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Korean churches must nurture younger generations (UM News)

May 26, 2021

As a religious educator in church and academia, I have wanted to claim that our Korean immigrant churches are doing a great job preserving ethnic and religious traditions and nurturing the next generation. I so wished to conclude my research that this society is going in the right direction. However, complicating challenges in and out of the communities emerged more often than I imagined.

The global crisis of COVID-19 revealed health vulnerabilities and various social issues and accelerated the pace of change. In the Korean immigrant community, conflicts between members, the generation gap between parents and children and sociocultural pressure by racism have become more noticeable. Of course, these issues are not new things. These problems have, in fact, always existed throughout American history and culture. Yet now we are to pay immediate attention to the intersection of identity development and faith formation for the rising generation of Korean American children.

Anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 150% in 2020 alone. The March 2021 shooting in Atlanta was a hate crime that revealed multilayered problems of anti-Asian racism, white supremacy and orientalism. Healing from such deep wounds does not come in a day. As Asian and Asian Americans and as Christians, we are at a time when we must oppose and speak up and act more in solidarity against all the injustices that threaten the formation of healthy identities of our children. 

While serving Korean American churches in various settings for more than a decade, I have witnessed the challenges the rising generation faces in their families and society. This rising generation is constantly struggling with cultural conflicts and identity formation. At home, they deal with different cultural traditions and ways of communication with their parents. At school and the society, they deal with racism and marginalization. 

According to research by Russel Jeung, Carolyn Chen and Jerry Z. Park, second-generation Asian Americans, in general, share their experiences of being considered and treated as foreigners or strangers to the main group. Significantly, such racial stereotypes – namely the “perpetual foreigner” and the “model minority myth” – become internalized and dwell in people’s minds so that they live in that mindset. To the children who are at the stage of forming their faith and identity, these racial stereotypes and social pressures add more layers of challenge to overcome.

Therefore, it is essential to name and examine faith community practices along with constant struggles such as race, gender and class discrimination. It is not solely the work of an individual to figure out one’s own voice and purpose in life. Rather, it is a shared responsibility of parents, community and oneself so that individuals can navigate through the meanings of one’s own life and grow up as an integrated and faithful being. 

For me, being oppressed means there are no other choices than being defined and confined by others. For quite a long time, the life of Korean immigrants and their children has been defined by sociocultural factors from their Korean past and American present. Often, those conflicting and oppressing factors left confusion and struggles. However, my experiences and research continuously tell me that second-generation Korean American young people are longing to know their true selves, longing to get closer to the Divine one, longing to find their ontological vocation and possibilities to thrive in life and faith.

Considering the liberating ministry of Jesus in response to people’s needs in their own place, the Korean immigrant church and education ministry should be scaffolding for the rising generation, as home away from home. Therefore, it is crucial to create a safe space for them to navigate various possibilities of developing their faith and create their own hybrid identity.  Sharon Kim, author of A Faith of Our Own: Second-Generation Spirituality in Korean American Churches, states that the concept of hybridity is to challenge ethnic essentialism. According to Kim, Korean American young people creatively navigate and renegotiate “their condition of marginality by fashioning a hybrid identity, by adopting and reinterpreting elements of Korean and American spirituality.”

The moments of despair and anger that come to us today are not the end of us. Just as we have worked together to cultivate a new life in a foreign-but-not-foreign land, we are moving forward from the dark night to dawn. So I still dream of a day when second and coming generations of Asian American children freely claim their voice and purpose, find their ontological vocations with God’s grace and vision and joyfully, confidently make their journey in the world. There is still a long way to go in this time of fear and hatred in the world. Yet, the day is coming. The day is coming. 

Hwang is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Education at Chicago Theological Seminary.