Korean-American bishop cites need for roots

The first Korean-American bishop in the United Methodist Church emphasized the importance of racial and ethnic churches in spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Bishop Hae-Jong Kim preached at the May 3 morning worship service of the denomination’s top legislative assembly, General Conference. Kim leads the church’s Pittsburgh Area.

“Finding one’s ethnic and racial identity is so important to one’s well-being,” the bishop said. “That’s why it’s so important that racial and ethnic churches are there –– because people find their identity in their churches.”

Kim likened ethnic churches to the early church in Antioch, which he said first was made up only of Jews, but later encompassed Gentiles and spurred the growth of Christianity.

“Antioch is the mother of all missionary churches,” Kim said.

As immigrant and ethnic mission churches help people find their identity and become rooted in Christianity, they find wings to reach out and spread the gospel, he said.  As younger generations take over, the congregations often become inclusive, multicultural Christian communities like the church in Antioch.

“The Antioch church was a church of roots, but it began to give wings to the people,” he explained.

The bishop noted that the United Methodist Church also has roots in an ethnic church, the Evangelical United Brethren Church, which initially was made up of German congregations.

Kim survived the Korean War as a refugee with his mother, brother and two sisters, and he worked as a U.S. Army chaplain’s interpreter to support his family after his father died. During that time, his mother converted to Christianity and offered her four children to God. 

After coming to the United States, Kim was ordained in the United Methodist Church, served as a pastor in New Jersey and was the first Korean-American elected a bishop.  His brother, the Rev. Joon Urn Kim, is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Flushing, N.Y., a large Korean-American congregation whose choir sang during the worship service.

The bishop acknowledged that U.S. military forces that helped liberate South Korea during the Korean War are one of the reasons “that we have hope on the Korean peninsula today.”

Lack of roots can promote an identity crisis in individuals, he noted. He’s particularly concerned with helping adopted Korean children in the United States to get to know their roots, he said.

But, the bishop said, “Sometimes there is a danger in going back to the roots.  Fundamentalists go back to the Old Testament roots and stay there.”

He noted, “Christ gave us an identity ... beyond a national identity. The roots of the cross reach to heaven,” he said. “We have not only ethnic or national roots, but roots to God.”

Our roots give us wings; “we mount up with wings like eagles,” he added.

General Conference, too, brings United Methodists back to their Wesleyan roots and gives them wings to reach out, he said. “It is where we come to energize ... to give us power to go into the world to serve God.”

*Campbell is a staff writer for the United Methodist Church’s Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference.

News media contact: (412) 325-6080 during General Conference, April 27-May 7. After May 10: (615) 742-5470.

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