LOS ANGELES—Every Sunday at Christ Covenant Church in Koreatown, the pungent smell of kimchi—Korean fermented cabbage—clashes with the toasty fragrance of steamed rice. Kids run screaming with laughter down the corridor, ignoring the shushes of disapproving elders, as adults pile their plates high with kimchi and toasted seaweed.
Lunchtime is a neutral zone at many Asian immigrant churches in America. Some second and third-generation Asian-Americans leave to join or form another church, but other churches try to stay together. Here at Christ Covenant, a 12-year-old Korean immigrant church, senior pastor Min-Kyu Song preaches in his native language, while a Korean-American deacon stands beside him translating the words into English.
After lunch, young adults move the tables, arrange the chairs into neat rows, and set up the audio system for the bass guitar that will play a prominent part in the English Ministry (EM) service. EM pastor Isaac Kim, 33, begins the sermon with a short video clip, and when it’s time to read the week’s Bible verse, iPhones, Androids, and iPads light up across the seats. Meanwhile, the sounds of traditional hymns and piano notes vibrate through the thin walls dividing EM from a Korean-language college service in the main auditorium.
Worship styles form only one of the many differences between worshippers in various languages. After the service, members of the EM group carpool to a nearby café to hang out and chat over iced lattes. They talk about everything from their personal struggles to the best scooter prices. Unlike some Korean pastors who exclude themselves from that kind of socializing, Kim joins in and meanders through the different conversations taking place.
“It’s ironic, isn’t it?” said Kim. “This is America, and we’re kids who live and grew up in America … but in this immigrant church, our EM struggles to fit in.” EM regulars call their fellowship “The Impossible Church”—a name that underscores the conflicts within Asian immigrant churches in America today. Kim says he doesn’t know of an example of an autonomous fellowship staying and thriving within its parent congregation, but he thinks “It’s something that God wants … He desires to bring people together.”
Not every Asian-American leader shares the desire to stay in the parent church. Baylor University professor Jonathan Tran, who has researched and written extensively about Asian-American Christianity, worries that divisions between generations will result in the loss of spiritual blessings for both sides: “A lot of churches are just riddled with these kinds of brokenness. But instead of trying to work through them, most young Asian-Americans just want to leave the church.” Reasons for leaving range from “personal hurts and wounds” to disillusionment with “superstar” pastors and an overemphasis on materialism.
Most first-generation parents encourage their second-generation kids to assimilate into American culture, but those who go to Korean language churches often feel spiritually isolated because none of their non-Asian friends go to the same church. Second-generation believers sometimes are unable to penetrate a rigid church hierarchy, and EM leaders may feel that progress is painstakingly slow.
Christine Cho, a 27-year-old elementary school teacher, says she would have left Christ Covenant had her fiancé, who serves as deacon, not felt otherwise. She wanted to leave for a “less Korean” church, while he did not understand why she struggled so much. Although born to Korean parents, Cho did not feel at ease with the Korean congregants until the English-only service started this January. Now, she says she anticipates rather than dreads going to church: “I finally feel at home ... I can relate to the people in EM. I actually get excited to go to church now.”
Evergreen Baptist Church in Rosemead, Calif., has 600 congregants, with about two-thirds from a variety of Asian ethnicities and one-third non-Asian. Twenty percent of the Asians are first-generation immigrants who speak broken English and carry Bibles in their own native language. It’s common to see two generations sitting together in a pew: a silver-haired couple in their 70s in pressed suits and waxed shoes, and a middle-aged couple dressed in sneakers and sweats.
The service starts with videos introducing new members: “Hi, my name is Katie McPherson. I’m better at using chopsticks than a fork, so that’s why I fit in here.” The filled auditorium bursts into laughter. Although Evergreen is consciously moving toward multiculturalism under the guidance of senior pastor Ken Fong, a salt-and-pepper-haired third-generation Chinese-American, the Asian jokes and cultural references persist.
Evergreen’s history traces back to a modest church in a then Japanese-dominant neighborhood, Boyle Heights. Founded in 1925 by American Baptist missionaries and led by a pastor from Japan, the church at first targeted and attracted only Japanese immigrants, and then their children. But in the early 1950s, the younger Japanese-Americans moved their parents and their grandparents to a separate church across the street, and changed their church’s name to Nisei Baptist Church—“Nisei” meaning “second generation” in Japanese.
When the third generation started growing up, the parents scrapped “Nisei” for a more generic name, “Evergreen,” and non-Japanese-Asians began trickling in the doors. Later, Fong became the first non-Japanese senior pastor, as Chinese-Americans began to outnumber Japanese-Americans in the church. Fong encourages church members to stop thinking as Confucians and to think more as Christians, which means acknowledging flaws and sins: “People keep a lot of things secret and they live in fear that it will come out into the light. Yes, it happens in non-Asian churches, too, but the Confucian Asian culture puts that problem on steroids.”
To conclude his sermon one Sunday, Fong plays a clip from the movie The Joy Luck Club. The scene shows the main character June, a Chinese-American, finally confronting her mother about never feeling good enough to meet her mother’s expectations on piano lessons, grades, job, and marriage. When the clip is over and the lights turn back on, several people in the pew are wiping their eyes. Clearly, the cultural ties still strike a nerve.
A generation from now, Fong expects Evergreen to be a truly diversified church, though he hopes it won’t forget its roots and history: “We should look like a preview of what heaven looks like. We call it Faith Village.” —S.L.