Churches are often catholic in controversyReligion has a way of uniting people, and it certainly is a bonding mechanism among expatriate Koreans. In every overseas Korean community that I have lived in or visited, be it in Europe, Africa, the Americas or Asia, church was the main activity that fostered a sense of solidarity and camaraderie.
When a Korean family immigrates, members of Korean churches in their new neighborhood usually invite them to the Sunday service. After church, “fellowship” with other expat Koreans helps family members adjust and ease homesickness. Even non-Christians find church a great place to schmooze and get acclimated to their new surroundings.
Going to church was one of the first things my family did to adjust in a foreign land. As a child it was fun to church-hop in various countries. The services were similar, but the picnics and social events were always different and something to look forward to.
Many Korean churches abroad are more secular than they are here. Some of my friends who are not practicing Christians like to visit local Korean churches when overseas because of the gifts (like homemade rice cakes) and the warm welcome.
While most of the churches provide a spiritual home, the downside is that some at times are not only the center of communal life, but also communal strife. Gossip can be rampant and petty disputes wear on the congregation. Different denominations criticize one another. In the church we attended in Canada, the congregation wrangled over finances, and, in the United States, they plotted the pastor’s ouster.
In the latter case the church decided to replace the minister because “he had been with them too long.” “He’s been here two years,” one member told me. “It’s time to get somebody else.” There was nothing controversial about his sermons, he had not been at the center of any scandal, nothing about him told me he was unworthy of continuing to lead the parish. But he seemed to know that when the congregation says go, it is time to go.
One might argue that this is democratic. Give the people what they want, right? A minister, however, is supposed to lead his flock, not vice versa. He is a shepherd, but sometimes he tends an unfriendly flock.
Being far from home, friends and family can be lonely. It is understandable that expatriates look for community. But if all anyone really wants is the occasional potluck dinner or ice-cream social, why not join a nice club instead of a church?
by Choi Jie-ho