On Saturday, September 29, 2012, Christine Lee became the first Korean American woman ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church.
“Therefore, Father, through Jesus Christ Your Son, give Your Holy Spirit to Christine. Fill her with grace and power, and make her a priest in Your Church.”
I could feel the hands of the bishop on my head as he solemnly spoke these words. I was sweating bullets under several layers of priestly vestments. The clerical collar I had on was jutting into my Adam’s apple, and my feet were killing me. “I knew I shouldn’t have worn heels,” I thought to myself. As I knelt there on the marble steps of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, light pouring through the stained glass windows, the smell of incense in the air, and surrounded by old white men in pointy hats, I thought to myself, “How on earth did I get here?”
I like to blame it on my husband Jimmy. He had moved to New York City after college and started attending All Angels’ Church, an evangelical Episcopal parish on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Jimmy had grown up in a Korean church like I did, but as an adult, he valued being part of a church community that was racially and socioeconomically diverse.
All Angels’ had a long history of serving the poor. It began as a mission church in Seneca Village, where Central Park now stands. In the 1850s, Seneca Village was where freed slaves and recent immigrants from Europe lived and owned property. It was said that All Angels’ was a church where Black and white worshiped side by side, which is remarkable today and even more remarkable 150 years ago. When the city decided to build Central Park, they evicted all the residents of Seneca Village. All Angels’ moved around the corner and continued its legacy of serving the poorest of the poor ever since. Jimmy was drawn to this community and began worshiping at the 5 p.m. service where many of the attendees were homeless, mentally ill, and struggling with addictions.
When we got married in 2002, I moved from Chicago to New York City. I had been serving as campus staff for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at the University of Chicago before transferring to Columbia University. At the time, InterVarsity was talking a lot about racial reconciliation and what it meant that Christ had destroyed the “dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14 NIV). I had grown up as a pastor’s kid, attended a predominantly Korean American church in Chicago as an adult, and made friends primarily with other Koreans. Despite having almost no non-Korean friends, I assumed that race was not a barrier for me. I never thought about racial reconciliation or considered it a discipleship issue. I never had to confront such things in my homogenous community.
When I started attending All Angels’ with Jimmy, I struggled on multiple levels. Coming from a Korean church background where worship and prayer are very emotional and intense, reading corporate liturgical prayers felt rote and wooden to me. It didn’t seem heartfelt and authentic. Because we celebrated the Eucharist every week, which easily took up a third of the service, the sermons were only 20 minutes long compared to the 45 minute sermons I grew up with. I thought you could barely finish the first point of a sermon in 20 minutes! Our priest, Milind, often said, “In a Presbyterian church, the pulpit is at the center because of the emphasis on the preaching of God’s Word. In an Episcopal church, the altar is at the center because of the Eucharist meal.” I had never heard such things expressed before. Coming from a tradition that placed such a high emphasis on the preaching of God’s word, that sounded like borderline heresy!
But even aside from the worship, I had difficulty feeling connecting with the people. I could acknowledge that the people at All Angels’ were good people. But I didn’t feel the same kind of connection and comfort as I did when I was with other Koreans. There were only four Asians at All Angels’ and Jimmy and I were two of them. I felt disconnected and alienated.
That first year of marriage, the one thing that Jimmy and I argued about the most was church. Jimmy knew I wasn’t happy at All Angels’ but felt it would be good for me to be challenged in this way. On our one-year anniversary, we had one of the worst fights we’d ever had about church. Finally, he conceded and said, “Let’s give it till the spring. If you are still unhappy at All Angels’, then let’s look around and see what other churches are out there.” I felt a huge sense of relief. I just had to stick it out for a few more months and then I could go back to a church I felt comfortable in.
Well, God had other plans. The next Sunday after that conversation, I was sitting in church during the Eucharist. In the Episcopal Church, everyone goes forward to receive communion. The priest gives you a wafer and then everyone drinks from, or dips the wafer in, a common cup. As I sat there watching the line of people go forward, there was a man who looked like a finance type holding his hands out to receive the wafer. Behind him was a homeless person, and behind him, a student from Columbia. It struck me: Where else could I see people from every walk of life coming around the table, acknowledging their need for Christ together? What is more powerful than the cross of Christ to destroy these dividing walls of hostility in our society? It was such a beautiful visual picture of the kingdom of God that I began to weep. It was like scales were falling off my eyes. Every Sunday after that night, I could not hold back my tears during the Eucharist. Something was shifting inside me. I began to feel like I wanted to be part of a community like this, a visible expression of God’s invisible kingdom.
At All Angels’, we say that our worship around the Eucharist table continues downstairs around the dinner table. The dinner was referred to as “the community meal” and was intended for everyone, but at that time, most of the attendees were homeless. Everyone else would typically head out for dinner, not wanting to take food that could go toward someone else in need.This one night, I decided that I would go to the meal. I thought that I would be doing a good deed, by sitting down next to the guests, showing them love and care. I sat down next to one of the men who was at a table by himself. As I tried to engage him in conversation, he made it quite clear that he had zero interest in talking to me. He didn’t try to be polite about it and simply chose to ignore me completely. Not exactly the reception that I’d been expecting. My newfound excitement about this community was slightly dampened.
A few weeks later, I decided to give it another go at the meal. This time, I decided, I would not come as an angel of mercy helping all these poor people. It was dinnertime, I was hungry just like everyone else, and I would just eat with no expectations of what my interactions with people would be like. I sat down next to a man named Roger who was friendly and hilarious. Soon the entire table was engaged in the conversation, laughing, joking, and swapping stories. And for the first time, I felt a sense of connection.
Shortly thereafter, I was walking across the street in Harlem where I live, when I passed an elderly African American man with a walker who I recognized as being from All Angels’. When he saw me, a huge smile broke across his face as he greeted me warmly. The next Sunday, we introduced ourselves and I learned that his name was Simmons. He had fought in the Korean War and knew a few words in Korean, which helped us create a bond. Whenever he saw me at church, his face would light up and he’d kiss me on my cheek like a grandfather. He would always be giving advice to Jimmy on “how to treat a lady”. He helped make All Angels’ feel like home to me. That is why, whenever people talk about how much we are doing for “the homeless”, it doesn’t quite sit right with me. Homeless people were the ones who crossed that dividing wall of race and class, and reached out to me, ministered to me, loved me.
As I became more involved at All Angels’ and was considering my next steps after InterVarsity, Milind, our rector, the Episcopal equivalent of a senior pastor, began to bug me about ordination. I could not think of anything I’d want less than to become a priest. I had difficulty enough with the idea of being a “pastor”! “Priest” felt like something else entirely. Despite my reservations, I wanted to be open to God. Milind was very persistent and after a while, I decided I should at least consider it. In the Episcopal Church, we have what is called a discernment process. It entails meeting with a committee of parishioners for a period of time to talk, question, pray, and help discern the call to ordination. At the end of the process, they make the decision whether or not to recommend you to the bishop.
There was one issue that kept surfacing in my meetings with the committee: my image of what a pastor or priest is. I’m not only a pastor’s kid. I’m a famous pastor’s kid. My dad is very well-known in the Korean Christian community. If your parents are Korean and Christian, it’s highly likely they will recognize his name. The churches he led had thousands of members; his ministry has a global reach; he’s written books, newspaper articles, and Bible commentaries; he’s started seminaries and lay institutes; he’s led thousands of people to Christ at his evangelistic meetings and trained generations of pastors and missionaries. He even has his own TV show. He’s the kind of charismatic and visionary leader people love to follow. My dad was my image of what a pastor is like. And in the midst of discerning this call to ordained ministry, there was only one thing I knew for sure. I wasn’t him. While I felt called to some kind of ministry, I could not even imagine following in his footsteps as a pastor.
I remember one night when my committee members were asking me about my struggle with feeling inadequate, like I wasn’t cut out to be a pastor, and connecting it to my dad being the primary model of a pastor for me. One member, Bob Carle, said something that struck me. He said, “Christine, being a pastor isn’t primarily about being this charismatic, visionary leader. It’s about leading people into an encounter with God, creating the space and conditions for spiritual formation to happen. The way you do it will of course be different than the way your father does it, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less transformative.” For the first time, I began to be open to the possibility that maybe God could use me as a pastor, but I still wasn’t sure.
At our last meeting, my committee said to me, “Christine, we want to recommend you to the bishop, but you don’t seem like you want to and we don’t want to force you to do something you don’t want to do. So we will send this letter to him, and you can pick it up again in the future if you should ever desire to do so.” I didn’t want to pursue ordination if my feelings about it were ambivalent, so I decided that I’d put it on the back burner.
I went on to work for Habitat for Humanity in New York City as a community organizer. During my two years there, I had the opportunity to meet many Episcopal priests who were involved in the work of building and advocating for more affordable housing. All the pastors I grew up with tended to be Korean men of a certain stripe, but these priests came in all shapes and sizes. I think of Earl Kooperkamp in West Harlem who tirelessly fought on behalf of the most marginalized in the city. I think of Theodora Brooks and Maria Santaviago in the South Bronx who served in one of the poorest districts which had the highest rate of people living with AIDS in the U.S. They had such different personalities and gifts, yet shared this joy, passion, and hilarity as they poured themselves out for the communities they served. Knowing them broadened my vision of what it meant to be a priest.
In 2008, I came on staff at All Angels’ as the director of spiritual development. The church had been looking for someone who could serve in a capacity similar to an assistant pastor, but wasn’t necessarily ordained. I think if the title had been “assistant pastor”, I would have been scared off for reasons already stated. But because it was “director”, it seemed like something different than being a pastor, something I could do. It doesn’t really make sense, but that’s how I came to terms with it at the time.
Stepping into this role gave me the opportunity to start leading within a church community, preaching, teaching, counseling, and discipling. In other words, I was doing all the things that a pastor does. I had never served in a church before, and I discovered that I really loved it. It took actually doing the work of a pastor to convince me that maybe being a pastor wasn’t as crazy an idea as I initially thought.
As you might imagine, Milind was the first to point this out. He said, “Christine, you’re doing everything a priest would do, but you have this hang-up about being a ‘priest.’” And he challenged me to reconsider. At that point, I couldn’t argue with him. I couldn’t think of a single good reason why I shouldn’t. There was nothing holding me back. When people ask what led me to become an ordained priest, I can’t point to handwriting on the wall, or a voice from heaven telling me to do so. There were many different factors, but at the risk of sounding cavalier, it essentially came down to this question, “Why not?”
I’ve struggled my whole life with feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. Who I am is not enough, I’ve always thought. Who am I to lead anything or anyone? And so I’ve pushed myself down, held myself back, remained in the background. Plus, as an Asian American woman who grew up in a patriarchal culture, there are structures in place that have helped facilitate that invisibility and subservience. And yet, God has called me not to be my father, but to be me. Psalm 42:7 says, “Deep calls to deep” (NIV). That line always makes me think of the depth of God’s Spirit calling to the depth of my spirit. As I’ve gone through this process of ordination, God has been calling to the deepest, truest part of me, the Christine He created me to be, to come out of hiding. It felt like I finally stopped resisting that call and pushing myself down, and stood up. I stopped saying, “Not me,” and began asking, “Why not me? Why couldn’t God use me? Why wouldn’t God call me?”
And so, on September 29, 2012, I knelt before the bishop in the Cathedral and became the first Korean American woman ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. Sometimes, I still ask that question, “How on earth did I get here?” The obvious answer is God, of course. He’s the One who brought me here. But when I think about how He did so, I see the faces of all the people who have been with me on this path — my parents, Jimmy, the homeless men and women who welcomed me to All Angels’, dear old Simmons, Milind and his persistence, my discernment committee, those wonderful and crazy activist priests, and even those old white men in pointy hats. And there have been countless others along the way. They have truly been the body of Christ, and without them, I would not have been able to hear God calling to me. For that, I am eternally grateful.