Stranger in a Strange Land

For the last several months I have been attending a Korean Presbyterian Church – which is not particularly unusual until you consider that I am neither Korean nor am I Presbyterian.  I am not married to, nor am I dating a Korean woman, and I am not in any way confused or in denial concerning my own ethnic identity.  In fact, there is very little objective reason why I should chose to attend such a church.  Nevertheless, Sunday after Sunday I find myself sitting in the pews worshipping with Korean – American brothers and sisters, restraining myself from shouting out, “preach it” to the moksanim, and afterwards crowding into the fellowship hall/gym to partake of whatever the ajumma’s have cooked up that day. 

I feel like Alice in Wonderland gone down the rabbit hole. 

Every week, whether I’m bowing and waving goodbye, shoving a kimchi laden chopstick in my mouth, or being greeted by one of my hyungs – I find myself wondering, “How did I get here?” 

One of my friends commented that he was surprised I was at a Presbyterian church; more taken aback by that than by the fact that I was at a Korean church.  And yet week to week that combination continues to intrigue me. 

Recently in our Wednesday study we began reading the book Growing Healthy Asian American Churches.  As the conversation began, I felt very awkward.  How much was my presence hindering their discussion?  Could there be real freedom to discuss the issues of health in a Korean church with me there? Who invited me to the party?  I became very conscious of my ethnicity in that moment, and the question of whether my presence was blessing or curse was salient in my thoughts.

The other non-Korean present, a White man married to a Korean woman, seemed not at all hindered in his participation.  He freely commented on the things he felt were problems and even offered his thoughts on what could be done differently.  I found myself growing annoyed with him.  Firstly he called the pastor by his first name without appending the appellation “pastor,” something I would never do – certainly not in public, and something which I had never heard anyone in church do, other than his wife, and even then only rarely.  Secondly, he talked a lot and with a directness and assuredness with which I’ve become unaccustomed.  Thirdly, he put the pastor on the spot by asking direct questions about money and budgeting, which I don’t think the pastor really wanted to talk about.


I don’t think this man was aware of his cultural power, but then again what do I know. Perhaps he’s been around long enough that he’s considered an insider.  Even so, the rules by which he was operating were definitely dominant (White) culture. As for me, I’m not sure where I fit.  I am a minority, so there is some shared cultural capital I have, but I also know that my presence in the room likely changes the conversation; that it is difficult to have some kinds of “family conversations” when I’m present.  I also know that if I withdraw or offer suggestions when those honest conversations begin to happen that I will short circuit the process of my being welcomed into the community at a significant level.  I want to be around long enough and exhibit enough integrity that others have freedom in my presence to say what they think and feel without the need to edit themselves for the sake of the non-Korean in their midst.


Dpark and others are having a Skypecast about issues of the Asian American church, and I’ve been welcomed to participate.  Though I am deeply grateful, I feel personally unworthy to say anything.  I do not know what they know, or feel what they feel.  I am a cultural outsider and cannot enter the conversation in the same way, nor am I sure that I have anything to contribute, even though I am growing to love and care deeply about the Asian American church and community.  

Why I am here?  How did I get to this place of love and concern for Asian Americans? I do not know for sure, but I know that this is where God wants me.  God may I be found faithful in pursuing your calling. 

Author: elderj

I was born the fourth child and third son of godly parents in Nashville Tennessee. After leaving home for college I got involved with InterVarsity, then graduated with a degree in finance. After that I got a masters in history. Nowadays I spend too much time reading, writing, thinking, and occasionally doing my job.

4 thoughts on “Stranger in a Strange Land”

  1. ElderJ, we need you, in order to be more like Christ, we need you. Thank you for learning our culture and having patience with us. I, for one, am so much better for knowing you and seeing your heart for my people.

  2. ElderJ, you have been an enigma to me so I began to read your latest blog entry with great interest. While it did shed a lot of light on who you are, it failed to answer the one question which has been nagging me the most – why did you decide to join an Asian American church?

    I do not, by this question, insinuate that you have no place there – not at all, like David Park, I think your role is critical. But what led you to go there in the first place? I think it’s a fair enough question since if I – an Asian American – decided to go to an all-black Pentecostal church, the same question would be levied at me, if not directly, then certainly it would be one inwardly asked.

  3. john, I originally went there to do some networking in the AA community as I was coming to a new area, and also one of my hyungs was coming there, but I found that I enjoyed the service and did not feel called away from there. Urbana confirmed my calling to there, at least for a season.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful posting. The unknown obtrusion of maintream/White culture is one that I too have found in visiting Korean American. Makes we want to turn to my wife, who is White, and say, “Hon, you really should go and help your brother out there.”

    I want to affirm your own affirmation of the culture that is foundational there without trying to take it as your own, a very delicate balance . . . and one that I am not sure everyone has the capacity to take seriously.

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