Dae Shik and I arrived a bit late for the opening worship. Instead of quietly rushing into the sanctuary, I found myself hesitating to go in. I think he did too. Everything felt so strange in a situation where everything should be so familiar.
It was the second time in the summer of 2017 where I’ve experienced culture shock. The first time was at my first Annual Conference in the Texas Annual Conference.
But this time around, the culture shock was… different. It was more jarring. And it hurt my heart that I was experiencing this culture shock. Because this time, I was surrounded by Korean-Americans.
I finally got around to attending the Nexus Convocation — a gathering of Korean-American (second generation and beyond) clergy, church leaders, and church members earlier this month. It was my first time going. Before Nexus became Nexus, the gathering was known as the Trans-Generational Convocation, or TG. I didn’t attend any of those gatherings either. It wasn’t ever deliberate, my non-attendance.
It just never happened.
But I finally made it to one! After years of being in a cross-cultural appointment, I get to be with people who looked like me and be with folks who’ve shared similar experiences growing up in the Korean-Immigrant church while living in the States.
… yet I couldn’t go inside…
When I was working in the Korean church, I told myself I didn’t want to be another statistic of Korean-Americans leaving the first generation church. Because it happened (happens) all the time. The Korean-American pastors exodus from the first generation church is real. And painful. There’s such a need for second generation (and beyond) pastors to minister to second gen (and beyond) people. Yet many second gen pastors couldn’t withstand the pressure and pain laid upon us by the first generation church.
But I was different, I told myself. I’ll survive. I’ll stick through it. Not just for me, but for everyone else. Savior complex, much?
Of course, I didn’t survive.
I was already experiencing disenchantment with the Korean church during my last year in seminary. It was real tough working with the lead youth pastor at my church: a pastor who claimed to be like second-gen but operated as a first-gen. Work. Work. Work. When I wasn’t working, I was studying. Even when I was studying, my phone would ring because there was more work to be done. It was never ending.
I thought going home to Hawaii and setting my own pace, leading my own ministry was the answer.
Only it wasn’t.
I loved the church I was working at. I loved the students and the volunteers. But that ministry took a toll on me spiritually and physically. One Sunday morning, it was time for the sermon and I got up to preach — only I couldn’t get up. Half the students had no idea what was going on. The other half thought it was a skit. Someone took me to the ER. And I got a taste of morphine for the first time in my life (the highlight of that day…). The doctors had no idea what was wrong with my back. They blamed stress. I agreed.
Another time, I got gout. At the age of 26. Gout. My wife still doesn’t believe me on how painful it was.
But, more importantly, I could feel my soul burning out. I could hear a voice deep within the bowels of my soul saying, “It doesn’t have to be like this.” Except, it did. Or so I strongly believed.
The ministry was gaining steam. We were making strides. These kids were on fire — and I mean on fire for Christ. And yet, I kept hearing this nagging voice, it doesn’t have to be like this.
I got along — nay, coexisted — with my senior pastor. Only because I didn’t argue. I kept my mouth shut. I pretended to know little to no Korean so that I could stay out of meetings, but mostly to not be directly involved in church politics.
I just tried to stay in my lane and do effective ministry. I figured that’s the best thing I can do for this church.
But it was clear that when it came to youth ministry; the second-generation ministry, we were only important to them by words. Definitely not by action. The adults had no problem interrupting our worship services so that they could set up for lunch. Yes, their lunch set up was more important than our spiritual formation. Sure, they would say, “You’re the most important ministry in our church.” But their actions would betray their words. Let’s not talk about how important we were when it came to the budget. If there was a cut that needed to be made, guess whose budget got the cuts? We were always the lowest priority when it came to actions and major decisions. The highest when it came to (empty) words.
I don’t have to tell you the name of this church. Because this is a majority of what we, as second-generation (and beyond) folks experience at a first-generation church.
But it was manageable. Predictable. Stay in my lane. Avoid head-on collisions. Do good. Do no harm. Stay in love with God.
The final straw came during a one-on-one with my senior pastor. I asked for a week (maybe a week and a half) off for vacation. We were going to go to LA and then visit my sister in-law in Vegas.
I hadn’t taken a vacation in a while. I could feel myself wearing thin. The summer retreat that I had great hopes for… fizzled. The outcome was disappointing. Everyone else thought it went well. But in my heart I knew we missed a great opportunity to do something great and life transforming. I needed a break. I figured it was reasonable ask. It was down time in ministry, I hadn’t taken a vacation for a while, and, well, it was time.
Except, I was given a stern talking to.
“Why is that you keep taking vacations? Why are you seeking happiness in ministry? There is no happiness in ministry! I’d love to take a vacation with my family. I’ve been here for 7 years and I have yet to take a vacation! There is no joy in ministry! We need to suffer for the sake of our ministry!”
It’s amazing how vividly I still remember this conversation. It’s been seared into my soul, for better or worse.
And that was it.
I was done.
I knew that there was no way for me to continue to work under someone who was miserable at doing what he was called to do. That negativity is contagious. Malcontent breeds malcontent. I was jaded, yes. But I refused to enter a level of jadedness where I felt there was no joy in ministry. I’d quit before I’d get there. I had to get out of there before that church turned me into a miserable zombie.
It broke my heart to think about leaving these kids whom I gave everything I had for the past 2 years and wanted to give more. But if I wanted to remain useful to God; if I wanted to stay in ministry, it was time to move.
Because… it doesn’t have to be like this.
Being part of that exodus was painful.
Especially when I felt my first church away from the Korean church was suffocating my soul rather than helping it breathe. But that was because I did not transition well. My physical body transitioned, but my heart and mind was still in Korean-church mode. Instead of adapting to my new setting — or at the minimum trying to find a common ground — I was getting frustrated that they weren’t… here’s the rub… the Korean church.
I told myself, this was my moment in the wilderness. I’ll come back eventually. I’ll be the lost son, and will come to my senses and return home. I just need time to breathe, heal, regroup, regather, reenergize, learn… then I’ll be back in the Korean church soon enough.
Except I never did go back.
I joked that I knew my rights. That I’ve tasted freedom and can never go back.
There’s truth in that. I’ve experienced grace and freedom in ministry that I never did in the Korean church.
My senior pastor, Mark one day pulled me aside and said, “Joseph, why aren’t you taking your vacations? Go somewhere for a week within the next few months, or you’ll be in trouble.”
… are you kidding me…?
Last conversation that I had about vacation didn’t go so well. It broke my proverbial camel’s back.
I told my dad that I’d go back to a Korean church, but under certain conditions. After hearing my conditions, he responded, “Who’d hire you?” to which I said, “My point exactly.” Sure, I was arrogant and prideful. But I didn’t need to experience the abuse that many of us feel within the first generation church. In the words of Sweet Brown: Ain’t nobody got time for that!
So, 10 years after my exodus, I found myself sitting in the narthex of the church, hesitant to go in.
I don’t know why I felt the way I felt.
It felt good to be back “home.” But I felt that I was gone far too long.
You know when you meet up with your best friend after years of not seeing each other, and you pick up right where you left off? I was expecting that. I really was.
Instead, I felt… awkward. It felt unnatural. I felt like a stranger in a place I thought I’d be calling “home.”
And it only got more awkward as the conference progressed.
Before I continue, please know that I loved being there. This isn’t a knock on the Nexus Convocation. I loved being back in the NOVA area where I spent 3 years in ministry and studies. I loved reconnecting with people I haven’t seen for 11 years. I loved — loved — being around Korean youth as they were praising. Oh my, how my soul and heart missed being in worship with Korean youth. There were a lot of emotional moments — just being around my people.
I was home.
But, I wasn’t.
A friend of mine were calling a handful of us “double minorities” because we were the few who hadn’t served in the Korean church for many years. I kept trying to tell him that even a fewer number of us were, then, “triple minorities” because of how… “liberal” we are. He kept saying that everyone here is all over the spectrum of theology. Sure, that was true. But it was clear, that the few of us “triple minorities” weren’t even on the said spectrum. We were too far gone…
The Asian-American tendency to be passive towards the happenings in our country was present. The idea that we need to take care of our own therefore any other issue is irrelevant was floating around in some of the conversations. Dae Shik, the speaker for the Youth tract of the conference, talked about Emmett Till the first night of the youth service, someone who 99% of the kids had no idea about — who no other speaker in the history of Nexus or Youth Initiative would’ve felt necessary to talk about to Korean youth.
As I was navigating through conversations and listening to my newly found colleagues, a heart sinking reality set in — or more a question: where do I belong?
Because it wasn’t in this Korean-American gathering.
It clearly isn’t in the white church. And it never will be. For one, I ain’t white. And I get reminded of my non-whiteness All. The. Time. From parishioners asking if I speak Chinese or Japanese to a volunteer assuming that the Chinese pastor walking in was looking for me (he wasn’t) to people assuming that the Asian family that walked into worship were related to me somehow to questions of “Where are you from? But where are you really from?” and many more.
But it’s cool. I float like a butterfly when those things come my way.
Because I always thought I had a home that I belonged to.
My identity was rooted in the Korean-American Christian experience.
It was who I am. I thought it was who I’d always be regardless of where my faith journey took me. I’d always be Joseph Yoo, the Korean-American Christian, now pastor.
But I was beginning to realize that wasn’t the case.
After coming home, I ran into a college student from church and I asked her if she was ready to go back to school. Yes! was her reply. She couldn’t wait to go back. She explained: “Well… I mean, Pearland… it’s home. But it’s weird to be back. I feel like my home is where I live now, not Pearland. You know?”
I did know.
This — the Korean-American clergy — was my home at one point, but it didn’t feel like it anymore.
At 3am in the morning after a long night talking about ministry, cultural identity, justice, and all the while going to town on all you can eat Korean BBQ, I confessed to Minoo (my hotel roommate and my former youth student that is now a pastor serving at a cross cultural appointment in the VA conference), “I find myself being more guarded here with the Nexus folks than I have in a long time with the white folks.”
He felt the same way.
We couldn’t figure out the real reason why. Besides, it was 3am.
I’ve been back for a week, but I’ve been obsessively thinking about my experience in Centreville.
At times, I feel waves of sadness, like I left a big part of me behind. Forever.
And I find myself repeatedly asking, “So, who am I?”
Ethnically, I’m Korean(-American)
Vocationally, I serve a predominantly anglo church.
But I don’t identify with either, culturally.
For many that stumbled upon my rambling might think, “Why does this matter? Why is this important?”
It does. And it is. And don’t try to Jesus-Juke me in saying, “Isn’t Jesus enough?” We have a lot to talk about, if you do.
This identity struggle is prevalent amongst immigrant kids. We grow up wondering, what are we?
American or Korean?
Korean or American?
When we really are neither. Because we’re too Korean to be American and too American to be Korean.
On top of that, growing up I struggled with, Am I into hip hop or into grunge?
So here was this Korean kid trying to figure out if he was Korean or American wearing baggy pants with flannel shirts, going back and forth between Tupac and Nirvana.
So at the age of 36 teetering into 37; in the most diverse city in the United States, yet an overwhelmingly white Annual Conference; I find myself asking the same questions I did all throughout my angst ridden teenage years: Who am I and where do I belong?
Is there such a thing as Post-Asian-American-Christian?
Because I think that might be where I’m dwelling, right now. Well, I guess I’m not post-Christian.
Thankfully, I don’t think I’m alone. As someone who saw us convened in one place tweeted:
We are small.
But we do exist.
There might be a need to minister to and be in community with those who have experience the exodus from the first generation church and have no place to call community.
Maybe that’s where I’ll find my community.
Maybe that’s where I’ll find my home.