This article is co-written, told from the perspective of Dae Shik Kim Hawkins, Jr.
Working at a church can often strengthen your faith journey. But a lot of times, working at a church is like taking a peek into seeing how sausages are made. As the saying goes, you don’t want to know how the sausage is made because you won’t want to eat it anymore. Working at churches can expose us to the behind-the-scenes of ministry, and at times, the things we discover can never be unseen.
All-Town Korean Unitarian Metropolitan Church (AKUMC)(1) was a church where knowing the behind-the-scenes made me question my faith in the church. AKUMC was in the midst of a strange exodus, where the people who were leaving were mostly lower income families. Did that mean the church was favoring those who were wealthy?
Something didn’t sit right with me to see this many folks — all from a similar income bracket — leaving the church at the same time. I knew there had to be more to this story. After all, the church practices an open book policy when it comes to the church’s finances in hopes of transparency and accountability.
But that doesn’t mean the church doesn’t have secrets. One of the reasons why some of our Korean churches get into unnecessary scandals is because the official denominational rules and laws are viewed as mere guidelines or suggestions.
It took a couple visits to AKUMC’s office and digging through the budget records for me to start connecting the dots. I found out my senior pastor was secretly making triple his official salary. If the books had been kept the way the denomination mandated, it would have been incredibly difficult to hide such a secret.
Many confuse the role of the prophet. Too many assume that making a prophecy is predicting something about the future. However, the role of the prophet in biblical times was less about predicting the future and more about revealing moral failures. The prophet was the moral compass who tried to get the people back on the same page with God. The prophet informed the king and the people of how far they had strayed from God’s purpose. Of course, the kings and the people never wanted to hear about their moral failings. Being a successful prophet was a catch-22 because it led to their death. The most successful prophets were dead ones. One doesn’t challenge the powers that be and walk away scot-free. But that doesn’t mean one should shy away from the burden that has been placed on their heart.
I should have walked away from the situation and joined the exodus of the lower income families who left, enraged by the pastor’s exorbitant salary — which was funded in part by their hard-earned money. But I felt the need to speak up for the families who were led to feel unworthy, unloved, and shamed because they could not contribute financially in a manner that appeased the pastor and his right-hand men. I wanted justice for the families. I wanted AKUMC to understand why this was harmful and un-Christlike. I wanted the church to repent for being wayward.
So, I started telling anyone who would listen about the pastor’s real salary. The leadership went into panic mode and pleaded for my silence. When they saw that their pleading wasn’t going to work, they tried to buy my silence.
An elder called me one day feigning surprise about my going to seminary. Everyone in the church knew I was going to seminary because it was this church and this leadership that supported and convinced and affirmed me to go into ministry. It had already been publicly announced that I was moving to Seattle in a few weeks to attend seminary. But this elder maintained pretense as she told me how proud she was and that the church was willing to fund my way through seminary.
Every fiber of my being screamed, “Hell no!” I couldn’t sell out. How could I advocate for the poor if I could be bought out this easily? I declined and hung up, thinking this was decidedly over.
I soon found out that my mother overheard my phone call. She asked what my income would be after earning my masters of divinity (MDiv.) degree. She asked how I would overcome a $40K seminary debt with a pastor’s salary. These were things I did not want to hear right then and I accused her of lacking in faith and not trusting in God’s plan. But that anger wasn’t meant for my mom. It was meant for me.
As I write this, I am sitting with $40K worth of seminary debt, and I still haven’t completed my degree. I wish I could tell you that I’m saddled with this debt because I refused to compromise, that I had the spine and courage to say a resolute “no”.
In reality, after many heart-to-heart conversations with my family and people I loved and trusted, I took AKUMC’s scholarship offer and moved to Seattle. The church threw me a ceremony and presented me with a plaque memorializing the scholarship I received from the church. They congratulated me and blessed me on my next phase of life. I felt dead inside as I approached the pastor to receive the award.
I expected the check to arrive in the mail before I moved. It didn’t. I figured the check would be sent to me in Seattle. It wasn’t. That was the summer of 2014. It’s 2018, and the check still hasn’t arrived.
I tried asking the church elders about it, but the answers were stuck in an infinite loop of “Oh. Yes, I suspect it should be getting to you soon. We’ll call you back.”
Given all this — the exposed secrets, the pastor’s unrighteous salary, the unfulfilled scholarship money, my compromise — it was easier for me to leave the church than to rectify the issues. I haven’t consistently attended any church for the past four years.
And my former senior pastor? He recently left AKUMC as well. But not by choice. When a church member willed his multimillion-dollar home to the church, the pastor moved out of the parsonage and into the multimillion-dollar home without approval from the church. Once people began to discover his move, many were upset that the pastor would so nonchalantly use something that belonged to the church for personal reasons without the congregation’s knowledge. It got so bad that the denominational powers that be had to get involved and ultimately removed the pastor from the church.
It wasn’t surprising to me to hear that the pastor was caught up in another scandal.
It did make me wonder if I was just another scandal that AKUMC pushed out, hoping everyone would forget.
The disheartening thing is that my story is not unique. AKUMC is not an anomaly. I have heard so many stories over the years about scandals and abuses within the Korean immigrant church that sometimes I wonder if Korean immigrants would be better off going to non-immigrant churches.
And yet, though I haven’t attended a Korean immigrant church on a consistent basis for the past four years, at the time of writing this, I’m in the Midwest, preaching to Korean American youth who have given their life to Christ and continue to trust in what God is doing through their church. Even after AKUMC, a Korean immigrant church, sucked the life, joy, and love out of my soul, I still feel a tug in the depths of my being toward the Korean immigrant church.
For it was the Korean immigrant church that taught me that I was created in God’s image and that I was deeply loved. It was the Korean immigrant church that taught me who I am and whose I am. It was the Korean immigrant church that led me to give my life over to Christ. It was the Korean immigrant church that gave me freedom to find my voice. It was the Korean immigrant church that affirmed my call into ministry.
Though the Korean immigrant church deeply bruised my soul, it did not break me.
I recently attended a worship service that celebrated the diversity of the people gathered. The chorus of worship songs was sung in different languages. At one point, the chorus was sung in Korean. It caught me completely off guard, hearing my mother language. I was more surprised by how good it felt to hear Korean words being sung. It felt so welcoming and inviting. It felt like home.
I was so overwhelmed, I started to cry. I hate crying, especially in public, because I only know one mode of crying: the ugly cry. Yet, it was the only response that felt natural. At that moment, I realized that the Korean immigrant church will always be my people. They are my family. They will always be my home. I will be forever be — maybe inexplicably — tied to the Korean church.
I sometimes feel like the wayward son, yearning for home. Maybe one day my path will lead me back home. Or maybe my path will consist of creating a community for the many wayward children who are looking for a familiar and new kind of home.
After all I have experienced, my heart still beats for my people and my church. My soul refuses to let go of hope for the Korean immigrant church. As dysfunctional and toxic as some Korean immigrant churches can be, there is still good that the Korean immigrant church has done and continues to do. God is still involved, and my people are still a part of who I am.
So, I still believe in the church. I am still committed to a community of people from all stages of life who are drawn together by a common force. I still have hope in the church because my hope lies in Christ and my people.