For the first time, Korean American college students and recent graduates had the opportunity to intern at African American churches and learn from African American pastors and lay leaders.
“This is a small scale fulfillment of a dream that I had been holding on to ever since the time of the L.A. Riots,” said Dr. Young Lee Hertig, the executive director of the Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity (ISAAC), which hosted the program. The tensions in the community led Hertig to ask the questions, “How can we build a multi-ethnic coalition, and how can we break through cultural barriers?”
Thus bloomed the idea to invest in young people, and allow them the opportunity to learn from and fellowship with people in other cultures, Hertig explained.
The program, granted by the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE), ran from July 8 to August 29, and consisted of weekly meetings with Hertig, weekly site visits, and meetings with the interns’ respective site supervisors -- Elder Oscar Owens of West Angeles Church of God in Christ; Rev. Charolyn Jones of First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME) Church of Los Angeles; and Rev. Larry Campbell of FAME Church of Pasadena.
Through exposure to the Wednesday night worship services at their respective internship sites, and meetings with the pastors and lay leaders, the four interns were able to learn much about the differences in culture and style of worship between African and Korean American churches.
Jonathan Hong, one of the interns who was at West Angeles Church, said that one scene that vividly stays in his memory is that of Bishop Charles Blake, the senior pastor of West Angeles, asking if anyone in the congregation lacked money for food or gas -- a memory that was echoed by Jinnie Choi, who also interned at West Angeles Church, as having had a significant impact.
“This might’ve been a shameful thing to ask or admit in the Korean American church,” said Hong, who recently graduated from UCLA.
“But at West Angeles, I saw that one by one, people in the congregation were coming up to offer money,” he continued, adding that this was already after the offering had been collected.
Jinnie Choi, a sophomore at Azusa Pacific University (APU), added that the free-spirited style of worship at West Angeles challenged her to come out of her comfort zone and be more expressive in her worship as well.
“I realized that when cultures merge together, those cultures become more defined,” said Edward Kim, who interned at FAME Church of Los Angeles. “We’re able to say, ‘This is my culture, and that’s your culture. And this is what I want to learn about your culture, and here’s what I can offer you from mine.’ There’s a lot of identity-finding in that.”
The significance of history in the African American church is another aspect that stood out to the interns, which was emphasized not only during direct meetings with internship supervisors, but during the worship services as well.
“History is discussed in sermons, and in normal conversations among the congregants. Who they are, where they’re going, and where they come from is constantly talked about,” said Edward Kim, an upcoming senior at APU.
While interns were able to learn much about the history and culture of the African American church at their sites, they simultaneously had time to reflect and process what they are learning and discover their identity on deeper levels through weekly meetings with Hertig and their fellow interns.
Dooly Kim, a second year student at APU who interned at FAME Church of Pasadena, said he was forced to "face his weaknesses" during the internship, such as a language barrier as a student having recently come from South Korea, and situations with his family. He described the experience as “painful,” but he said he was “happy to face that struggle fully” because it was through the experience he learned more deeply that he “is the author of [his] own life.”
This bilateral internship is one in a series of initiatives that ISAAC has taken to bring the Asian and African American communities together, beginning with the symposium last November with Asian and African American leaders, and subsequent bilateral events in Little Tokyo and in the home of an Asian American pastor.
“There is definitely a space for ethnic churches -- for Koreans to be able to bring out and eat their kimchi without having to look over their shoulders,” Hertig explained. “But how can we take some time to step out of our comfort zones to worship all together?”
“I pray that God would revive our hearts as we hang out with the most unlikely people,” she added.
ISAAC has plans to continue the bilateral internship next summer, and to eventually send African American ambassadors as interns to the Asian American church.