Korean Missionaries in America: An Interview with Rebecca Kim

Karen Johnson

During the late 1970s, a Korean Christian movement began sending missionaries to evangelize white American university students in the United States.  I recently read Rebecca Kim's new book The Spirit Moves West: Korean Missionaries in America (Oxford, 2015), which analyzes the history of this movement by looking at the history of University Bible Fellowship (UBF), one of the largest Korean missionary sending organization in South Korea.

"Wait, what?" you might say.  "Korean missionaries trying to convert Americans?"  That was my response when I first heard about Rebecca's project.  When I pictured a Christian missionary, even though I was aware that the center of Christianity globally was shifting south, my image was a of white American or European going to a country like Korea.

Kim's fascinating book argues that the Koreans who came to America as missionaries did so self-consciously as Korean evangelicals.  That is, although they came from a nation that Americans had evangelized, they were not carbon copies of American Christians.  The way they practiced their faith reflected their particular social and historical contexts.  They were born around the time of the Korean War and grew up in poor economic conditions under oppressive Cold War military regimes that targeted students.  They practiced a Christian faith infused with Confucian notions of hierarchy, an emphasis on group-centered conformity, and adhered to military-like organizational structure.  Most were laypeople, working as professionals in their 30s who were able to come to America after the nation's immigration policies opened up in 1965 with the Hart-Cellar Act.  Outside of the work they did as "tent-makers" (the jobs that paid their bills), they spent nearly all their time doing cold-turkey evangelism among college students and leading those students in Bible studies.  Weekends, holidays, and evenings were not time for these missionaries to relax or be with their children; they were the time to make disciples.

The students the missionaries targeted, however, were not other ethnic Koreans. 

Earlier Korean missionaries had targeted the diaspora; this generation was cross-cultural.  They countered traditional Korean immigrant culture that prioritized in-group relationships, as well as white evangelicals' church growth arguments that people converted if they could go to church with others just like them.  Instead these missionaries sought out white American students.  They believed that white students would become the nation's leaders, and hoped the students would help restore America to what they saw as its former commitment to Christ.  One of my favorite aspects of the book is Kim's close analysis of the interracial dynamics between the white students and the Korean missionaries.

Missionaries were aware of America's racial hierarchy when they arrived, and in many ways they reproduced it.   In what is common in interracial churches (see Korie Edwards' The Elusive Dream for instance), Korean missionaries catered to whites' cultural preferences in order to build diverse congregations with them.  The missionaries practiced what Kim calls a "theology of sacrifice" that meant they gave up many aspects of their Korean culture in order to make whites comfortable.  They also privileged white converts over American minority converts.

Rebecca Kim directs the ethnic studies program at Pepperdine and is a professor of sociology.  Her first book, God's New Whiz Kids?: Korean American Evangelicals on Campus looked at how and why second generation Korean Americans created racially segregated campus fellowships.  I had a chance to talk with Rebecca about her work recently, and have included some of our conversation below:

KJ: A strong sense of nationalism and national boundaries pervaded the missionaries' enterprise.  They wanted to elevate Korea by their success in converting white Americans from what they saw as "the modern Rome."  It also struck me how they conceptualized American Christianity in terms of a nation.  You say that the missionaries believed that if America "fell," in the world of spiritual warfare all Christianity would be put in jeopardy.  What made America so special to them in the spiritual realm?

RK: The United States is the most powerful country in the world and it is also the most Christian western country in the world (e.g., The United States sends out the most number of missionaries in the world and it also has the largest Christian population in the world). If the most powerful country in the world is a strong Christian nation, then the rest of the Christians in the world can breathe easier and have an easier time spreading their faith. There will be a positive spiritual trickle down effect for Christians if the lone superpower is also a predominately Christian nation. However, if the United States falls as a “Christian” nation, then all of the other Christians in the world may not fare as well. E.g., if some Christians in Asia were being persecuted for their faith, those Christians may be assured that the most powerful country in the world, which is also predominately Christian, may come to their aid. It is similar to many South Koreans thinking that if the President and her cabinet are predominately Christian, then the rest of the Christians in the country would have an easier time being Christians and spreading the faith than if the people in positions of power were of another faith or no faith.

KJ: You say that the Korean people did not think of white people as innately superior.  How did the Korean missionaries gain their savviness in understanding and operating within America's racial hierarchy?

RK: Koreans, as with most ethnic groups, are ethnocentric and think that they are superior to others. They have an in-group bias. Nevertheless, they have become well aware of the white-dominant racial hierarchy in U.S. society and beyond thanks to their history with American imperialism and American Christianity. Even before the first century, Koreans favored white and light over black and dark colors. Under a strict agrarian hierarchy, the nobility and elites were light skinned and the peasants who toiled in the fields were dark skinned. Light skin signified high social status, respect, and authority while dark signified the opposite. (E.g., Nadia Kim’s book Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA demonstrates this well). These existent color hierarchies along with the Confucian emphasis on proper positions and Koreans’ preoccupation with bloodlines primed Koreans to adopt the Euro-American racial ideologies loosely introduced by colonial Japan and clearly affirmed by Imperial America. The fact that all of the missionary heroes from America who helped to build the schools, hospitals, and churches in Korea were white European Americans certainly helped bolster this view of the racial hierarchy. 

KJ: You show that Korean missionaries were different from western missionaries in that they did not have "worldly" power - they didn't come from a dominant nation and didn't have many financial resources.  They did have spiritual and human capital, though.  They practiced the theology of sacrifice, which you say meant "the willingness to outwork and out sacrifice anyone, including white evangelicals, in order to preach the gospel and raise disciples among Americans" (17).  What were the consequences of this for Koreans?

RK: Major burnout. Korean immigrants tend to overwork to make it in America (working long hours and taking few days off). Korean missionaries overworked to evangelize in America.

KJ: I've seen a similar "theology of sacrifice" practiced and articulated by some of the white Catholics I study who crossed racial and cultural boundaries to promote interracial justice.  Like the Korean missionaries you've studied, they viewed themselves as pioneers.  What other groups have operated out of this framework?

RK: The UBF Korean missionaries’ theology of sacrifice was unique to their social cultural and historical context as mid-twentieth century Korean evangelicals, but sacrifice, as a general theology or practice can certainly be found elsewhere among other groups.  Any time heterogeneous groups of people are trying to unify and function as one, someone will have to sacrifice.

KJ: UBF churches, like other diverse churches in America, are a minority.  Less than ten percent of American churches can be categorized as diverse (defined as a congregation having more than 20% of its body composed by one racial/ethnic group).  How does your research contribute to the conversation about interracial churches?

RK: There is the perspective that religion can transcend or supersede ethnic boundaries (the ethnic transcendence perspective) and then there is the perspective that racial hierarchies and white supremacy persist even in multiracial congregations. My research shows support for both perspectives. The missionaries embraced the notion that religion, faith, can supersede all differences, including ethnicity or race. But in practice, race still mattered in who got favored and what culture was viewed as the dominant and normative culture.  My research also confirms that the cost or the energy needed to sustain diverse congregations is far greater than what would be needed to pursue ethnically homogeneous churches. This is especially the case since the missionaries were not just crossing ethnic, racial, and cultural boundaries, but also the immigrant and the native-born boundary.

KJ: Emerson and Smith (Divided by Faith) have shown how it's common for white evangelical Christians (to a greater extent than most white Americans, who also have a harder time seeing race) to not be aware of their racial privilege in part because of their theological tool kit, which privileges individual conversion and personal relationships.  Emerson and Smith argue that white evangelicals immersed in American minority cultures, however, can see race.  How did that dynamic play out for the white converts in UBF, which tried to cater to their racial preferences?  How aware were whites of the sacrifices Koreans were making?  Of their own cultural and racial assumptions?

RK: This is a complicated question. The white American leaders who have stayed on to become the leaders of UBF certainly recognized the sacrifices that foreign-born Koreans made to evangelize Americans. And while there were cultural and racial conflicts and assumptions made on both sides, the two sides did not frame those conflicts in cultural and certainly not in racial terms. Cultural and racial tensions were there, but they were not identified as cultural or racial and talked about in those terms. This is especially the case for race. Concepts like “race,” “white privilege” or “racism” were not part of the regular vocabulary of UBF, of the Korean missionaries or their white converts.

KJ: You show that, over time, UBF became more like the white American evangelical churches they had wanted to distinguish themselves from.  This is due, you argue, due to the death of UBF's founder, pressure from Americans who disliked Korean cultural practices, and pressure from the next generation caused them to change.  You argue that this shift helps confirm the global Christianity paradigm that sects will become more like the mainstream churches.  To what extent do you think UBF's transition was due to America's particular racial landscape?

RK: In the assimilation literature on immigrant incorporation, it is assumed that immigrants and particularly their descendants will assimilate and become absorbed over time into the mainstream or the core/majority society. And in the history of immigrant incorporation in the United States (particularly since the significant wave of Southern and Eastern European immigration at the turn-of-the twentieth century) this mainstream culture or society in the United States has been assumed to be the white majority, more specifically the WASPs (White Anglo Saxon Protestants). Thus, we can’t talk about how immigrants, including missionaries and their churches, evolve in the American context without considering the fact that they are assimilating into a particular racial landscape where whites, WASPs are positioned as the majority. This is even more evident in the American religious landscape.

KJ: Much of UBF's "Americanization" by the 2000s was done to make whites even more comfortable to join their congregations.  You show how UBF changed its evangelism techniques and modeled its worship style on successful American mega churches.  Could we think of UBF's Americanization as an extension of missionaries' earlier desire to make whites comfortable?  Or does it represent too much of a stark break with the past?

RK: As UBF tried to become more normal or Americanized in the United States, they turned to the dominant models of evangelism and church growth in America. What are the contemporary models of worship or evangelism among young Americans? They, especially the younger leaders, asked these sorts of questions and they sought answers within the dominant white American evangelical community. White Christian churches, pastors, and leaders dominate the world of resources for evangelism and worship among Christians in America.

KJ: Many of our blog readers are historians.  How do you think your book speaks to the history of religion in America?  How does it speak to the history of race and ethnicity in America?

RK: Who we expect to be the evangelist and missionary and who we expect to be the “lost” and the one in need of saving is changing and needs to change. There are certainly the changing faces of Christianity, but there are also the changing agents or ambassadors of Christianity.

KJ: Part of the uniqueness of your project in the field of sociology is that you look at how white students' conversions actually happened, and how UBF changed as an organization over time.  What additional veins of inquiry need mining by sociologists and historians?

RK: UBF is only a single unique case. Historians and sociologists have plenty more to study in the future regarding missionaries of color in western countries engaging in cross-racial or cross-cultural evangelism. We have only scratched the surface.


Curtis J. Evans said…
Thanks, Karen (and Rebecca). Really helpful interview. I look forward to reading the book. I wanted to hear more about the theological and denominational background of these missionaries. And how this factored in what message they carried with them.
Karen Johnson said…
Thanks for your response, Curtis. I hadn't thought of your question. In Kim's story, the missionaries' denominational affiliation did not really play a role. What mattered more was their hyper-Korean evangelical identity, with its focus on the military-like order and Confucian-influence organizational hierarchy, theological conservatism, and intense devotional practices.