Disabled children's ministry brings together generations of Korean-Americans
Congregation seeks to overcome cultural prejudices against handicapped children
Every child receives a 'musical goodbye' at the close of the service at Klema (Photo: OnFaith)
The sea of hipster V-neck shirts and gray suits split from one another as Korean hymns and American praise tunes call out to each from opposing buildings. Rows of snappy Millennials fill the English-speaking sanctuary. A smattering of young couples and singles stand in unison, the occasional hand reaching up as an electric guitar prompts lyrics like, “I’ve finally found where I belong.”
The pastor, wearing loose-fitting jeans and an un-tucked shirt, preaches on shame and the desire to shed labels. California charm laces his charisma. It’s a congregation of Korean-American young professionals, well heeled and confident.
Across a sheet of AstroTurf, the mother church is situated somewhere between Seoul and a Maranatha choir. Most of the 800 Korean speakers in this congregation are blue collar and middle management types, ages 50 and up, who rise and fall obediently to the pastor’s cues. Bibles are opened for underlining. Prayer is conducted out loud and in unison, a divine trust lacing what otherwise feels like the air of stable, seasoned parents.
These two congregations, one English, one Korean, form Open Door Presbyterian Church, the second largest Korean-American congregation in Fairfax, Virginia.
Open Door is located in the most highly educated, affluent pocket of Washington, D.C.’s metropolitan outskirts. Asian Americans have come here in droves, now making up the area’s largest minority group at 18 percent. There are currently 41,356 Korean Americans settled in Fairfax, putting the Washington metro area just behind Los Angeles and New York as home to America’s largest Korean communities.
The bulk of this migration to Virginia comes from the second generation, returning from college and entry-level jobs elsewhere. As they come home, they create a wave of unfamiliar dynamics as the aging generation, which emigrated after the Korean War, now encounters its ascending (and Americanized) sons and daughters. Open Door, a church pioneering the bilingual model, presents a microcosm of these shifts.
An unexpected linchpin
In 2003, one member of the English-speaking congregation was itching to leave. Christine Pak felt the church was established to the point that her capacity to serve was diminished. She was literally walking out when the Korean-speaking Pastor Paul stopped her in the hallway.
“Why are you leaving Open Door?” he asked.
“Pastor Paul, it’s time,” Pak said. “I need to do what I’m called to do.”
Pastor Paul asked what her calling was.
“I’m a Special Ed teacher,” she said. “I’m supposed to be with children with disabilities.”
Pak is a cultural anomaly among Korean-Americans — she sees the disabled as of no lesser value. Historically, cultural prejudices against abnormality have meant that Korean-Americans with handicapped kids don’t expose them to the public eye, particularly within their own communities.
“What?” the pastor said to Pak. “I can’t believe you are a Special Ed teacher! We have families that have disabled kids on our Korean-speaking side. I’ve never known what to do with them. Moms and dads just wander around with these kids while the others leave them at home.”
And so Pak stayed, beginning the long and arduous trek that resulted in the creation of Klema, a ministry specifically geared toward serving those with autism, Down syndrome, and other cognitive and developmental disabilities. It was a lonely road, especially in the context of a church where immigrant congregants are trained to attain worldly success. There was skepticism about investing in those who had no such future.
“They thought we were just doing something ‘nice’ for these kids,” Pak said. “Like we were providing babysitting services. Very few understood that this was about respecting these kids as whole persons, about providing a place for them to worship as fully and freely as the rest of us.”
Pak’s husband, Thomas, joined her in building Klema’s theological foundations after graduating from Fuller Theological Seminary in California. “These kids deserve to worship. So many in our Korean-speaking congregation would tell us, ‘What are you doing? The kids can’t understand the songs or the sermon.’ But it’s not about that! It’s about souls communing with God. You cannot deny any person the right to worship God,” Thomas said.
A typical Sunday morning at Klema under the Paks’ watch is highly structured. The children arrive and are greeted by volunteers or “buddies,” who pair up one-by-one and guide them through the morning’s activities. Two circles of chairs are laid out for the welcome to worship, the disabled students on the inner ring, their buddies (ranging from ages 14 to 67) sitting just behind them. Both lead the singing — the teenager with Down syndrome playing the drums and a preppy volunteer from Thomas Jefferson High School setting the pitch. After worship there’s a sermon, then Bible study groups split up by cognitive ability, followed by playtime and a Korean buffet. Illustrations of the routine are plastered on the walls.
“The focus was all about the kids,” Pak said. “I only accepted volunteers who understood this. No cliquishness was allowed. This wasn’t about high-achievers feeling good about their own service. It was about serving the kids and being served by them, worshipping together as a community of equals.”
The approach worked. Within months of Klema’s founding, the ministry swelled to 30-40 kids, each matched by one to two volunteers so the room filled to capacity.
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