The hierarchy at the United Methodist Church's California-Pacific Conference had good news and bad news for Colleen Chun when she was given her ministerial assignment six months ago.
"They told me, 'You're going to San Diego, but . . .' " the effervescent young pastor at Chollas View United Methodist Church said, pausing for dramatic effect and throwing her head back in a hearty laugh, " 'there are a few drawbacks . . . like somebody burned down the church . . . and there's no money to build a new one.'
"Well, I thought, that's the clincher. But then I took the church. I mean, any church has tremendous amounts of problems. But if I came here, there would be a set agenda. And, I figured, when would I ever get another chance to build a church from the ground up?"
Since her arrival in July at Chollas View, on 47th Street--or, more precisely, at the charred remains of an arson fire that gutted the church and destroyed all of its contents a year ago this week--Chun has been working feverishly to do just that.
By this summer, the minister, whose persistent giggle belies her commitment to her work, hopes to break ground on an expanded church with community facilities to attract the core of the Southeast San Diego neighborhood it serves.
Construction will culminate a tireless, yearlong drive to raise money for a building with an estimated cost of $250,000 to $400,000. "We're calling ourselves the Fund-Raiser-of-the-Month Club," Chun joked as she greeted a recent visitor to the church grounds. "Join up and receive your blessings."
Born and raised in Hawaii, the only Methodist minister of Korean ancestry in the United States and one of fewer than 100 female pastors in the church nationwide, Chun at first seemed an unlikely candidate to reverse the fortunes of a failing, predominantly black parish in a rough, crime-ridden neighborhood.
Chun's frustrated predecessor had demanded a reassignment because of the many crimes in the neighborhood. Membership had shrunk to about 50 families, most of whom had been associated with the church for years.
Methodist officials did not want Chun to live in the pastor's home on the church grounds because they feared for the safety of a young, single woman of a minority race living there alone.
Parts of the church that did not burn were in varying states of disrepair. Chun says the church will never have a community meal service for the poor until it moves into its new quarters, "because the kitchen never would get an 'A' (cleanliness) rating," necessary for sponsoring such events.
"When word got around that I was being sent here, people within the church thought I'd done something wrong," she said. "Everybody kept asking, 'Was she bad? Why did she get sent to that church?'
"Then, I got real scared . . . "
Happily, her fears were unfounded. The crime wave surrounding the church has ended, although Chun says she occasionally is accosted by a drunk or has to send a young truant back to school.
"The criminals see our poor, old, burned church still standing here and they know we can't even afford to tear it down, so I guess they leave us alone," Chun said. "They haven't been a problem."
Chun also worried that, as a young, Korean female, she might not be accepted by the Chollas View congregation. "But I've found the community very enthusiastic about building up the church, both the building and its membership," she said.
"I don't know, maybe it's all in your attitude. I never saw anything wrong with this neighborhood--in fact, I like it. It doesn't look like a ghetto to me. If you go about your business with that state of mind, maybe you have an easier time of it."
John Wylie, a member of the church for three years, said Chun "was very well received right off."
"She's the reason this whole thing is coming together," he said.
"The new church is a needed thing in the community. It can serve a lot of people."
Shortly after taking over the church, Chun converted the parsonage on the grounds to a community meeting hall. "It's the only place we had for creative ministry," she said.
The old home is now used for a class in English as a Second Language, and as a gathering place for a newly formed group of mothers from the church who head their households.
The "Good Neighbor" program, sponsored by the California-Pacific Conference, continues as it has for 17 years to dispense clothes, food and counseling to anyone who requests it. On Sundays, the piles of clothing are moved aside, and pews set up in their stead, so Chun can hold services in what were once the church offices. Despite the Spartan conditions, attendance is up--Chun points out proudly that 105 people attended services Christmas Eve, "which is more than there have been around here for a long time."
Bettie McIntosh, a church member for 20 years and a volunteer worker for Good Neighbor, said it is important to the congregation that the church be rebuilt.
"I'm confident it will happen," she said. "We're all working hard toward that goal. It's been here for 40 years, and we won't let it die."
McIntosh, a resident of largely white, middle-class Clairemont and one of the few non-minority church members, said she joined Chollas View because it seemed a place where people of different races could come together.
"There's a Methodist Church a few miles from my house," she said, "but I wanted my kids to come here. I wanted my children to have the inter-racial experience, and they weren't getting it in the schools."
McIntosh's children, now ages 26, 24 and 21, "had the best experience I could provide them by coming to this church," she said. The youngest wants to join Chun in the small cadre of female Methodist ministers.
Building the new church, Chun acknowledged, "will take a lot of hard praying." So far, there hasn't even been enough money to tear down the burned skeleton of the old building.
Chun has applied for grants within the Methodist Church and from private foundations, and local fund-raising will continue.
The expanded facilities, Chun said, "will allow us to have the kind of presence a church should have in its community. We're building a church here, but we're also building our dreams."