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A Reflection by Mary Paik

October 2010

This theological reflection was prepared for the Pastor Theologian consultation held in October 20-22, 2010, Colorado Springs, sponsored by the Office of Theology and Worship.  This particular consultation invited 13 Korean American pastors representing generations and gender.  The theological engagement focused on the event at the 219th General Assembly held in Minneapolis that led to the defeat of the motion to create another Korean language presbytery.

Mary Paik currently serves as Senior Pastor of Nu’uanu Congregational Church in Honolulu, HI, a position she has held since Advent 2008.  Before moving to Hawaii in 2007, she served for 12 ½ years as Vice President for Student Affairs at McCormick Theological Seminary where she recruited wonderful students like Theresa Cho and Irene Pak. She has also served as pastor to Hardy Kim and to Theresa’s husband Inho at the Korean Presbyterian Church of Metro Detroit in Southfield, Michigan.   Mary is a 1987 graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary.  She is married to Dwight Morita - an elder, a graduate of SFTS, a photographer, a preacher, an educator - with whom she is blessed to share her life.

A Reflection by Mary Paik

October 2010

The opportunity to reflect upon the events of this summer’s General Assembly takes me back to 1983, to the “Reunion” assembly held in Atlanta where the formation of the first non-geographical Korean language presbytery was proposed by the Synod of Southern California.  At that time, I was an intern in the Youth and Young Adult Program Office of the Program Agency of the United Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) from 1981 to 1983.  Within the Program Agency, the Youth and Young Adult Program Office was in “Unit 1” which was called something like “Ministry with Laity” and included the program areas for women, men, and youth/young adults.  Therefore my office was just steps away from the office for COWAC – Council on Women and the Church.  This location is important because it was at the intersection of competing values and points of view in the church where I found myself then and find myself often since then.

When the Synod of Southern California and the NKPC proposed Hanmi Presbytery in 1983, it coincided with the reunion of the UPCUSA (the “northern” Presbyterian church) and the PCUS (the “southern” Presbyterian church).  In the reunion documents, there was a provision for the PCUS presbyteries to have 10 years “grace” period to comply with the UPCUSA’s (and the proposed PCUSA’s) “you shall ordain women” clause.  Taking the lead from this loophole, the proposed Hanmi Presbytery original documents also included this loophole.  Finding about this loophole, the women’s unit, especially COWAC, was alarmed and they were gathering people to speak in committee against this loophole.  That is where I entered the picture.  Since I, a Korean woman, was just steps away from the COWAC office, I was made a resource person who could testify at the GA committee meeting against this loophole.  I was nervous.  Thinking back, I’m not sure I felt compelled to take on this task but didn’t feel free to refuse the request.  I wasn’t really sure why I felt ambivalent about speaking against the loophole until I was sitting at the committee that was discussing this overture at GA.  The argument for and against the creation of the first Hanmi Presbytery went something like this:

  1. NKPC point of view: Korean churches are forced to write minutes in English and do things in English that take time and effort and get in the way of doing mission to Koreans.  They should have a sense of self-determination.
  2. Synod of Southern California point of view: The synod has a goal to double the membership by year ? (I can’t remember).  Creating this language presbytery within the limits of the synod will help the synod reach this goal.  (The synod executive was named Beebe, I believe.  I can’t remember his first name.)
  3. COWAC point of view:  Korean churches are sexist.  This language presbytery will be sexist.  We can’t let a pocket of sexism exist in the church.

In a way, I agreed with all of three points of view.  I agreed with the principle of self-determination that Korean churches should be allowed and supported to do their ministry to and with Korean communities in the ways that they see fit.  And I agreed with the principle that women should not only be allowed but encouraged to take on leadership in churches and that we should challenge sexism wherever it is; and I generally agreed with the desire for evangelism and making the Presbyterian church more diverse.  However, as I observed the discussion in that committee room and their behaviors outside of the committee room, I came to the conclusion that:

  1. NKPC leaders want power and their own “fiefdom” to rule.
  2. The Synod just wants to use the Koreans for their purpose of looking good.
  3. White women are racist – they just don’t understand.

I don’t remember much discussion on second generation issues.  My recollection is that in 1983, the only second-generation Korean American Pastors were Warren Lee and Lester Kim who were both children of early immigrants (before 1965) and who were serving in non-Korean ministry settings.  English Ministry (EM) hadn’t started in any congregation in earnest and there were no “EM” pastors.  Besides, the original Korean Language Presbytery had a time limit – 15 years proposed and then changed to 10 years – by which time the Language presbytery would have dissolved and the congregations assimilated into the geographical presbyteries.

As it turns out, there was no need for me to speak during the deliberations by the GA Committee.  On the question of the loophole, Stated Clerk William P. Thompson simply ruled that the loophole was not allowed for the new presbytery.  However, knowing that I was to be a resource person speaking on that issue, Steve Shim, representing NKPC, “got in my face” in the main hall, berating me for daring to speak in committee against what “the Koreans” wanted.  I don’t exactly remember what he said but I do remember his finger pointing at me and making me feel ashamed.  I broke into tears, ran to the bathroom, and luckily, Mariko Yanagihara who was in the vicinity came after me to see what was wrong.  That was the beginning of my long and deep friendship with Mariko.  That was my experience in 27 years ago.

This past summer, I was so proud to watch Yena, Theresa, and Irene speak on the floor of General Assembly on the issue of the formation of another Korean Language Presbytery.  I was glued to my computer, feeling elated by the articulate, passionate, and powerful young Korean American clergywomen’s voices!  Their arguments were clear, forward-thinking, and compelling.  And in general, I agreed with all of their arguments.

At the same time, however, I felt an emotional tug as I heard Elder Hu-nam Nam (?) from Eastern Korean Presbytery speak immediately after Theresa Cho.  Her English was not as fluid as Theresa’s; and I could only imagine the courage it must have taken for her to speak on the floor of General Assembly, witnessing proudly that Eastern Korean Presbytery has enabled Korean speaking brothers and sisters to be in ministry within the context of the PCUSA.   I was even moved by the Rev. Dong Young Kim (?) from Atlantic Korean American Presbytery who testified to the growing number of Korean churches in the five Korean language presbyteries. Listening to the arguments, I was surprised by my own ambivalence on the issue of creation of yet another Korean Language Presbytery.  I agreed with the arguments presented by all five speakers – both for and against the creation of a Korean Language Presbytery. And like in 1983, I experienced an intersection of competing values and points of view in the church.

  1. There are valid reasons for Korean language presbyteries.  Many in the Korean immigrant communities genuinely want and need the vehicle of a language presbytery to help them do ministry; and there are some Korean immigrant leaders who see the growth in number of Korean congregations in the PCUSA as a way to wield power.
  2. For PCUSA in general, the intersection of “inclusivity” and “racial justice” are still difficult places.  For the PCUSA, Theresa, Yena, and Irene are much easier “racial ethnics” to accept than theologically conservative Korean immigrants who speak broken English.  One of the reasons for the disarray in many of the language presbyteries is that the PCUSA system is not able to deal with language presbyteries.  The larger PCUSA system does not know how to hold a language presbytery accountable; and it certainly does not want to be held accountable by a language presbytery.  Language presbyteries often become Korean ghettos.  But at least, language presbyteries have allowed Korean speakers to have representation in large gathering like the General Assembly.  Just simply having that representation seems rather valiant and righteous to me. 
  3. The issues of sexism and racism still compete for attention.

Then in the hours and days after those 15 minutes on the floor of General Assembly this year, I learned through emails and Facebook that events similar to my “Steve Shim experience” had happened to Yena, Theresa, and Irene.  It was disheartening to hear that, in many ways, nothing has changed since 1983.  Young Korean American women who dare to speak up are harassed and told they are betraying their race.  The difference was, though, that in 2010, these three women spoke on the floor of the General Assembly clearly, cogently, and convincingly.  They were not alone – they were three; and they were HEARD.  And the Assembly voted with them.

 Now I reflect upon my experiences in the Korean American context through my current context of serving a historically Japanese American congregation in Honolulu. Started with the first immigrants from Japan, Nu’uanu Congregational Church is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.  (Nu’uanu Congregational Church might give us a glimpse of where Korean churches are in 85 years.)  The congregation began, of course, as an all-Japanese speaking congregation.  Everything was done in Japanese and then services and activities slowly became bi-lingual so that in 1958, there were two worship services – one in English and one in Japanese.  These two services, however, were both served by the same pastor who was bi-lingual.  From 1958 to about 1980’s, the English speaking population experienced growth while the Japanese speaking “issei” group (first generation - we would say “il-se” in Korean) became older and dwindled. Currently the congregation has 320 members.  75% of the membership is over 70 years old.  They are mostly second, third, fourth, and even fifth generation Hawaii residents. (we have a 92 year-old man who is a third generation Japanese American!) About 70 % claim some kind of Japanese ancestry and the rest are Chinese, Filipino, “haole,” and mixed race folks.  The congregation has a service in English where about 150 people attend; and a service in Japanese where about 5 people attend.  ONE member of the congregation is a Japanese-first language speaker who needs a service in Japanese.  Given these demographics, why do we still have a Japanese language service, a “nichigobu”?    There is no practical reason for the nichigobu at Nu’uanu Congregational Church; yet there is power struggle among those who want to keep the nichigobu alive and those who no longer see the need for nichigobu.  So one lesson from the Japanese American church experience might be that even 85 years from now, Korean churches may still be embroiled in power struggles!  Another, perhaps more helpful, reflection is on the issue of power.  I have observed that:

  1. Everyone has power but not everyone recognizes her/her own power.
  2. Power struggles take place when one perceives that he/she is powerless and/or that his/her power is not recognized by others;
  3. Power struggles are multi-faceted and often take place at the intersection of competing interests values.

A book that has helped me reflect on this issue of power and intersection of competing interests and values is Interracial Justice: Conflict & Reconciliation in Post-Civil Rights America by Eric Yamamoto. Yamamoto is a person of Japanese American ancestry living in Hawaii who is in the field of law.  In this book he argues for “interracial justice” as “race praxis” methodology utilizing various disciplines which seeks to establish “right relationship, (and) the healing of broken relationships”[i] among communities of color.   He, so helpfully, describes that in relationships between racial groups, groups can experience “simultaneously privileged and subordinated, empowered and disempowered.” (Yamamoto 99)  Although he is explicitly addressing issues that exist between communities of color, this book has helped me to frame issues that exist within a community.  When issues of race, ethnicity, linguistic differences and abilities, immigration experience, sex, and age intersect within the Korean American community, our sense of power and agency can be confused and conflicted because we experience simultaneously privilege and subordination, empowerment and disempowerment, respect and disrespect.    And our actions in this intersection can be simultaneously understood and misunderstood, depending on who the interpreter is.  For example, speaking out against sexism within the Korean American community can be interpreted by some as betraying one’s heritage.  And arguing for an ethnically inclusive worshipping community within the Japanese American community can be interpreted by some as disrespecting the sacrificial work of the founding issei generation.  We live at the intersection of competing values.  We live in a multi-layered world of multi-valence.  So how are we to act from this multi-layered location?  From this intersection of competing values? 

Several years ago, I was introduced to a snippet of work by a Dutch feminist theologian named Lieve Trosch  who has developed a threefold concept of the subject in a book called "Verzet is het geheim van de vreugde" which means "Resistance is the Secret of Joy,” with the subtitle "Fundamenaaltheologische thema's in een feministische discussie,” which, one could guess, means "fundamental theological themes in feminist discussion.” Since the book is written in Dutch, this concept was explained to me by a friend, Dr. Karin Sporre, a Swedish feminist ethicist who teaches at the Umeå University in Sweden.   Accoring to Karin, Trosch has a  threefold understanding of identity of the person, or the subject: The first part is that each person is a victim of oppression; the second part is that each person is an accomplice in both his/her own oppression and the oppression of others; the third part is that resistance is "the way out" or the ethical option for the person. This understanding of the person asserts that everyone has these three personas within him/herself, in differing combinations according to different situations.  Trosch argues that it is in choosing the third persona - the resistance -  that there is possibility of transcendence and that is the secret of joy. 

This concept of the threefold subject has helped me as I try to negotiate the multi-layered context in which I live.  This concept helps me to locate myself as a whole person with complex identities.  It also guards me from setting up a winner/loser, oppressed/oppressor construct in my context.   When we recognize our multifaceted and multi-layered context, this threefold understanding can

  1. help us see own oppression/denigration/disempowerment for what it is;
  2. critique our own participation in oppressive systems; and
  3. move ourselves to act for justice and compassion.  

I think it can move us from “romanticizing” our own oppression to a more constructive place of resistance and transformation, of joy and empowerment.

The theme for the 219th General Assembly was “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”  It seems that Theresa, Yena, and Irene found that living water through the tremendous affirmation of their leadership at General Assembly.  At the same time, they shed some living water through their tears as they were demeaned and their actions criticized.  And all the while, Elder Nam and Rev. Kim may have tasted salty and bitter water at General Assembly through the actions it took; yet they would have returned to the pool of living water that is the Korean language presbytery for them.  We seek out places and persons who can be living water for us; and God is faithful in providing us that living water.  But the text says that it is out of the believer’s heart (belly) that living water shall flow.  The question before us, then, is “how shall we become the vehicles through which living water is gushed out?”  I have no answers.  I am simply grateful for companions on the journey.

p.s.  John 7: 37-38 says:  On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”  Jesus is quoting “scripture” but there doesn’t seem to be this exact quote found in the Hebrew scriptures.  So I think Jesus (the Gospel writer) is improvising.  And that’s heartening.  Perhaps we are called to improvise on our journey…

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  • Thank you for this reflection -- this is very helpful and I hope you get to share this in the Hawaii Conference as well. by Rev. Rachel Schwab on 05/02/2011 at 4:44 p.m.

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