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Korean United Methodists gather to celebrate their passion and spirituality (UM News)

October 17, 2023

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The 2023 special session of the National Association of the Korean American United Methodists was held Oct. 2-5 in Northbrook, Illinois. Attendees included 69 clergy[women], 151 clergy[men], and 84 laity.

This was the first in-person gathering since 2019 and was filled with praise and worship with sermons, lectures and discussions.

Wisconsin Conference Bishop Hee-Soo Jung, president of the Korean Ministry Plan, shared the purpose of the special session before the gathering at an Aug. 15 Zoom meeting of Korean-American faith leaders.

“The most urgent need is to revitalize the association,” said Jung, the only active Korean-American bishop in The United Methodist Church. “However, this must be a time for healing and reflection on ‘why we ended up in this situation.’”

In his sermon at the opening worship service at First Korean United Methodist Church in nearby Wheeling, Illinois. Bishop Jung quoted the healing story in Mark 2 and asked, “What if we came to Jesus today with a paralyzed denomination on our shoulders?

“The future of the church lies in reconciliation, acceptance, friendship, repentance and self-reflection,” he said. “The future of the church lies in the envisioning framework of a theological interpretation through unity in diversity through God’s creation.”

New York Conference Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, delivered a keynote address. He said one of his purposes for attending the gathering was to express honor and deep respect for the work of the Korean American churches and pastors in The United Methodist Church over the years.

“I honor you for being faithful in the midst of the struggle. It has not gone unnoticed,” he said. “Speaking on behalf of the denomination, I wanted to make sure to express my gratitude to each of you.”

Bickerton also said The United Methodist Church is not a church of one mind and one faith, but a denomination that embraces diverse perspectives, including traditionalist beliefs, and tries to embrace both conservative and progressive sides.

“We have always been known as a bridge-building church,” he said. “We are not about the business of creating bridges to nowhere. Rather, we are about building bridges that build stronger relationships, deeper respect and greater honoring of one another’s perspectives.”

Bickerton said he respects the unique passion and spirituality of Korean American churches within The United Methodist Church and called on them to aggressively offer to it the skills, expertise, passion and emphasis that they have placed on evangelism and spirituality.

In a report on the current status of Korean American churches and Korean American pastors, the Rev. Paul H. Chang, executive director of the Korean Ministry Plan, said there are 280 congregations, including 244 Korean-language congregations, 36 English-language congregations and those not yet officially chartered. There are 270 clergy serving Korean congregations, more than 550 clergy serving American congregations — a total of 871 active United Methodist clergy including one bishop, 21 district superintendents, and 30 connectional ministers.

“About 40 congregations are expected to leave, representing 15-17% out of 280 Korean congregations, and about 60 pastors are expected to leave,” Chang said.

In a session for lay presentations during the gathering, Seokjung Yoon, former lay leader of First Korean United Methodist Church of Cherry Hill of the Greater New Jersey Conference, spoke about beginning a new church after his church left the denomination. He helped start Unity Church in Christ with 50 other members of the former church who wanted to stay in The United Methodist Church.

Yoon shared his hopes that the new church will be one that honors and respects common values in differences.

“We chose to stay at The United Methodist Church because of the promise to honor the conservative faith of Korean American churches,” he said, and cited a commitment to connectionalism and solidarity.

Mangeum Choi, a lay leader of Korean United Methodist Church of Santa Clara Valley and a member of United Women in Faith, said she found a firm conviction to stay in the denomination after she attended a Zoom conference on the church’s future.         

“I am proud of being a member of The United Methodist Church for educating and empowering women to grow in leadership so that we can unite to share the love and gospel of Christ with the world,” she said. “I hope I stand before God as a United Methodist, as a child of God, when God calls me in the future.”

The Rev. Pauline Hye Kyung Kang said that she has experienced and appreciated how The United Methodist Church respects and protects women clergy.

She had taken a leave of absence last year and returned to South Korea to take care of her ailing parents and resumed serving her new church on July 1, 2023.

“Because I serve The United Methodist Church, I’m able to continue to serve the church without interrupting my career,” Kang said.

One of the highlights of the gathering was the testimony of the Rev. Eun C. Cho.

He shared that when he came to the United States in the 1970s, the love and care he experienced from The United Methodist Church toward the Korean American church, and the inclusiveness and openness of denominational leaders made him a “debtor of love,” and he could not and would not leave The United Methodist Church — drawing much applause from the attendees.

The Association celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Korean First United Methodist Church in Wheeling with a service of baptismal renewal to remember God’s call and reaffirm their faith.

“Immigrants are the ones who have left their country, which is the hardest thing to do, so leaving a church is not a big issue,” Rev. Young Bong Kim said in his sermon at the service. “When you think about it, it’s really something special, something to celebrate, something to rejoice that this United Methodist Church has been around for a hundred years in the Chicago area.

“We cannot control our future. But our God holds the future, and we are in His hands,” Kim said. “So we have to leave the future to God and find out what we can do today, and that’s how we see hope and create hope.”

On the final day of the gathering, the Rev. Chang Min Lee, pastor of Los Angeles Korean United Methodist Church, was elected the new president of the association.

In his sermon at the closing worship service, Lee promised to lead the association as a visionary community that comforts the Korean American community, responds to its call and moves forward together.

“We must remember that we are still the people who swim beyond the dense fog, and even though sometimes we cannot see the goal and feel exhausted, we are the people who look at the goal beyond the fog with the eyes of faith,” Lee said. “Let’s be partners in the ministry … who can swim together and encourage each other.”