WORLDVIEW: 100 Years of Korean United Methodist: Celebration Recalls Impact of Korean Mission on U.S. Church
Rev. Sang Yean Cho
This year marks the centennial celebration of the Korean United Methodist Church in the United States. Under the leadership of Pittsburgh Area Bishop Hae-Jong Kim, the climax of the observance will be a series of events slated for April 24-27, 2003, in Hawaii.
The first group of 102 Korean immigrants to the United States left the port of In Cheon on Dec. 22, 1902, and arrived in Honolulu on Jan. 12, 1903. Almost half of them were from Inchon Naeri Methodist Church in In Cheon. During their voyage, lay leaders started a small-group Christian fellowship that became a refuge to the Koreans as they began life in their new country.
Most found work in the sugar cane fields of Hawaii. The work was burdensome and low paying—laborers earned an average of $1 per day—and the stress of learning a new language and culture added to immigrants’ woes.
The small fellowship groups, started during their journey, flourished as places of safety and spiritual support. Upon learning of the groups’ growth, Inchon Naeri Methodist Church sent a missionary pastor, Soon Hwa Hong, to serve the Korean workers. Under Hong’s leadership, the small groups expanded their reach and a new church was organized.
The Hawaii mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church established the first Korean-speaking church in Honolulu in November 1903. The church became the center of Korean immigrant life, a place where people could nurture their faith using their own language and celebrate their common culture.
The church also served as a base of support for those working for Korea’s independence from Japan. Members steadfastly contributed out of each month’s meager wages to the cause of freedom for Korea. In so doing, they hoped to lift Korea out of Japanese colonialism.
The first Korean Methodist congregation in the United States, today called Christ United Methodist Church, remains a thriving ministry. It is among the largest churches in the California Pacific Annual Conference.
Korean congregations, as a body, continue to be among the fastest-growing churches in the United States. Since 1965, when the government lifted its ban on Asian immigration, Koreans have immigrated en masse to the continental United States and have settled around major cities. Many trace their history back to those first immigrants to Hawaii and the small prayer groups started by Methodists who brought their faith from Korea.
And churches continue as a lifeline to today’s Korean immigrants. Newcomers to the United States find in traditional congregations an instant community where they can speak their native language, eat their native foods such as kimchi (a traditional dish of fermented vegetables); and find support as they settle into their new homeland.
Since its beginning in 1903, the Korean-American United Methodist church community has grown to include more than 420 congregations with 100,000 members. More than 540 Korean-American clergy serve in Korean churches or in cross-racial assignments. Korean-American lay people—including youth and young adults—have also found their voice in leadership at all levels of church life.
The denomination’s 120-member Council of Bishops also includes the first Korean-American United Methodist, Hae-Jong Kim of Pittsburgh, who was elected in July 1992.
Join the Celebration
The theme of the centennial is “Remember the Past, Celebrate the Present, Envision the Future.” A joint planning team, organized by the National Association of Korean-American United Methodist Churches and the General Board of Global Ministries, has organized a series of commemorative events for April 24-27 in Honolulu.
In addition, Korean United Methodists say they will raise $60,000 for the Mission Center in Mongolia. For more information, contact Kim Jong Sung, executive director of the Asian-American office at the General Board of Global Ministries, (212) 870-3829.
Regional celebrations have already been held in at least 10 cities around the United States. And in Korea, Inchon Naeri Methodist Church hosted a celebration last November, which included clergy and laity from the U.S. United Methodist Church. A special sculpture was commissioned to be presented to Naeri Church in appreciation for its contribution.
Responding to a request from Bishop Hae-Jong Kim, the Council of Bishops commended the celebration of Korean churches to the entire denomination and declared Jan. 12 as Korean-American Ministries Sunday.
--Rev. Sang Yean Cho is director of Korean resources for United Methodist Communications.