by Hak Joon Lee
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.
Hak Joon Lee’s reflection comes from an introduction that he wrote for a Christian curriculum titled iDentity, published in March of 2011.
Hak Joon Lee is the Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, where he has taught since 1998. He also taught at Drew University and New York Theological Seminary. Lee received his M.Div. (1990) Ph.D. (1997) degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary, and has published several books, including Covenant and Communication: A Christian Moral Conversation with Jürgen Habermas (University Press of America, 2006), We Will Get to the Promised Land: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Communal-Political Spirituality (Pilgrim Press, 2006), Bridge Builders (Doorae Publishing Company, 2007), iDentity: A Curriculum for Korean American Christian Youth (G2G Christian Education Center, forthcoming), and numerous articles. He was invited to be a keynote speaker for the celebration of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday in several cities of NJ and NY. An ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the PC (USA), he founded G2G Christian Education Center, a research institute on Asian American Christianity and Culture, for the empowerment of Asian American churches and youth.
A Curriculum for Korean American Christian Youth
Hak Joon Lee, Kevin Park, Kil Jae Park.
The Virginia Tech incident in 2007 was a myth breaker for many Americans. The incident brought into question the prevalent perception that Asian Americans are a model minority who has strong work ethic, zeal for the education of their children, and achieved a rapid economic success. It was an incident that showed that Asian American families are as fallible as any other families in the U.S. and that Asian American parents do not always raise perfect, well behaving, and excellent students.
The incident was a shocking but soul searching occasion for Korean Americans. Although the extreme nature of the incident should not be used to justify any kind of ethnic stereotyping, this incident, beyond its shocking and tragic nature, gave us a rare opportunity to look into the deeper underlying psychological, cultural and social issues with which many Korean American youth struggle --the loneliness, alienation, confusion that they suffer under the pressure to succeed academically and the experiences of cultural differences and racism. Often hidden underneath the façade of the “model minority” myth, many tend to suffer from low self-esteem, weak self-identity and other psychological and emotional issues. Unfortunately, the shame culture, the authoritarian style of parenting and the high expectation to succeed in the family have made it difficult for Korean American youths to articulate their struggles and find help. They are looking for outlets to release this pressure. And their search for a place, an outlet if you will, to deal with their personal issues and struggles have brought many of them to Korean American churches.
However, Korean American churches do not automatically solve this problem of alienation for our youths because most churches are not equipped to address these problems in-depth. Although almost all Korean American churches include “bicultural youth education” in their vision and mission statements, and build education buildings (youth centers), the gap between the dream and reality is still painfully large. This is to say that although some physical structures may be there, educational contents and appropriate curricula are still lacking. The problem continues because we believe that the heart of the issue has not been addressed theologically—the gap between the two cultures and the relationship between the cultures and the Christian gospel.
Some Korean American churches might say that they do not have such problems because they have English speaking JDSNs (Jun-do-sa-nims; youth pastors). Yes, these churches are blessed to have such staff resources since many small churches cannot afford or cannot find JDSNs. However, they do not realize that even North American theological schools or seminaries are not equipped to adequately train their seminarians to teach Korean American youths in ways that address the challenges of identity and culture facing them. As Asian American Christian scholarship is still in its infancy, many JDSNs teach mostly from their personal experiences largely due to lack of relevant curricula that speak to the Asian American experience with theological integrity and biblical imagination. The Silent Exodus of Korean college students and other young adults from Korean American churches tell of the overall reality of the adequacy of our church education for the youth.
Therefore, this curriculum is designed to address these concerns in Korean American churches. The primary focus of the curriculum is “identity.” It is designed to help Korean American youths in their search for identity as Korean, American, and Christian. We believe that identity is the core issue facing our Korean American youths. Identity denotes who a person is. The sense of selfhood is the foundation of one’s life and work. When this foundation is unsure, everything else can easily shake and crumble like a house built on sand. Engagement in God’s work of growing our youths into faithful and confident Korean American Christians is one of the most important callings for parents and churches.
The issue of identity is crucial for our youths because it is during this time that they are engaged in the process of search, discovery, and value formation. And faith is critical for their self-understanding and identity formation. However, if we do not offer a kind of robust Christian faith that endures, sustains, empowers and energizes them in their daily struggles and aspirations, addressing their most pressing concerns, how can we expect them to stay in Korean American churches or even remain Christians? We, as a community and representing the church, need to offer them adequate, thoughtfully conceived guidelines that can help them in their faith journeys. As they grow intellectually and socially and are educated in schools that encourage “critical thinking” as one of the foundations of education, intellectual discussions on family, church, faith, and community cannot be excluded. Emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and moral dimensions are all part of their daily life with family, friends, and teachers.
Moreover, we believe that at least during a certain period in their development, Korean American youths have an acute need to think about their identity in a personally honest and engaging way. Just think about how many US-born Korean Americans in high school and college want to learn about Korean culture, language, and music. The curriculum aims to socially and spiritually prepare and equip our youths in coping with various challenges they will face around the issue of their cultural identity (who they are) in schools, colleges, workplaces, and society as a whole.
In assisting the development of Christian identity of Korean American youths through this curriculum, we engage Korean American youth experiences with stories and teachings from Scripture. In this curriculum we have selected such subjects as family, culture, personal faith, natural gifts/talents, church, race, community, and global society as major factors that shape the identity of the youths.
The “4Cs” constitute the organizing principles of the curriculum: culture, Christ, competence (or gifts), and community, which we believe are the core factors that shape the identity of Korean-American-Christians. Whereas the first four chapters (1-4) address the question of the culture (and cultural differences) that our students experience at home, society, and school, chapters 5-7 lead them to the life of faith in Jesus Christ and the significant spiritual-social role that Korean American churches play for our youths. Knowing that many of our youths are already involved in Korean American churches, these chapters invite them to claim the faith in Christ as their own and to experience God’s unconditional love and Christian fellowship as the foundational aspects of their identity. The next three chapters (8-10) are about “competence,” encouraging students to think about how to find and nurture their natural gifts, and to use them for others for God’s glory. We believe that thinking about their distinctive gifts and passion is important for students to have a sense of who they are as unique individuals created by God. Finally, the last two chapters (11-12) discuss the theme of “community,” in particular the well-being of the Korean American community and of the global world community through reflection on the L.A riots in 1992 and our responsibility for the sustainability of the earth. We believe that as God’s people, it is high time for Korean American Christians and churches to engage with various social issues that affect not only our community but also the world as a whole. A good Christian is a good global citizen and a good Korean American.
All the stories in the curriculum are intentionally taken from various Korean American situations. Questions might be raised about why all the examples and stories are Korean rather than those that include wider experiences of other ethnic groups such as Chinese, Japanese, Caucasian, Vietnamese, Pacific Islander and others. Are we not being ethnocentric by limiting our context to Korean Americans? Our decision did not come from any ethnocentric agenda. It is our belief that one cannot avoid the question of one’s specific race and ethnicity in North America. Social scientific studies attest to it and historical experiences prove it. Of course, our faith in Christ is more important than any other loyalties, but we cannot deny that our spirituality is inevitably informed by our ethnicity. That is why so many Korean American youths (as well as college students and professionals), despite their fluency in English, still attend Korean American churches. This curriculum will overlap especially with other Asian American Christian contexts but it is specifically designed for the Korean American Christian context.
We do not claim that this curriculum speaks to every Korean American youth in all different situations. Living in a global, pluralistic society, cultural and social experiences of Korean American families and youths are also diverse in geography, economic status, educational background, length of residence in North American, denominational orientation, and political views. Despite this diversity, however, we find that Korean American youths, overall, do face similar problems and challenges of identity. In addressing this issue we have made every effort to be socially attentive and culturally inclusive given our context. Some chapters may resonate closely with your group, and others may not. We ask for patience in your journey with your students, searching for identity in Christ through this curriculum.