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The Korean American Christians of Flushing, Queens

The evangelical revival in Flushing was started by the Korean Americans. It started early in the morning.

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Christmas at Promise Church, Flushing, Queens

The evangelical revival in Flushing was started by the Korean Americans. It started early in the morning.

Every morning around 5:30 to 6:00 am, Korean Americans start arriving at their churches, fast food restaurants, and circles of car service drivers for a bit of Scripture reading, prayer, and exhortation to live godly for the day. The intensity of such practice of faith indicates to its participants that they are “real” serious about religion, that they are “real Christians.”

In New York City, 73% of Korean Americans identify themselves as Christians, mainly as evangelical Protestants. There are 144 Korean American Christian churches and independent ministries in the Flushing community district.

 

In good times and bad, business is happy at Hallelujah Books & Music. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

About 14% profess Catholic Christianity and 8% Buddhism, according to a survey by sociologist Pyong-gap Min. Some Korean American Catholics also practice ancestor worship, which Protestants usually avoid. About 19% of Korean Americans in New York City identify themselves as non-religious. There are also a few Korean Americans who believe in shamanism and resort to female shamans (mudang), if available, for advice and spiritual help.

Korean American churches are concentrated east of Bowne Street. The center of gravity for Korean Americans is Murray Hill, in which they make up 20% of the residents.

Flushing Korean Americans go to church regularly at far greater levels than Americans as a whole. In New York City, 90% of Korean American Protestants attend church one or more times a week; 77% of the Catholics do likewise.

In the mid-1960s, the First Congregational Church hosted a Korean American church pastored by Pastor Jin Kwan Han. At about the same time, a group of Koreans who worked at the 1964 World’s Fair in Fresh Meadows decided to stay and reside in Flushing and other Queens locations.

In 1969 the Korean Church of Queens was started by twenty-four people under the sponsorship of the Korean Church and Institute of New York in Manhattan. This sponsorship is a significant indicator of how global politics are intertwined with religious life in Flushing. Founded in 1921, the Manhattan church was famous for its promotion and leaders of the Korean independence movement.

By 1971, Korean Americans had founded six churches in New York City, mainly in Queens. This was the start of a rapid increase in the number of Korean American churches in the Flushing area. The years of 1971 to 1990 were the peak years for Korean immigration into the area.

In 1973, one group of Korean Americans started to meet, and by 1983, they had gathered enough momentum to found the Korean American Presbyterian Church of Queens, now a large church in Flushing. Many more churches were founded in the 1970s-1990s. By 1980, there were more Korean Americans (3,794) living in the Flushing area than in any other place in Queens.

In 1987 St. Paul Chang Ha-Sang became the first Korean American Catholic parish in New York City. (It moved from Rego Park to Flushing in 1990). The church is named after a martyr who was slain in the early 1800s by a ruler who was hostile to all religions except neo-Confucianism.

 

 

In 1990, Flushing Korean churches were drawn into a dispute with African Americans lead by Black Muslims and Nationalists. African Americans disliked some of the practices of Korean Americans who ran many of the small stores in the poorer neighborhoods. For their part, the Korean Americans felt besieged by the high crime rate of the city. The conflict came to a head over two stores on Church Avenue in central Brooklyn. The stores were operated by Christian church-goers, and the protests were often lead by Black Muslims. The conflict turned violent with the wife of one store owner being beaten so badly that she had to abort her baby. Further, Mayor David Dinkins was only lukewarm about protecting the Korean American store owners.

Consequently, the Council of Korean Churches of Greater New York and other Korean American organizations organized a protest march, which was said to have over 7000 people in it. The conflict died down as Korean American merchants developed cultural sensitivity training, donated money to some African American organizations, and started selling their stores in order to leave the neighborhood. Also, new racial and ethnic groups were settling into the neighborhoods, buying the stores, and building their own clientele.

In 1992, the First United Methodist Church started hosting a Korean American church. In the same year, Korean Pentecostals moved the Full  Gospel Mission Center from Manhattan to Queens where it became the nucleus of the large Promise Church off the Grand Central Parkway.

Asian American voters swung over to the GOP candidate for mayor Rudolph Guiliani in 1993. Further, enough African American voters, who were dissatisfied with Dinkins’ response to deteriorating race relations, sat out the mayoral election in 1993 allowing Rudolph Guiliani to prevail. Consequently, the new mayor defended Asian Americans from prejudicial attacks and made it a priority to make African American neighborhoods safer.

In 1996, Guiliani stood in solidarity with over 2000 Korean Americans and other Asian Americans protesting against some remarks by Democratic city council member Julia Harrison. She had compared Asian Americans to invaders destroying Flushing. “They were more like colonizers than immigrants,” she said. “The money came first. The paupers followed, smuggled in and bilked by their own kind.”

Korean and other Asian American churches mobilized their flocks. Church-goer Betty Lee Sung, the former director of Asian American studies at City College, explained the mobilization, “We wanted to make a strong showing that officials cannot insult Asian Americans without impunity.”

Under pressure from the Asian American community and denunciations from the mayor, Harrison read an apology to the City Council, though critics pointed out that she didn’t take back any of her remarks. She was succeeded in the City Council by John Liu.

By 2000, the second generation Korean Americans were starting their own churches that were pan-ethnic and pan-racial. For example, the Living Faith Christian Church started that year, and now meets in a synagogue on Northern Boulevard. In 2012 it sponsored planting King’s Cross, another second generation church with a Chinese American lead pastor.

 

The New Power Presbyterian Church of New York began on October 26, 2000 with five members of Pastor Park Tae-gyu's family at a Lutheran church in Woodhaven, Queens. One year later, it moved into a Baptist Church in Flushing on Linden Place, and then to a schoolhouse, later to College Point, and now at its current home at Murray Hill area in 2006. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

Family centers and small towns

The Korean American churches, if small, are like families, or if large, like small towns. For many congregants that don’t have cars, church vehicles will come pick them up. On Sundays, there are dozens of vans displaying the churches’ names on the outside as they stream down the streets with Christian music playing. Imagine that you took one of these vans for twenty years. The rides wouldn’t be just about transportation: they are a microcosm of “sacred friends” (sungdo) who know a lot about each other and are praying for each other through thick and thin.

 

 

When they get out of the vans in nice suits and dresses with black-leather covered Bibles in their hands, they may first make their way to their personal church mailbox in which messages might be left from the pastors, church office, and friends. Prayer starts immediately and continues for a couple of hours if you come on an early van. Most males also have church leadership positions with responsibilities on Sunday. The women too are busy organizers. In the bigger churches the participation in activities generates a buzz.

Sunday school teachers prepare for their classes, food must be cooked for lunch, the elderly specially cared for, the B-Team (bathroom) rechecks its Saturday cleanup, and the choirs assemble for multiple services and, maybe, a praise music service in the afternoon.

Standing together in the face of life’s difficulties, congregants know that their church will surround them with care. Everyone has a church directory with each member’s contact info and family members in it. The pastor and elders visit members in their homes, and there are periodic intimate gatherings of small groups of families called “district meetings” or “cell groups.” There, they share dinner, prayer, Bible study, and conversations about their lives.

The whole church is invited to mission trips, family retreats, and “filial tours” (hyoodo kwankurong) for older members. On Sundays, such foods like kimchi, beep and radish soup, and rice cakes are served at lunch. (We enjoyed eating a couple of these luncheons of Korean comfort foods.)

The elderly are given a lot of attention as honored members of the church family.  At Sunday lunch, they are specially serviced and certain holidays involve giving them special honor. May 8th is Korean Parents’ Day at many churches. The young kids give special cards to their parents, while the older sons and daughters pin carnations on the parents and give small gifts to the older women. During the celebration of the New Year, the kids bow to the elders who give them candy.

Other holidays also reinforce church togetherness and sense of Korean identity. On March 1 Independence Commemoration Day is celebrated in many Flushing Korean American churches with sermons and singing of patriotic hymns (some sing only Christian hymns). The holiday remembers that on March 1 of 1919, 33 Korean nationalists and students declared their nation's independence in Seoul. It started a nationwide civil protest and was a catalyst for the establishment of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea on April 13, 1919.

August 15th is also celebrated as Restoration Day (Gwangbok meaning “restoration of light”). The holiday recalls the liberation of Korea from the Empire of Japan in 1945. On the same day in 1948, the government of the Republic of Korea was established. The traditional Korean Thanksgiving Day also may occur around this time (the day of celebration varies because it based on the lunar calendar that doesn’t quite coincide to the modern calendar).

In Korean American Christian congregations, it would be hard to overestimate the importance of the creativity and power of the Sunday sermons and Sunday school class teachings. The sermons are like going to very influential TED-talks once a week. If the preaching is well crafted and well-suited for the congregation’s situation, it will shape behavior and attitudes for the rest of the week. During work or at home, congregants may be jolted at times by their inconsistencies with what the pastors preached. Others recite sections of the sermons as incitements for visions of the future, persistence and solace.

For a long time, one of the most common themes touched upon by Korean American pastors in Flushing was how immigration to America had brought new problems and questions. Immigration is a theologizing moment because life is so upset. God’s purposes and presence are eagerly sought. The pastor may give advice on how to adjust America or handle problems. One study by sociologist Okyun Kwon found that 32% of Korean American Protestants pastors in New York City regularly preached that “immigration is God’s divine providence for the chosen people” of Israel and for Korean Christians today. Such a reassurance gives quite a bit of confidence to venture into business and other projects. It also produces a high evaluation of immigrants coming to America.

In order to succeed, the pastors remind the congregants that they must confess and repent of their moral failures, be prepared to sacrifice for God and family, be devote, and never neglect talking about the value of God’s messages for everyone. Living with a sense of calling by God to a higher life, the pastors reassure, will lead to success for the congregants in everyday life. However, moral or business failure may lead to an overpowering sense of shame, a feeling that this is a situation to be avoided at all costs.

The huge devotion to their God and faith resulted in a priority for building churches in Flushing as their communal centers. For Korean Americans churches are not just something for Sunday use, but focal points of daily communal life. Each church is both a worship center and a community center. However, a new challenge is that Korean Americans have been moving out of Flushing.

Many continue to commute back for church to maintain their communities. Yet, many can’t afford to do that or are more inclined to go to churches nearer where they live because this keeps the community spirit more alive.

Consequently, the Korean American churches in Flushing are in decline. Many of their members have moved out to Bayside, Long Island, or New Jersey. For example, Bayside, Queens had 26 Korean American churches by 2006, eight of them opening after 2003. Some churches have been successful in starting Chinese American congregations.

 

The former Oriental Mission Church, founded in Flushing, Queens by its Los Angeles namesake in 1986. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

Younger Korean Americans, some with an intense desire to get away from what they feel is a smothering small town atmosphere of the traditional Korean churches, are also founding new multi-cultural churches and  scattering across the United States after college graduation. The younger generation’s religious creativity has gained them the moniker as “God’s whiz kids” in the scholarly literature.

 

Preaching to the second and third generations in English, Rev. Peter D. Kim at Korean American Presbyterian Church in Flushing, Queens

The first Asian American president of an evangelical seminary is Joel Kim of Westminster Theological Seminary in California. The new head of the international evangelical mission group called the Lausanne Coalition, founded by evangelist Billy Graham, is also Korean American. The successor to Tim Keller’s home pulpit at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan is Abe Cho. We will see how the new generation handles the new challenges.

 

Reverend Tim Keller turned over the leading pastoral role in 2015 to Reverend Abe Cho, pictured on the right with his family and others. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

 

Kudos to the work of Queens College professor Pyong-gap Min, a treasure of the city. His books and articles on Korean Americans in the New York – New Jersey area undergirds our work. For further informatiion, read his Preserving ethnicity through religion in America, 2010.

 

 

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  • Thanks, Henry. There is so much more to be said.

  • Thank you for this wonderfully informative article! It taught me much about the community I grew up in.

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