Korean church plans expanded facilities

Ministry: Begun 23 years ago, a house of worship on St. Johns Lane has more than 1,700 people attending Sunday services.

Ellicott City

October 04, 2002|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church is planning an ambitious new building in Ellicott City that its leaders hope will allow it to better meet the needs of both recent Korean immigrants to the Baltimore area and Korean-Americans who grew up in the United States.

Early in the church's history, "everyone was on the same boat, sometimes literally," said Billy Park, pastor of English ministry. "For the future, there is not one model that will fit everybody. They don't go through the same struggles."

The church, which was started 23 years ago in the homes of seven families, is now bursting at the seams with more than 1,700 people attending Sunday services in English and Korean or Bible study for the children. There isn't a single space large enough for the entire community to gather for events in the present church, which was built in 1988 on St. Johns Lane in Ellicott City, north of U.S. 40.

Finding space for everyone to meet is important because Bethel, like other Korean churches, is an important cultural anchor for immigrants.

Although 25 percent to 30 percent of Koreans identify themselves as Christian, as many as 70 percent of Korean immigrants join a church when they arrive in the United States, said Rebecca Kim, who is working on a doctoral dissertation on Korean Christianity at the University of California at Los Angeles.

For those who choose Howard County as home, Bethel offers classes for children in Korean language Friday nights as well as Korean dance and tae kwan do. At a "senior academy" Fridays, older adults take computer classes and do exercise under the tutelage of a karate master.

The cultural aspect "draws other people who might not come to church," said Jun Lee, 37, who moved to Baltimore at age 5. A lawyer in Woodstock, he is a deacon in the church and leads a Bible study group.

Although some younger immigrants attend a contemporary service in Korean that features a "praise band" playing modern music, those who were raised primarily in the United States usually choose the English-language ministry's Sunday services. The English ministry has its own budget and some non-Korean members attend.

"We can't expect [church members] to be one type of people," Park said. "We do have to be somewhat multifaceted in our approach."

But the different segments of the population can't learn from each other unless they can sit down together - such as at twice-monthly lunches after services.

"I want to see first and second generation getting along well. In our new building, especially our young children will be trained to be leaders," said the Rev. Soon Keun Lee, senior pastor.

Additional adult attendance at the services is coupled with the swelling ranks of children in Bible study classes. In 2000, the church built two temporary trailers as classrooms to make space for about 100 middle school pupils.

The temporary structures worried some homeowners in the area. "They've been wonderful neighbors," said Cindy Wagner, who lives nearby. "Our concern was about the creeping of commercial activity up St. Johns Lane. We're very mindful of that."

Church leaders still must obtain permits to start planning the Bethel Promise Center. Expected to open in four to five years, the multipurpose building with additional classrooms will be constructed on a 1.5-acre field north of the main church. A bridge will connect the building, shielded from the road by trees, to the parking lot.

The planned building is a far cry from the church's humble beginnings. Bethel Korean was established in 1979, branching off from Korean United Presbyterian Church of Baltimore on Rolling Road in Catonsville. After renting space in several churches over the years, the congregation dedicated its building in 1988.

In Bethel Korean's time, the number of Korean-Americans has grown and the nature of the community has evolved as the immigrants had children. In 1965, U.S. immigration law was changed to allow Asians to enter. Koreans still immigrate to the United States, but a generation of Korean-Americans has matured in this country.

Those who were raised in this country have more options to choose from when selecting a church. But there are good reasons to stay with an ethnic church, said Jun Lee.

Even in the European immigrant experience, "there's a history of first-generation churches that have thrived and the passage to the next generation was too difficult," he said. He hopes he and others in the English ministry can act as a bridge between the first and second generations to keep the church alive.

Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church

Denomination: Independent Presbyterian

Leadership: The Rev. Soon Keun Lee

Size: 1,450 Sunday attendance; 175 English ministry membership

Location: 3165 St. Johns Lane, Ellicott City

Date founded: July 8, 1979

Phone: 410-461-1235

Worship services: Four Sunday services - 8:15 a.m. (Korean adult); 10 a.m. (English); 11:30 (main Korean service); 1:30 p.m. (Korean contemporary). Weekdays and Saturdays, 6 a.m. worship service

Children's programs: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday

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