Korean congregants look to church for more than spiritual growth

DULUTH - All the signs around the Korean Community Presbyterian Church are displayed in Korean. Everyone on the church campus, which includes two chapels and numerous offices, is Korean, and almost no English is spoken among congregants.

An unwitting visitor may suspect that he somehow took a wrong turn off Interstate 85 and wound up in Seoul, South Korea. But this church isn't thousands of miles away. It's around the corner in Duluth on Ga. Highway 120.

Many of the Koreans who are rapidly pouring into the Atlanta area are settling down in Gwinnett, creating strong enclaves of Koreans in places such as Duluth, Suwanee and Sugar Hill.

And in the growing Korean community, there is no institution as powerful as the church. Some Koreans estimate there are between 200 and 300 Korean churches in the Atlanta area.

Gwinnett is home not only to the largest concentration of Koreans in the region, but also the largest Korean church in the Southeast - the Korean Community Presbyterian Church.

About one-third of Koreans are Christian, making churches important centers of spiritual activity. But churches play an important secular role as well, serving as a critical community resource for the largely immigrant population.

"The Korean churches are the core of the Korean community," said Susan Sim, vice president of the Duluth-based Korean Television Network. "It's the place to go not just to get your message, but also to develop friendships. There's a lot of networking going on."

Churches are a focal point for different aspects of the Korean community in Gwinnett. For new and older immigrants, they provide a cultural sanctuary. Because Korean immigrants face an intimidating language barrier, many flock to their local church, where they can relax in a familiar setting with a familiar language.

"Some people do American life pretty much all week, but Sunday when we get together it is pretty much a Korean society within the church," said James Bae, who regularly attends the Korean Community Presbyterian Church.

Churches are also a halfway point for some immigrants, acting like mini Ellis Islands. Congregants greet new arrivals and help them adjust to life in a new country.

Many pastors insist the future of the Korean community is greater assimilation into American society. But because the Korean community is so multifaceted, Korean pastors have a tougher job than their American counterparts - keeping their churches appealing to everyone from first generation immigrants to Americanized teenagers.

A little of everything

Two years ago the Korean Community Presbyterian Church moved to a new

$6.8 million building on Ga. 120. Since then, its membership has tripled to 2,500.

The church, led by the Rev. In Soo Jung for the past 11 years, offers more services to Koreans than any other in Gwinnett. Everything that happens in the Korean community is represented in some way at the church.

The church is especially important to new immigrants, who can take advantage of its comfortable, Korean-language environment.

"Some people are living here, but mentally they think they are still in Korea," Jung said.

Immigrants are helped in more informal ways, too. Members of the congregation pick up new arrivals at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, help them find jobs and set them up with housing.

The church is so helpful, one of the elders, Hakkeun Chang, said even non-Christians will come to the church to take advantage of its services and friendly atmosphere.

Some Koreans take advantage of the community setting to network and discuss business. The majority of Koreans in the area are self-employed, running their own businesses or shops, increasing the importance of networking.

After a sermon, a congregant could look at the bulletin board where people post looking for employment or employees. Elder Jay Eun, who owns the Atlanta-based jewelry company Golden Stella, said he was able to use his connections to set up one Korean immigrant with a job at a mechanic shop.

Some services offered by the Korean Community Presbyterian Church reflect the intricacies of the Korean community. While some activities are aimed at helping younger generations maintain their Korean heritage, English classes are held to enable immigrants to better assimilate into American society.

"There's a complex dynamic emerging in the future of Gwinnett," Jung said.

Koreatown Gwinnett

South Korean Consulate General Kwang Jae Lee estimated there are 100,000 Koreans in the Atlanta area, with the largest percentage in Gwinnett. That's five times as many as were counted in the 2000 census.

While population growth has increased the political and economic clout of the Korean community, it has also decreased Koreans' need to step outside the community.

"Really it's gotten to the point where you can live in Atlanta and not speak too much English," Sim said.

Inside the Asian grocery store Super H Mart on Pleasant Hill Road, signs above the aisles appear in both English and Korean. Throughout the rest of the shopping plaza, almost all the shops and offices - including a travel agency, insurance company and beauty salon - bear Asian-language signs.

"(Some Koreans) know they're paying taxes, but it's hard for them to realize that they are integral part of this country," said Sunny Park, who founded the nonprofit group the Good Neighbor Foundation to aid the assimilation of Asian Americans.

Pastor Jong Ho Chin of the Hanbit Presbyterian Church in Duluth said when he mentioned certain current events in his sermon, his congregation replied with blank stares.

"I was so surprised," he said. "They don't have any interest in what is going on in the community."

Park and Jung of the Korean Community Presbyterian Church partnered two years ago to invite public service workers to the church for a cultural exchange. In addition, the church held a voter registration drive in 2004 to encourage political involvement within the congregation.

Chin said it's important Korean churches do not allow themselves to remain insulated from mainstream America.

"If we don't want to accept the challenges of society, the church will become more ghettoed," Chin said. "If we do that, the mission of the church has ended there."

Holding it together

Korean pastors often have to navigate the tricky waters between the more traditional and more Americanized parts of their congregations. Jung will shake hands with one congregant and bow to the next, always changing his style to try to make everyone comfortable.

"We're trying to keep both cultures," said the Rev. Peter Chong of the Full Gospel Atlanta Church.

While the majority of Korean church services are conducted in Korean, several churches have set up English ministries to appeal to younger, more Americanized Koreans.

Yohan Kim, who previously led the English congregation at the Korean Community Presbyterian Church, said traditional pastors need to find ways to appeal to younger generations, a demographic that is hard to hold onto for many churches.

"They feel a pressure that if we don't somehow assimilate for the second generation Koreans, who grew up on MTV and the New York Times, we're going to lose them," said Yohan Kim, former leader of KCPC's English congregation.

On Sunday mornings, two services occur almost simultaneously - the Korean language service and the English language service. The Korean service is presented more traditionally, with a single pastor leading prayer and worship from a podium. At the English service, several young church members lead worship from a low stage, sometimes with guitars.

Despite generational differences, every Sunday as many as 1,000 Koreans flock to the Korean Community Presbyterian Church, their source of both spiritual and secular guidance.

"We're learning each other," Jung said.