(By Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, The Gospel Coalition). When Joel Kim’s father told his five children that they would be moving from South Korea to the United States, Kim thought hard. Then he had a question.
“Do they have milk in America?” the 9-year-old asked.
Assured by his father that they had both his favorite foods—milk and bananas— Kim had no further objections. In 1982, his family left Incheon—the city where he was born (and where General Douglas MacArthur’s daring landing launched the push to retake Seoul from the communists during the Korean War).
This May, Kim became the first Korean-American president of Westminster Seminary California (WSC). Five weeks later, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) General Assembly (GA) elected ruling elder Alexander Jun as its first Korean-American moderator.
At the same time, the nine Korean-language presbyteries of the PCA held their annual assembly at the GA, resulting in a record number of Korean-language representatives to the larger meeting.
All seem to be steps the PCA and its Korean-language presbyteries—which contain 10 percent of the PCA’s congregations—are taking toward each other. After 35 years apart, will the Korean-language churches follow the path of the Dutch Reformed and assimilate into the predominately white denomination?
“That’s the $64,000 question,” said Julius Kim, second-generation Korean American and dean of students and professor of practical theology at WSC. “How do we go forward?”
South Korea came to Christianity late but eagerly; the share of Christians shot up from 1 percent in 1900 to almost 30 percent in 2010, according to Pew Research Center. Thanks to the early influence of Scottish Presbyterian missionaries in the late 1800s, Presbyterians make up more than 9 million of the country’s 15 million Protestants.
A dozen years after the Korean War ended, Congress lifted restrictions against Asian immigration, and South Koreans flooded across the Pacific to the United States. The number of Korean immigrants skyrocketed from 39,000 in 1970 to 290,000 in 1980, then to 568,000 in 1990 and 1.1 million in 2010.
“South Korea was a mess after the war,” said Alexander Jun, a diversity and social justice professor at Azusa Pacific University and the GA moderator this year. “It was economically devastated, so people came to the United States. They brought their faith with them.”
Julius Kim’s father came early, in 1959, to study at the University of Southern California. Kim was born in Los Angeles, then moved back to South Korea with his family in 1970 when his father took over an engineering firm there.
His parents sent him to an English-speaking school for the children of soldiers and expats. He remembers being in kindergarten, staring in bewilderment at “a room full of kids with yellow hair, wondering how they got that.”
When Kim was 12, his family moved back to the United States.
Then, like most other Korean immigrants, they joined a Korean church.