Interview with Pastor James Kwak: Embracing a Personal Role in the Immigrant Church

Pastor James Kwak is one whose perspective of his role in the Korean immigrant church has changed completely over his eight-year career – from having desired independence from the immigrant church, to now embracing and wanting to stay within it.

Kwak, who is currently the lead English ministry (EM) pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Orange County (FPCOC), is part of the “1.5 generation,” having moved to the U.S. from Korea when he was in the third grade. His move to America at a young age and the trajectory of his pastoral career – having served as a pastor in children’s, youth, college, and now English ministries in the Korean immigrant church – has allowed him to identify with many of the experiences that “second generation” Korean American pastors have undergone in the Korean immigrant church context. Though his experiences of having lived in Korea during his childhood have helped him to understand certain aspects of the culture, many times, he said, he felt just as confused as any other Korean American pastor.

“One thing I learned, for example,” he recalled, “is that when I go out to ‘shimbang’ (visitations) with my senior pastor, and the guests bring out a little too much food, it’s my job to finish all the food if there are leftovers. I didn’t know that – I learned about it from a KM (Korean ministry) associate pastor.”

For a period, he had believed that the only ideal future for the EM is to become independent, and independence was a goal that he had personally pursued. One of the main reasons he pursued independence was rather simple: “In the Presbyterian reformed circle at least, church polity just becomes an issue.”

“Yes, the first generation members can take in second generation pastors for session, but the meetings are just going to be chaotic trying to translate things for people,” Kwak said. “It’s a valid reason and I can see why many Korean American pastors would want to pursue independence.”

But his perspective for his own role has changed. His personal role is to stay within the Korean immigrant church context, at least for the time being, he said.

Even when he first took up the EM pastor position at FPCOC almost three years ago, he started off by asking the EM leaders and members if they would be okay with remaining as an EM in FPCOC, despite the fact that seed money had been set aside for the EM’s eventual growth into independence. The KM session was also willing to support Kwak’s decision if he decided to pursue the route of independence.

Pastor James Kwak
(Photo : Christianity Daily)
Pastor James Kwak is the English ministry (EM) pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Orange County.

Yet, two main realizations led to his change in perspective, Kwak said.

“One is that I realized the future of the Korean immigrant church is looking a little bleak – from my research, experiences, and thoughts,” he explained. “Many capable Korean American and even 1.5 pastors are leaving the Korean immigrant church. There are so many other options that seem more attractive.”

A factor that may be causing 1.5 and second generation Korean American pastors to leave the Korean immigrant church is what he called “young, temporary movers” – new immigrants from South Korea.

“Many of these young, temporary movers from South Korea are unchurched,” he explained. “So the older first generation pastors start hiring more younger first generation pastors to attract those young, temporary movers to come to their churches, according to some of the research that I've studied.”

“Before, in the late 90s, the promise to 1.5ers and second gen pastors was, ‘Stay in the Korean immigrant church. You’re the future. You’re going to lead the church.’ But now, these young first gen pastors are getting hired, and they even have a different mindset from that of the older first gen pastors.”

These thoughts about the current and future state of the Korean immigrant church led him to a second realization – that of his own gifts. His understanding of both Korean and American cultures, as well as his fluency in both Korean and English, are significant gifts that enable him to bridge the gap and clear up misunderstandings between the KM and EM, he said.

“When I realized these things about the future of the church, I just thought, ‘As a 1.5, what can I do?’ And to be honest, I really didn’t want to be a ‘bridge’ for the KM and EM. But I think God gave me this gift. He really made me fit for this role.”

Acting as a ‘cultural bridge,’ for Kwak, means being a helper of sorts to allow two different parties understand where the other is coming from – in this case, the KM and the EM.

“For example, one major thing that the second gen will never understand is how the first gen is wired to think,” he explained.

“Our parents have a lot of ‘han’ (a term referring to a sense of grief unique to the Korean culture). That’s wired in the Korean culture, and the second gen will never understand it. On the other side of that, the first gen will never understand how the second gen is wired either. That when they come to church in jeans and a t-shirt, it doesn’t mean they disrespect God.”

Kwak tries to act as that bridge first to the leaders and members of the EM at FPCOC by explaining misunderstandings they may have about the KM, and encouraging them to show humility and respect to the KM. Instead of waiting to be asked by the KM to do certain things, Kwak said for example, he encourages the EM to take initiative and ask how they can help. The EM deacon board also cooked and served dinner for the KM session members. Though there was a language barrier, “still, sitting together, breaking bread, and trying to have a conversation, that just spoke a message in and of itself: ‘I care about you, you care about me.’”

“Just through small things like this – I just want to fill in a little bit of what’s lost in translation for both sides.”

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