Reverend Joseph Choi is a Korean American pastor currently working three jobs: as a U.S. Army Reserves chaplain, as a hospital chaplain, and as an English ministry pastor at a local Korean immigrant church.
What does that look like in terms of schedule? Choi’s full-time job is his role as a hospital chaplain at Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center in Torrance, CA, where his weekdays are spent. As an Army Reserves chaplain, he is required to attend trainings with his unit one weekend per month, but for the three other weekends of the month, he serves as an English ministry pastor at Sanctification Presbyterian Church in Gardena.
Working three different ministerial jobs was not what Choi had initially expected for his career path. In fact, he said he initially didn’t even want to be a pastor. Having grown up as a pastor’s son himself, Choi was exposed to the financial hardships a pastor and his family must face from a young age, and various negative experiences in the church compelled him to decide while growing up that he would never become a pastor. But eventually, after his parents’ encouragement to go into ministry, he applied -- and got accepted -- to Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology.
However, even while in seminary, Choi said, it wasn’t easy to shake off his negative perspective about pastors, and his lack of desire to become one himself.
“There I was, sitting in seminary, still not wanting to be a pastor. I still really didn’t like pastors, and yet, there I was on my way to get an M.Div.,” Choi recalled.
It was at that time that a classmate suggested he look into military chaplaincy. Considering the stable salary and benefits of working a government job, Choi felt more willing to try this alternative, and applied to be a U.S. Army Reserves chaplain in March of 2008. He began training that June.
Military chaplains could either go into active duty – in which case, the chaplain would be deployed in various places along with his or her unit – or into the reserves. Choi is part of the Army Reserves, meaning he is only deployed for one year at a time every five years, but is required to participate in trainings with his unit once weekend per month.
In the mid- to late-2000s, however, many soldiers were coming back home from the Middle East with traumatic experiences from the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. Choi said that at the time he became a chaplain, many were returning home with severe struggles with suicide. Military chaplains at the time were told that “we were losing more soldiers to suicide than actual combat,” Choi said.
As a result, many military chaplains at the time were encouraged to take the Clinical Pastoral Education program (CPE), a program that allows individuals to become hospital chaplains and goes more in depth with mental health issues. Choi decided to apply for the CPE program, and was able to take the residency program at his current workplace, Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center in Torrance.
“Chaplaincy is a field that I never would have considered or imagined if I hadn’t enrolled in seminary and spoken with that classmate,” Choi said. “I think God spoke to me and led me by literally opening the doors for me for all of these opportunities.”
Chaplaincy is definitely a different setting with different challenges than that of a local church, Choi said. Being able to minister to diverse types of people as an army chaplain and as a hospital chaplain has challenged him to find a firm foundation for his own faith and to explore different ways of reaching out to non-believers.
“You’re not necessarily a ‘missionary’ in the typical sense of the word [as a chaplain], but the environment is pluralistic – not everyone holds to your theology,” Choi explained. “I share an office [at the hospital] with Jewish, Catholic, and New Age chaplains, and a Christian chaplain who doesn’t believe in hell. So being a chaplain is all about being up front in secular society but trying your best to have a Christ-like influence on the people around you.”
This compelled him to pursue doctoral studies at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology to study more in depth how to be an evangelical minister in a post-modern, pluralistic society.
“Knowing what I know now, and having read the studies and books that I have, I have a much stronger foundation in my beliefs now that I wouldn’t have had if it weren’t for the environment that I was placed in,” Choi said.
As a chaplain, both in the Army and in the hospital, Choi is not able to aggressively proselytize to the patients or the other soldiers. However, Choi says, the simple act of being present among the people and building relationships with them is a ministry in and of itself, and often opens up opportunities to be able to share God’s love.
“It’s called the ‘ministry of presence’ – by walking into the room, I enlighten the room, if you will, with God’s presence and his love,” Choi explained.
He shared an experience with one particular patient in the hospital who, after over a decade of negative experiences with several churches, decided that she no longer wanted to go to church and that she would keep her faith life private and personal.
“She told me that she felt very hurt and unwelcome, and decided that Christians are hypocrites,” Choi recalled.
“The natural inclination of a pastor in that situation would be to tell her that she’s wrong, or to justify what happened,” he continued. “But I just listened to everything that she had to say and reaffirmed her pain. And I said, ‘You know, as a Christian minister who is actively engaged in the local church as a pastor, I want to tell you that I’m truly sorry on behalf of other Christians who have hurt you.’ And she looked at me, and all of a sudden she started crying. She said no one had apologized to her in that way, and that she felt she was finally able to reconcile with God through our exchange.”
In such conversations as this, Choi says, he didn’t explicitly share the gospel, but “if that was a seed that was planted, that was a meaningful visit.”
“Just letting people know that God loves them, and planting that seed – that’s how I see my role as a chaplain,” he said.
His experiences in all three of these contexts -- in the local church, the military, and the hospital -- has led Choi to become an active advocate for connecting Korean immigrant churches with Korean American chaplains to lead English ministries. He’s also an active advocate for the chaplaincy field for those who are considering ministry. He has written about his experiences as a Korean American pastor and chaplain, and spoke at a seminar with a Korean audience on what chaplaincy looks like.
“I would hope that many people, even if they don’t look into chaplaincy, that they would look into programs like the CPE,” Choi said.
The environment of the CPE gives the students a taste of what chaplaincy is like – listening to others’ points of view, and being able to engage in meaningful dialogue despite the differences, Choi said.
“I think it’s valuable training for all clergy. It’s a training that allows you to push yourself to understand the other person’s differing point of view, and to love that person because that person is made in God’s image. Because regardless of the background, we need to love each person because we’re all made in the image of God.”