2 cultures combine at Bethel Koreans find worship haven in Ellicott City.

October 22, 1991|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Evening Sun Staff

Under an arching hexagonal ceiling, the staccato rhythms of the congregation's responsive reading are in perfect unison as voices cascade from six rows of pews during a Sunday church service.

The chorus remains in sync, although some attending Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church are speaking in English, others in ,, Korean.Older members read in their native Korean, and younger adults follow along in English, the tongue they were were encouraged to master -- American accent and all.

The Rev. Jonathan Song switches between the languages easily as he leads the call-and-response reading of biblical verse. Children laugh and talk quietly in English in the corridor and outside.

This bilingual service may seem strange to a newcomer, but it's quite normal at Bethel, a majestic building on St. John's Lane in Ellicott City where young and old Koreans worship. First- and second-generation Koreans, who devote much of their week assimilating into American society, unite here as a community.

"I think it's a very good thing for us," said Myung Youn, who travels to the church from Severna Park with her husband, Dr. Young Youn and their family. "Our children can be exposed to the Korean community. There, they have friends in [the] same situation, born in America and raised in America."

The flock has three pastors who are considered equals. Song and the Rev. David Park are bilingual. The Rev. David Gibbons, who has a Korean heritage, speaks English.

The congregation, founded in 1979 on Liberty Road's Baltimore County-Carroll County border by the Rev. David Kim, bought 28 acres near the interchange of U.S. 40 and U.S. 29 in suburban Ellicott City in Howard County in 1982. Four years later, the church began construction of a six-sided brick building in what church officials describe as traditional Korean architecture.

It was completed in 1988 with 42,000 square feet -- enough room for a sanctuary that seats 1,100 worshipers and choir members, a chapel with capacity for 150 people, six offices, classrooms, and a library-bookstore.

The land purchase and construction cost $4.2 million, according to church documents.

Still, there are plans for a conference center on the land, playing fields and a gymnasium.

The congregation's growth from seven families 12 years ago to more than 1,200 reflects the expansion of the Korean and other Asian populations in Maryland, particularly in Howard County. The U.S. Census Bureau counted 2,285 Asians in the county in 1980. There were almost four times as many -- 8,098 -- in 1990, about 4.4 percent of the county's population.

The census bureau doesn't break down groups of Asians by country. But 30,320 of the state's 139,719 Asians were Korean in 1990, ranking them a close second among Asians to the 30,868 Chinese.

Bethel Korean Presbyterian draws people from all over the Baltimore metropolitan area. Gibbons says some come from as far as Northern Virginia.

Gibbons, 29, gets his western name from his father. He was born in Seoul, the product of a marriage between a white American soldier and a Korean woman, and was brought to the United States when he was 2. He recalls being raised as an American, and said he never learned to speak or read Korean. An amiable man, he jokes that he felt like a missionary when he came to Bethel Korean Presbyterian two years ago.

Gibbons says it took some time for church members to accept him.. He said he wants to open the church to all racial and ethnic groups.

At a recent service there were three whites, a black college student from Trinidad and a member who is of Chinese-Japanese ancestry among the congregation. The guest minister was the Rev. Barry Rubin, pastor of the Emmanuel Messianic Church.

Some of the younger people said they prefer the term Korean-Americans.

A medley of hymns was played almost constantly through that service, which was for the English-speaking congregation. Soft guitars led by Ji Lee and Sam Yoon were accompanied by pianist Joyce Rim as lyrics were projected on a large overhead screen. Timothy Min, a Johns Hopkins medical student, played a violin solo of the musical version of "The Lord's Prayer."

Gibbons says Korean families often encourage, or demand that their children train in classical and other western music, which is incorporated into the church program. Although many church members adhere to Korean heritage, he wants them to "take the best of both cultures" -- Korean and American -- and focus on religion.

"Dave Gibbons has tried to shift the focus of our church away from culture and toward the spiritual," says Dr. Peter Cho, 28, an active church member.

Youn, who says she and her husband were "non-believers" before joining Bethel, believes the church always will be a "special church, a Korean church," but that it eventually will become a completely English-speaking house of God.

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