Gifts From the First Generation

The hope was to have this post ready for Choo-Suk (the Korean Harvest Moon celebration, often described to immigrant children as the Korean Thanksgiving), and then I pushed my self-imposed deadline to Thanksgiving. I let several things get in the way.

Anyway, I grew up in the Korean immigrant church. The family story is that one of the first places we visited upon our arrival to Chicago was to Sunday service at First Korean United Methodist Church. Through the years our family would change church affiliations, but we would always be at a Korean church. They were not perfect churches. And those churches had their share of broken people and broken systems. But reading through Dr. Soong-Chan Rah‘s book, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church From Western Cultural Captivity gave me reason to pause. Rah uses the Korean immigrant church as his example for Chapter 8 – Holistic Evangelism, and it made me think back to my childhood and youth.

As the commenting raged on on other blogs about how Asian Americans need to get over their race issues and put Jesus first, I found myself thanking God for the gifts of grace, the power of faith, and the complicated and amazing ways in which my faith have shaped the ways I view ethnicity, race and gender and vice versa. Weren’t we all “fearfully and wonderfully made”? Won’t “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” be in God’s presence and glory?

So I go back to the memories of church – the sights, the sounds, the smells, and I am filled with gratitude for the gifts from the first generation.

I thank God for the experience of the first generation Korean church and:

  1.  the church’s additional role a cultural school for me. I learned about Jesus and I learned about being Korean. I learned to read and write (though only mastered both to a 2nd grade level) the only spoken language knew until I was in kindergarten. That basic foundation of the language connects me to a rich history and culture that I grew up experiencing through all of my senses. I learned Korean folk dancing that allowed my body to tell stories that I could not speak.
  2. the gift of liturgy and hymns. They were sung and spoken in Korean. It’s now my lost language, almost like a faint memory that still speaks to places in my soul and communicate nuances I can still only grasp in Korean.
  3. the community the immigrant church provided for my parents and their peers who displaced themselves for the promise of a better life.
  4. the community the immigrant church provided for me and my peers who had no choice in our displacement but needed a group of friends (and frienemies) who could relate to the bicultural experiences our parents could not help us navigate.
  5. the gift of faith because it was at church my parents’ faith was nurtured in their native tongue and where local Bible school students interned and shared the gospel with me in English. I still have the Bible given to me by my Sunday School teacher, John Bezel, and remember his willingess to learn about the Korean American experience as he shared about Jesus.


  1. Wayne Park December 3, 2009

    The 1st gen gave us invaluable pietistic roots.

    The strategic role of 2.0’s for the future of evangelicalism (and currently blossoming) comes from these pietistic roots; so commonly shared by many K-Am’s

  2. Hannah December 3, 2009

    That is a beautiful reflection! Thank you for sharing it 🙂 Where do you attend church now? And…would you ever go back to a Korean immigrant church that had an English ministry?

    • Kathy Khang December 3, 2009

      Thanks, Hannah! My family and I attend an Evangelical Covenant church in the north burbs of Chicago. My husband and I have talked about going back to a Korean immigrant church to give our kids a chance to experience the Korean American Christian subculture. But we are enjoying the stability and multigenerational experience our current church is providing for us.

      How about you? 🙂 Do you attend a Korean church? Why or why not?

      • Hannah December 7, 2009

        I do attend Korean churches, I’m serving at one right now (as a substitute children’s pastor for my friend on leave). I tried an Asian American church in college, but it felt…incomplete – I really missed having gukbap and seeing older parents & grandparents around, too. In the end though, I’m staying because I believe I’m called to be a bridge between 1st & 2nd generation…it’s my mission field 🙂

  3. SueAtGraceCorner December 4, 2009

    In the midst of the blog dialogue about Deadly Vipers, it occurred to me that, without an understanding of the immigration experience, entire passages of scripture become emotionally flat and socially incomprehensible (like Genesis 12, Leviticus 19:33, or Psalm 137). It then becomes easy to assume that they are also spiritually unimportant.

    The immigrant generation in my family tree is so distant that we aren’t even sure where some of them came from; so I rely on stories like yours, Kathy, to show me how and why God shows special concern for those who, by choice or by force, must “sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land.” Through your voice, I connect with a part of God’s heart that I might otherwise ignore.

  4. elderj December 5, 2009

    Thank you so much for this Kathy. It means a lot to me (for some strange reason)

    • Kathy Khang December 5, 2009

      When you figure out why this means so much to you let me know, elder j! I suspect it would be a good for many of us to hear.


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