In A Strange Land, Koreans Find Comfort At Church

July 31, 1991|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

Working 12- to 14-hour days, six days in a row, doesn't keep the county's Korean Christians from church. It makes them desperate to go.

Sunday church for these families has become the high point in a hard week, a few hours of security where everyone speaks their language and knows their ways, say Korean pastors and parishioners.

"Korean people very hard worker," says Shintae Yu, 21, whose father is pastor at the Bethlehem Korean Baptist Church in Linthicum. "People who owns a business, they have to open early morning and close late. They meet (other Korean) people just one day a whole week, on Sunday. It makes them happy."

The services at nearly a dozen Korean churches in the county differ little from their American counterparts-- except for the language. All the churches conduct services in Korean, and some provide earphones for visitors who wish to listen to a translator in English.

For many of the 10,000 Koreans in Anne Arundel, even those who've been here for many years, having a place to worship in their own language is a necessity.

"When they go to American church, they have different people and sometimes can't understand," says Yu. "Most adults can't understand Americans, not easily. But in the Korean church, they meet all the same race people and hear thesame words, share the same language."

David C. Sohn, pastor of the Korean Assembly of God on Camp Meade Road, says the tough part for his 150 parishioners has been adapting to American culture.

Most members of his congregation have lived in the United States for more than a decade, but they tend to stay to themselves, he says. Living intheir own world within a world, they use Korean phone directories, read Korean newspapers and keep Korean friends. The Korea Times, for example, runs a factory in Washington, D.C., to reprint more than 10,000 copies of the paper every day.

In part, this isolation occurs because Koreans tend to find both American culture and the English language difficult, Sohn says.

"They cannot eat the hot dogs or pizzaright away. They have to eat Korean food," he explains. "They cannotspeak English very well, so they are afraid to talk with Americans."

With a population of 30,000, the Baltimore metropolitan area is one of the largest Korean communities in the country, says Inwook Huh,local bureau chief of the Korea Times and former vice president of the Korean Businessmen's League of Maryland.

Changes in American immigration laws in the 1970s encouraged the immigration of skilled workers. After the Vietnam War, many Koreans came to the area to work asmechanics and engineers for Baltimore industries, such as Bethlehem Steel.

It isn't easy for the Koreans, Huh says. Many open mom and pop businesses, like grocery stores and dry cleaners, which don't require a large amount of capital, or a command of English.

"They learn enough language to do the job, but they don't have time to learn English, really," Huh says. "Usually when they come here, they cannot survive without long hours and hard work. Husbands and wives, and sometimes kids, help their parents. Newcomers depend totally on their work. It is not so easy."

Says Yu, a pre-med student at UMBC, "Most Koreans live in real poor places until they raise money, and they hope to buy a house."

All this makes churches socially and politically crucial for Korean families. It is the churches that provide a network to help newcomers establish themselves in this country. It is churches that, with the newspapers, provide the main source of information for immigrants once they arrive.

But the main reason Koreans come to church is spiritual, says Sohn, whose charismatic service is characterized by lively gospel songs accompanied by drums, a guitar, keyboard, bass guitar and piano.

Korea is traditionally a Buddhist country, but within the last 50 years evangelical churches in South Korea -- many characterized by religious healing -- have been growing dramatically.

"One hundred years ago, there was not a Christian in Korea," Sohn says. Now, one Full Gospel Church in Seoul counts 700,000 members, says the minister, whose church is a mission church of theFull Gospel branch.

Sohn, 51, converted from Buddhism to Christianity, or "came to the Jesus" as he sweetly puts it, while a teen-agerin South Korea. Seven years after arriving in the States, he sold his two shops in Baltimore and went to seminary in New York.

"I'm much happier than when I was a businessman," he says. "This is spiritual business."

Fewer than 20 percent of Koreans are Christian. About40 percent are Buddhist and another 40 percent were Buddhist but no longer practice their religion, Sohn estimates.

Korean church members who invite friends to church know they may face disinterest, sometimes strong resistance, but they persist, knocking on doors and trying to be good neighbors, he says.

In addition to Sohn's Pentecostal-type church, there are several Korean Presbyterian churches in AnneArundel County, several Methodist and Baptist churches, and one Seventh-day Adventist church. While a number of Korean Roman Catholics live in the Glen Burnie area, they must travel outside the county -- toColumbia or Baltimore -- to find a Korean Catholic church.

The Assembly of God church on Camp Meade Road is one of a handful of the 40-some Korean churches in the Baltimore area that has its own building. Most of the churches rent churches for Sunday afternoon meetings.

"The people try to go to American church, but come back to Korean church," says Sohn in a slow, deep voice. "We are all in the family ofGod. But they find comfort and security with Korean people, loving them and having friendship with them."

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