times, non-existent.  As passionate and determined KAs can be, we are also tethered to our comforts, especially the familiarity of the church in which we grew up.  But then again, that can be attributed to mere human tendency.   I also find it interesting that a lot of the "issues" you bring up about the KA church is not uncommon to the typical Christian church in America. I've witnessed much of the same sentiments in the larger American church; in response, there's been a new "movement" of churches (which you may or may not be familiar with) that are seeking to move past such antiquated ideals and build modern communities that are much more culturally/socially relevant. Perhaps in 30, 40 years we'll be able to see in hindsight the (hopefully) positive effects it will have had on the American church and KA church.  Thank you for sharing these thoughts, and I hope it becomes a voice that is a call to action, at least for the KA church (though, I think you're saying let's move beyond the church.). I suppose that is my hope. Though you seem to have given up on the KA church, and though I'm not a part of it anymore, I still hope that the KA church will have the courage to view itself, the good, bad and the ugly and to become a community that is an integral and valuable part of KAs in this country. 
  The Korean Diaspora dates back to the mid 1860's (according to wikipedia).  Thanks for the rallying cry, but IMHO - we're doing just fine, thank you very much.  I sat through an english speaking sermon in a Korean American Presbyterian Church shortly before 9/11, where the pastor declared war on Islam.  I too, looked around the audience for signs of incredulity, but mostly saw folks staring at their fingernails. I've got my problems with religion, and the evangelical influence of Christianity especially through the lense of the Korean Community:  I can't shake the Korean Jehovah's witnesses who keep visiting me, and I try my best to deflect the good intentions of friends who witness to me about their faith.  Despite my personal misgivings with religion, I have to say I try to respect peoples' conviction in their relationship with God (unless they're completely nutty), and I try not to let it interfere with my personal relationships.  I have to disagree with your comments on the need for reorienting the Korean community, because I don't think it's fair for you to prosthelytize change in a sub-community that you don't have a place in.  Let them clean up their own mess. What is diversity without embracing and appreciating difference? It's a two way street here.  I understand that the majority of my brethren do not think like me, and I'm totally ok with that. I think what's important when considering community, is that it's based on fellowship, and you can't even begin a discourse if you can't stand hanging around each other.  Finding expression is an interesting exercise, when you consider that left-leaning ideology doesn't sit well within a system deeply rooted in confucian filial piety.  I think effecting change begins with expressing the personal as political (to borrow a feminist phrase), and I choose to live and act as I see the world should be.  That's good enough for me.
I belong to the PC(USA) denomination, I'm a woman, I'm fairly young, and was ordained at a Korean American PC(USA) church in NY 6 years ago.  I am currently serving at another PC(USA) KA Church in CA as an ordained person.  Both churches had/have multiple ordained women on staff. The Presbyterys I belong/belonged to have all been pro women's and LGBTQ ordination as well.  Though some PC(USA) KA churches may be on the conservative side, there are also many that are not. I admit, sometimes I do feel rather like a unicorn, but I wanted to speak up and say we ordained women do indeed exist! :)
you offer one extreme for another...substituting Nodutdol as an alternative for church is like telling a lifelong republicans to suddenly accept having only choice on the ballot is a Democrat   how about something novel...interest based organizations...KA's for fishing.  KA's for entrepreneurship.  KA knitting club.  why does it all have to be all or nothing with Koreans...if not Church, social justice organization, pssh
The whole flashy KA nature isnt from the churches, its from Korea.  Korean people are all about showing off -_-. And you can't say female roles have been shunned specifically in KA churches, it ss all over America and Korea no?  Women in Korea have recently started acquiring more high status jobs.  It only makes sense that Korean women in America now are progressively climbing the ladder. I think expressing your points by using the church is fine but to say its something wrong with the church and not the culture is kinda rough. Side note: From my experience at asian american churches I realized people turn threir faith from their experience with the people and because of the  theology of the religion.  Isnt that odd and depressing
In light of some of the work Jonathan Haidt has on morality and conservatism. One example below.... http://www.springerlink.com/content/t11828205jt42001/ "The five foundations are psychological preparations for detecting and reacting emotionally to issues related to harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Political liberals have moral intuitions primarily based upon the first two foundations, and therefore misunderstand the moral motivations of political conservatives, who generally rely upon all five foundations." And I just wanted to pipe in to agree with Tlin's comments about The Presbyterian Church USA vs. the Presbyterian of America. The PC(USA) has female ministers and is moving to have noncelibate homosexual clergy. The PCA has neither of these things.
In 2004 I worked in a deli run by a Korean lady.  She and some of her friends were very sweet to me, gave me free lunches, extra tips, etc.  Yet when I asked them who they were going to vote for in the election, all answered Bush.  Why?  Because he's a "Christian."  Yes, that was their answer.    Then whe I lived in Honolulu for two years I had the misfortune of living next to a Korean Presbyterian church.  Not just every weekend, every night was a gathering of Lexuses and BMWs, and worst of all, group singing well into the night (sometimes beyond 10pm and as early as 5am) with completely disregard for the privacy and peace of neighbors (they sang with windows open).  One night, I really could not take the fanatical howling anymore coming from the church and I decided to pay them a visit, and what a surprise it was to find the inside of the church (this was 9:30pm on a Thursday), I found it completely dark, with a number of old ladies and housewives kneeled on the floor, curled up like a ball of fabric, and bobbing their body back and forth to the absolute ghostly screams of a young preacher, who was hiding behind the first row and screaming into a microphone, in Korean, no less.  I walked over to him, tapped him on the shoulder for a few times until he realized my existence, and told him that it was simply too loud for everyone on the block, that he should at least turn off the microphone.  The guy, full of sweat and in his eyes a look of completely dumbfoundedness, nodded yes.  The screaming stopped for that, but it was back again the next night, and the choir continued with the windows open, and the stream of expensive cars continued to pile on.  You know what, fuck Korean churches. 
At best, Korean americans may be socially conservative (gay marriage for example), but in reality, a majority of them vote Democrat. It's something reflected in APALC and AALDEF exit polls, as well as in the NAAS report (Ramakrishnan, Wong, Junn, Lee). I think it's reflected in PNAAPS as well.   And when speaking of Korean American politics, it should be noted that there seems to be strong support and passion in favor of comprehensive immigration reform from the community for whatever reason.
I'm going to strive to avoid my instinctive urge to roll my eyes at your article.  Let's just say I've heard the same stories regarding black churches and white churches too.  In fact, pretty much all conservative churches preach this kind of patriarchy.  My question to you is, if you are so free-thinking that you can see the error of the pastor's lecture on gender roles, why can't you be free thinking enough to be an atheist? It annoys me to no end when religious people complain their religion isn't liberal enough.  Or complain their religion doesn't respect minorities, gays, women, etc etc. How about dropping religion altogether? Otherwise stop whining. I couldn't care less if some women are stupid enough to want to be an obedient servant to her husband. It's their freedom to do whatever the heck they want.  I for one have not gone to church since I've become too old to be forced by an adult.

Did you read this article? Your "instinctive urge" apparently didn't get you past the lede.

…how refreshing!   I totally agree- the value and potential of the Korean American community and church are sadly incongruent to their contributions in politics and to our society’s poor.  btw, nice cover pic!    Any ideas for a new locus for shaping Korean American culture? Also, since church remains ascendant as Korean America’s cultural center, any thoughts on how to facilitate the necessary and diversified discourse Tammy suggests?  As for my own thoughts, I am encouraged by the similarities between Korean American and African American churches.  Tammy described KA churches as a theater staging compensatory social dramas in contrast to African-American churches which embody liberation theology.  Indeed, it is evident that Korean American and African American churches led their communities along divergent paths in regards to political and social leadership.  Historically speaking however, the origins in the rise of the Korean American and the African American churches have much in common, and these similarities explain the political success of the African American community compared to the financial success of the Korean American community.  For example, the African American church played theater just like the Korean American church does today.  African American leaders were not refined under the education and opportunities of whitestream society.  Before establishing a political platform for civil rights, African American leaders first starred as visionaries, elders, and pastors enjoying a stage before a regular attendance that cheered and encouraged their leadership from the pews.  It therefore comes as no surprise that pastors were at the forefront of the civil rights movement.  MLK, Jr. for example, a fourth-generation pastor, decided to become a pastor because he respected his father simply as a leader and not out of some mystical call of a spiritual nature.  For MLK, Jr. and his community at large, pastor=leader.  To the leaders that emerged from the African American community, the church was the training ground and a refuge against the hells of a ubiquitous and racial hostility. For African Americans, their angst was socio-political in nature; their issue was identity and at stake was the dignity of their spirit.  For first generation Koreans, our class struggle was primarily a financial one as Tammy already mentioned.  Our issue was economic.  Our motivation was to escape the memories of an impoverished country torn apart by war.  For those of us who grew up on food stamps and handouts at the local church, we know the challenges our parents faced.  The Korean church did their part by helping congregation members find housing, jobs, and even the acquisition of green cards.  While I’d prefer the socio-political gains (like a Korean Obama), I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish economically.  (I’m also proud of the post-war economic gains made in our mother land.)  The African American and Korean American church and community framed their success through different narratives- one in terms of slavery, and the other in terms of war and poverty.  Both have overcome and are overcoming still.                 Why bring up the past?  First of all, it explains our present state: insulated, financially driven, and loyal to the church; successful like the African American community but in our own way.  More importantly, for the sake of our future, Korean Americans need to embrace their own narrative!  We all know the cultural gap between the first and second generation.  Yet, our lives, religion, and existential angst remain all too alike.  Kudos to all the first generation Koreans who made bank now smoking Cubans on a golf course in Venice, Florida.  But if that’s our Korean American history in the making as second generation Koreans, it’s bewildering and tragic.  It’s bewildering because we’ve settled for the dreams of another generation when we had every reason and inclination to pursue better.  It’s tragic because we have the resources to help millions.  As for the Korean American church, isn’t it disheartening to hear non-believers are pointing out your loyalties to your culture above the Gospel.  To the leaders of the Korean American church, how much of your vision is convoluted by the dreams and patronage of the Korean church?  After all, the overwhelming majority of Korean American congregations are financial dependents.  As for why the critical mass of Korean Americans remain under the ideological and financial umbrella of the Korean church, perhaps it is an unfortunate combination of habit and emotional recapitulation.                     I dream about Korean Americans making a social impact that heralds nationwide recognition.  Imagine what we could do in light of our professional expertise, stature, and wealth.  I like to think that if Korean Americans were faced with an injustice as severe as the one faced by African Americans we’d all step up to the plate and sacrifice freely for the good of our community.  I hope more Korean Americans will be informed of and engage in the social injustices Korean immigrants face daily.  I wish Koreans who have made it would help those who have not, as of yet!  Maybe one day, Korean American politicians in NYC will enjoy a voting block every political office hankers after.  How can political advocates run for office or lobby for social issues when they’re still reminding Korean Americans of their privilege and power as voters?  Closer to my heart, I believe Korean Americans can flip NYC inside out in our fight against poverty.  NYC and LA both enjoy a non-profit scene that is incredibly diverse and creative along with an adventurous spirit of social entrepreneurship.  I’d like to see Korean Americans fully engaged, on board, and leading the way. SUCH EXCITING TIMES WE LIVE IN!!!  =)        
Fascinating article. I have not had time to read through all the comments left by others, but I would just like to say that I find it so startling how close your points him home for so many, especially myself. As a Korean American, a student of Evolutionary Biology, and a Christian, I have encountered emotions that fall right in line with what you have described as "the feeling that I could not be properly Korean American outside the confines of that place." What intrigues me even more is how my desire to want to still "fit in" has only grown stronger over the years, despite all I foresaw as hindrances. It is very encouraging to read your points. The issues that you raise and the opinions that you offer are very provocative, and thank you for them. But, I think that a discussion on how "change" will be reflected on the balance between both negative and positive qualities of Korean church communities is also worthwhile. Topics such as to how the church may have contributed to the maintenance and exposure of Korean culture/customs in the US (e.g., language schools, study/work ethic?) and whether this is arguably a good or bad thing. (Pardon my ignorance, but I cannot think of other topics at the moment.) I also very much enjoyed the following: "The groom’s side of the church was filled with Yale graduates, many of them women I knew, but their eyes betrayed not a hint of surprise or skepticism at the message being espoused. These were women of high intelligence, ambition, and worldliness who had, inexplicably, subscribed to an orthodox, purportedly Biblical notion of gender relations that rendered them subservient to their male partners." However, I would not be so down-trodden about the outlook on this observation. I feel that sometimes looking like you belong does not necessitate believing that you have to. I cannot tell you how many times I have rolled my eyes when the topic of evolution arose in a sermon. However, it wasn't until I started rolling them in my mind (and not in real life) did people finally care about what it is I had to say about the topic. :) I look forward to reading your future articles.
I grew up in the Korean immigrant church. I have really great memories with childhood friends. I remember the first generation parents finding fellowship, community and yes a "fervor" for their spirituality in a safe space among fellow Koreans. My church was fine.... until they started getting 1.5 generation Korean American graduates from the most "conservative" theology seminaries EVER. It wasn't the first generation that were a problem, it was these Korean Americans who were trained at these conservative seminaries that were the problem and who really emulated their right wing White American counterparts pushing for fundamentalism, sexism and homophobia...
Thank you, Tammy Kim, for writing this. You're so spot on that I got chills. (and shared on FB to the likely chagrin of every KA church-going friend I have) It is everything that I've been trying to articulate for years, but in an objective, non-inflammatory tone. Kudos, kudos. Also, I am not far from Brooklyn. I'd love to hear about the most promising KA community spaces that you see cropping up physically and online these days.
Here's (further) evidence that Hyphen is SO MUCH SMARTER than 8Asians. http://www.8asians.com/2011/03/09/how-i-would-make-over-the-korean-ameri... Seriously. Why do they even bother.
Other than the hardcore seminarian’s viewpoint below it doesn’t seem like anybody from the other side has chimed in here. (We Christians ignore/persist/kill anything we object to! See Crusades I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, and IX. See also the Inquisition and Salem, MA.) As a Korean American who cannot escape the bounds of the Korean American churches, I mostly agree with you on your observations. The Korean American churches as a whole do promote the first generation’s “conservative” views packaged as religious underpinnings. The pastors of the Korean American churches generally do shun non-conservative views. Most certainly the hypocritical stances exist with respect to the (almost) self-proclaimed elders and directors. I completely agree that the church is a “theater in which to enact compensatory social dramas.” Also, most of the time the churches are interested in helping themselves and not the general (Korean-American) community as a whole. But you must understand that there is a complete disconnect between the ideal religious principles that Korean American churches try to engrave and the actual churchgoers’ needs. As you may have experienced, Korean American churches are simply social hubs or community centers in which Koreans residing in the United States gather at a specified time. It is a place where they can congregate for free every Sunday, and sometimes Wednesdays and Fridays (if they felt like it). Every other action is a consequence of a group of Koreans interacting with other Koreans, regardless of their Christian status. Koreans distinguish themselves because they want to feel superior to other Koreans (or any other ethnicity I suppose). Koreans of the first generation as a whole openly express their discontent toward the other minorities and “deviants.” If they’re speaking in Korean, they will certainly express it in their faces. The primarily patriarchal expressions are embedded in their way of thinking, and no religious teachings will take that away. The disconnect also exists within the “leadership” of the churches. The religious figures and the leaders of the church exist to promote two things, neither of which is for the promotion of social progress. One, they lead for the sake of leading, and two, they lead to feed their mouths. It is unfortunate that the Korean American churches are in position to influence the social progress of the Korean community because of the sheer number of the Korean Americans’ involvement within its churches. It is also equally unfortunate that the second generation and perhaps the third generation of Koreans follow a similar pattern. Most of all, it saddens me to realize that the Korean American churches today are unable to offer more meaningful substance to the young generation of Korean Americans leaving in droves. It seems that unless the Korean Americans as a whole become the “persecuted” in the society, the reform probably won’t be initiated from the Korean American churches.
Tammy, Your assessment of the Korean churches--both English-speaking and Korean-speaking--is very keen. Let me tell you that when I went back to my old English-speaking church in Vancouver after seven years spent in South Korea,--I will not divulge its name here--its congregants, many of whom I grew up with, treated me as a persona non grata. As much as I understood that our lives drifted apart post-college, I was both disgusted and hurt at the same time. There were three lessons I gleaned from this experience. One is that, as you seemed to aver, my former friends remained just as insular if not more than their parents. They seemed less receptive towards outsiders who did not hew to their staid, parochial, if not "patriarchal" conventions. Second, as one of your responders pointed out correctly, their religious attitude is grounded in this amalgation of Confucian weltanschauung, on the one hand, and their attempts to achieve this Christian utopia in the New World on the other. All these stem from the third factor. And that is, both supposedly urbane, middle-class yuppie English-speaking churchgoers and their Korean-speaking parents, who are predominantly petty bourgeois, if not working-class, are insecure about their place in the New World. In the case of the former, middle-class yuppie English-speaking congregants fear that, try as they might, they may never become a part of the WASP elite to which they aspire to join due to the ubiquitous, if not insidious, glass ceiling effect. In the case of the latter, the firsy-generation churchgoers feel alienated if not marginalized due to the linguistic and cultural barriers. Thus, to project the facade as a cohesive, if not "well-adjusted" group, both English-speaking congregants and their parents shun those whom they deem to be "inferior," if not "abnormal." Lest I be misunderstood, I am not trying to whitewash their inexcusable, if not unethical, behaviors. As much as they need to be more tolerant and accepting of those less fortunate or different, however, I do not foresee them mending their ways until they first expunge themselves of their collective inferiority complex. Only then, can a true inclusive liberation and a revolution materialize.
Great article, Tammy. You're not alone. I grew up attending the typical conservative Korean-American church in Washington State (Federal Way and Lynnwood). In my late high-school and college years, I began to grow seriously irritated and disillusioned with the Korean-American church , and in my young naivete with Christianity in general. It was during my high-school years that, for some reason, I began to hold much leftist political and social views (and even accepted views on science, like evolution), which only strengthened in my study of race and ethnic relations (majored in sociology) in college. Like you, I felt alone sitting in church, unable to relate to my mostly fundamentalist peers and pastor(s). Fortunately (at least in my view) I did find a church here in Seattle that started mostly as a group of Korean-Americans, where the majority of the members, and even the Korean-American pastor, just happen to hold more leftist/liberal social and political views. This church supports (and we have) women in leadership, talks about racism, white privilege, is strongly committed to the homeless and social justice within and outside the U.S. If a KA church decides it needs a remake, the model this church provides is a great starting point for churches to evolve. P.S. I know you're an atheist, but if you ever decide to give Christianity a chance again, I'd recommend doing a bit of personal in-depth study about certain Christian frameworks/doctrines that would fit with your political and social views. I've found that a great, great majority of Korean-American churches are strongly Calvinist in their theology, which often means a fundamentalist reading (everything is literal) of the Bible, complementarian (not egalitarian) views on gender relations, and a whole host of other things that would make you cringe. To my surprise, I found that not holding to Calvinist theology won't automatically send you to hell. Yay! But it sounds like you already know that, since it is the KA-style church, and not Christianity itself that lead you to un-belief.
Ko-Am Christians are damaged people and need help too. However, I did leave this comment on an FB link to the article. I hope this offers some encouragement. "It is the essence of Christianity to humble itself in light of introduction into a new culture. History proves that to do otherwise only leads to destruction and war. Christ proves that to do so (coming to earth) is to truly love the unlovable. On that note, as an artist rarely do I seek popular opinion from other artists for that is an exercise in pride. It's the opinion of the non-artist that interests me for it is the non-artist I need to reach and communicate with. Tammy is not wrong in her observations or opinions and calling her out does not make her any less legitimate. She is the prostitute damned by the "just" to stoning and as such Christ is writing each of our sins in the sand. Whatever her argument is, the body of Christ has failed to reach her and that is condemnation on those who make up the body, not her." *Qualification: 1)I believe I mixed Biblical stories. Should be "adulterer" and not "prostitute" (I think) and 2)in no way am I implying you are a prostitute. Thank you.
I’m a follower of Jesus. I regularly read about his life, and I try to live my life the way He did. And the way Jesus lived His life, is a far cry from the caricatures set up by, as amorphous as these terminologies have become, both the Religious Right and the Secular Left. An honest firsthand look – apart from these cacophonous sound-bytes from these politically driven and so-typically-ideological representations – into Jesus’ life as portrayed in the Bible reveals His deep care for the poor, the women, and the slaves. In fact, these so-called “social justice” concerns are so pronounced in Jesus’ life that following Him becomes synonymous with caring for the poor, the women and the slaves. Throw in the fact that I am a Korean American who grew up in the culturally, linguistically and religiously complex first generation immigrant community, I could not agree more with Tammy’s conclusion that: "A broadened base of Korean America will hardly sound the death knell for Christian institutions. Rather, with parishioners rooted both in their churches and other Korean American organizations and community spaces, a diversified discourse will open up, one that attends to global concerns and honors its participants equally. Churches themselves could involve Korean Americans in progressive political dialogue, raise women leaders, and encourage support for class struggles. It is a necessary step in our evolution and a timely project of reform." I certainly “care about social justice and believe that Korean Americans as a group – as opposed to individual Koreans participating in non-ethnic collectives, for instance – can contribute something unique” to caring for the marginalized members of our society. I have certainly experienced my share of the Korean Church as “a place to feel self-satisfied and to distinguish oneself from the under-underclass” and the lack of “tradition of philanthropy or dialogue about societal inequalities” in both the Korean and Korean-American Churches alike. Indeed, much like Tammy, my disillusionment with that “political culture of Korean-style Christianity . . . ultimately led me to reject its tenets.” Beyond that, however, I share nothing with Tammy, religious or otherwise. First, what Tammy identifies as a particularly Korean-American phenomenon, namely, “[the Korean-American] community is disproportionately under the influence of these [Church] institutions and their regressive politics”, is simply not true. The 70% mark Tammy finds so “astounding” in Korean America is in fact less than the 76% of the U.S. population identifying themselves as Christians. In fact, every single criticism levied against Korean Churches by Tammy equally applies to the mainstream, Fox-identified, and, as Tammy would put it, “ill-defined” Christianity in America. “Jesus’ egalitarian teachings” are noticeably absent in all these churches. “[B]usiness dealings and competitive capitalism” equally abound in these churches, replete with “the show-and-tell of expensive purses, luxury cars, overlarge tract houses, and entrepreneurial success.” Tammy, who apparently was “[r]aised as a feminist with leftist leanings,” would certainly disagree that the “men [who] pad their egos by mistreating their wives and children” is somehow underrepresented in the larger American society separate and apart from the Korean-American churches. And Tammy’s specific attack on the “second-generation churches” for “fail[ing] to challenge middle-class values focused on consumption, accumulation, and social stability” is none other than the same broad attack on our capitalistic society in general that simply is not tailored in any way to the particular shortcomings of the second-generation Korean-American churches. Further, these shortcomings are shared not only by the Christian community at large, but also by the rest of humanity. And it is not too difficult to see why: we are all innately self-centered. No one needs to be taught this trait. This is precisely why the socialist experiments failed miserably in the former socialist states, a theory that fatally underestimated what I would consider deeply flawed human nature. The Korean Americans’ aloofness towards social justice issues, therefore, is really a function of being human, and such a detachment cannot be reoriented in any way by “tangibly locat[ing Korean America] outside the church.” In the end, there is nothing specifically Korean or churchy about the Korean Americans’ lack of concern for those on the outskirts of our society. This is a human problem. Notwithstanding Tammy’s impressive educational pedigree that puts her in the select group of “women of high intelligence” as described by Tammy herself, this subject on the church seems to lie far beyond Tammy’s realm of expertise. Her unadorned attempt to stake her position as an informed atheist who once belonged to the Korean church community she now so despises fails to offer anything beyond the same old ideologically charged rhetoric we have become so accustomed to hearing from the Secular Left. Indeed, her sweeping, uncorroborated propositions that the church lumps the issues involving women, gays and the poor into the same category, the second-generation Korean-Americans are categorically “practicing their faith in an insulated, anachronistic bubble” infused with “their regressive politics”, and the all but inevitable implication that somehow intelligence is antithetical to the notion of conscientious subscription to orthodox values, show her very own better-than-thou sentiment that “distinguish [her]self from the under-underclass” of Korean American Christians.
"Since the wedding, I have reflected at length on how it felt to sit in that church. Although I am not a believer, it was neither the liturgy nor the scripture that got to me. Rather, it was the sense of displacement, the feeling that I could not be properly Korean American outside the confines of that place." Perhaps the author can't be Korean American. Or more likely she can be but shouldn't be so bothered that the majority of the rest of the community isn't as charged up as she is. For all the E. Tammy Kims out there, remember this. America is (mostly) a free country. if you think all Koreans in America should bear grudges and be ready to storm the barricades of "The Man", go fire everyone up! Doubt any of you will get very far, but it should be entertaining to watch!
Hi Tammy! I am a Korean American pastor leading an Eng speaking church in Korea and found your writing pleasantly honest. I think you have great insight in your assessment of Korean churches, both 1st gen and 2nd. I believe in a decade you will see a new breed of Korean American churches rising up. Congregations that are moved by the heart of Jesus for social justice and not paralyzed by social shame. One that you may even consider attending! Btw, you are a great writer! Keep it coming!