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Ethnic Korean Churches Thrive in Canada
Canadian Korean churches founded on a rich and varied Christian tradition imported from their homeland, thrive in numbers, but strive to retain second-generation Koreans in the pews.

When Dong Chun Seo looks out at his congregation at the Edmonton Korean United Church, this is what he sees: a healthy complement of middle-aged and elderly Koreans who immigrated to Canada over the past 30 years and have retained their culture, language and customs; a clutch of mostly bilingual teens and young adults, the sons and daughters of the immigrants; and a dozen "mixed" couples, Koreans who have married non-Koreans.

Among Canada's 64,000 ethnic Koreans, Christianity is the dominant faith.

What Seo sees is, in a nutshell, the reality facing Canada's Korean Christians: the pull of the motherland—a nation that remains racially homogeneous and values conformity—up against the aggressive individualism of their adopted country.

Seo convinced older members of his church that the only way to grow was to promote bilingual, intergenerational worship that welcomes younger, bicultural Koreans and interracial couples. In other words, his church avoids holding separate Korean and English services, because it doesn't want to divide the generations and shut out those with non-Korean spouses.

Many Korean churches have made attempts at bilingual services but abandoned them too quickly, says Seo. Bilingual services need a long time to take root, he argues, but eventually others will "have to take this direction whether they like it or not."

Among Canada's 64,000 ethnic Koreans, Christianity is the dominant faith. In Toronto, home to the largest Korean-Canadian community with 50,000 members, it is common to see signs advertising Korean congregations sharing a church building with English-speaking congregations.

Koreans as a group have a solid reputation for early-morning prayer and missionary zeal. But such strengths have not exempted their congregations from facing the same challenges encountered by other ethnic churches, such as the struggle to keep the second generation in the pews while making ethnic churches appealing in multicultural society.

For James Chong, seeing Korean Christians carve out a unique place in Canada's Christian community would have been hard to imagine when he first came to Canada 33 years ago.

"Christianity helped the newcomers. It gave them great assurances," says Chong, an elder at the Toronto Korean United Church, the oldest Korean church in Canada. Though many non-Koreans may be impressed by the number of Korean churches they see (Toronto alone has 150 churches), Chong says the majority of them are small in congregational size and have imported either the staunch conservative or liberal theological attitudes of the homeland.

South Korea, a small and traditionally Buddhist country of 45 million tucked between Japan and China, has seen Christianity double every decade during the last 50 years. Since its introduction to the Korean peninsula in 1784 by Catholic missionaries, Korean-style Christianity has earned a reputation for vibrancy and missionary dynamism.

From presidents to poor rice farmers, Koreans have embraced Christianity with an intensity that astonishes westerners. While Christians in Communist North Korea continue to be persecuted brutally for their faith, at least 25 percent of South Koreans are Christians (11 million Protestants and three million Catholics), with 35,000 churches, 50,000 pastors and a growth rate unsurpassed in the world.

Canadian Protestant missionaries were prominent in Korea and China during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1948 the first Korean immigrant to Canada, Tae-yon Whang, came as a mission-sponsored medical intern. Other students followed him in the 1950s and then "economic" immigrants came from the late 1960s onward.

Korean immigrants have a different religious profile than most of today's new immigrants to Canada, who come largely from parts of the world where Christianity has had little penetration. In contrast, half of Korean immigrants over the past 30 years have been Christians, according to Min Ho Song, senior pastor at Young Nak Korean Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

" … You're looking at three-quarters of Korean Canadians having some tie to a church."

"The growth of Korean churches has been because half of the immigrants already come prepared to join a church," says Song. "Half of the remaining immigrants eventually call a church their 'community centre' where they seek support and assistance in adjusting to their new home. You're looking at three-quarters of Korean Canadians having some tie to a church."

These immigrants set up churches that often reflect the church groupings back home. For example, the most popular denominational affiliations in Canada have been Presbyterian, United Church and Baptist, a nod to the significant evangelical missionary activity in Korea by these groups throughout the past 120 years.

The growth of the Korean contingent within the Presbyterian fold in particular has been amazing: 66 percent of all Korean Christians in the Toronto area belong to a Presbyterian church, according to a 1993 survey. Young Nak Church, where Song pastors, was opened in Toronto in mid-1999 and seats 1,200. The Presbyterian Church in Canada recently dealt with this growth by establishing two Han-cas or Korean presbyteries—one in western Canada with eight churches and one in the east with 13.

Common strengths, weaknesses

Korean Christians here and in Korea exhibit some common strengths and weaknesses, says Marian Current, who spent 37 years as a missionary in Korea for the United Church. She retired to Canada three years ago.

Current praises the deep commitment to personal faith, missions, and advocacy on behalf of human rights and justice which she has seen. However, she also sees that the Protestant heritage of splitting churches has taken deep root among Korean Protestants.

"Korean churches are factionalist, forever splitting on theological or personality lines," says Current.

This factionalism has been attributed to Koreans being "attitude-wise very different from each other," says Sung Chul Lee, the most prominent Korean church leader in Canada. (He was elected moderator of the United Church of Canada in 1988.) Unlike other groups who usually bring one dominant religious outlook with them to Canada, Koreans bring with them a variety of theological expressions and hold to them strongly, says Lee.

For example, in Winnipeg, Kun Kim pastors the Korean United Church of Winnipeg, a 60-member congregation. Kim says he benefits greatly from regular meetings with other United Church ministers, although he laments that he rarely interacts with Korean ministers in other denominations.

The theological walls that divide Korean Canadian church leaders, particularly between established, mainline churches and the growing independent or charismatic churches, hurt both sides. Kim worries that "Independents don't have nearly as much contact with other pastors."

A new generation

The most pressing issue for Korean churches in Canada remains what will happen as the initial immigrant generation gets older and the "Canadianized" second- and third-generation Korean-Canadians come of age, says Min Ho Song.

Song has completed a study of 300 people of the second generation. He found that the group broke down equally into thirds: one-third remained active and committed Christians; another third classified themselves as nominal Christians, and the rest have left the church altogether. (The Korean-Canadians he studied were of post-university age and born in Canada or immigrated before age six.)

What makes these numbers a concern to church leaders is that Song compared them to second generation Dutch Canadians and American evangelicals (whose parents had converted to evangelical Protestantism). In both these groups, 80 percent remained committed and active Christians.

Song suggests two possible causes: the "cultural rigidity" of the first generation, and a lack of spiritual upbringing at home. Immigrant parents may have given all their energy to establishing themselves economically, or they may simply have brought their children to Sunday school as a social activity.

But Ro found he couldn't serve within a Korean church …

Not all first-generation immigrants stayed in ethnic Korean churches. Some have found they needed to step away from Korean churches in order to find relevancy in their spiritual walk. Peter Ro is an elder at an English-speaking Baptist church in Toronto. For him, being "born again" meant a "total change of values, a way of life." But Ro found he couldn't serve within a Korean church because the "servanthood" type of relations he treasures just "didn't work."

Roman Catholicism is a minority Christian denomination in Korea, but nonetheless it too has ethnic Korean congregations in Canada. Korean Catholicism is roughly as vibrant as Catholicism overall, says Gregory Choi, senior pastor at St. Andrew Kim Catholic Church in east-end Toronto: whereas one-third of Canada's Catholics seem to practise their faith, in Korean Catholic circles about 37 percent are practising.

St. Andrew Kim, built three years ago and serving 4,000, is evidence that Catholic authorities have recognized the coming of age of the Korean community. A sister church in Toronto's west end, St. Sosa Lee Church, is five years old and serves 2,500 adherents.

Despite some significant hurdles, Korean churches are growing and adapting to the challenges of being part of the church in Canada. The bilingual church signs and the new buildings are unavoidable physical evidence that Korean Christians are here to stay.

Joe Couto is a Toronto-based public relations professional and writer. He and his Korean-born wife have been involved with the Korean church in Canada and in South Korea.

Originally published in Faith Today, May/June 2000.




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