A somber congregation at a small Korean immigrant church in Glendale worshiped together Sunday for the first time since two men from the church were charged with murder in the death of a woman in an exorcism ritual.
“We all feel like we’ve been struck by a thunderbolt,” said Sam Joo Cho, 46, a deacon at Glendale Calvary Presbyterian Church. “We know that a terrible thing has happened because a woman is dead. At the same time, we also know that these are good men. There are so many unanswered questions.”
Jin Hyun Choi, 46, a deacon, and Sung Soo Choi, 41, the church’s missionary to China, and Jae Whoa Chung, 50, the victim’s husband, were arraigned Tuesday. They are accused of killing Kyung Jae Chung, 53, on July 4 while trying to expel demons from her body in a rented Century City condo. A court hearing is scheduled for Thursday.
Until the “incident"--how the congregation refers to the case--many members of the church, ensconced in a neighborhood of well-kept homes along streets lined with jacaranda and elm trees, said they felt truly blessed.
“In countless ways, we felt a special grace of God,” said Cho, 46, a member of the church. “In just 14 years, we grew from a church with two families to a congregation of more than 600 with missionaries in Russia and China.”
Last summer, a church delegation of doctors, dentists, nurses and students visited a hospital in Uzbekistan to donate a much-needed incubator and to volunteer their services.
“People in Uzbekistan were so happy, even the mayor (of the city of Angren) came to thank us during a ceremony,” said senior pastor the Rev. Andrew B. Kim, whose mission is to spread the gospel throughout the world, especially in communist and former communist nations.
With another delegation about to leave for the former Soviet republic in early August, July was to have been a busy and exciting month.
And a youth group at the church, led by defendant Jin Hyun Choi, had been ministering to the homeless in downtown every Saturday, bringing 400 hot dogs.
“Then the incident . . . " Cho said.
By Wednesday evening, a key church committee had voted to retain two lawyers and commit between $35,000 to $40,000 to defend the Chois.
The church will collect a special offering next Sunday and work out details on raising the money for the legal defense.
“Regardless of what happened, which only they [defendants] know, we feel that we need to support them with love and money,” said Cho, an editor at the Korea Times, who spearheaded the drive to make the financial commitment.
“For us to criticize and become divisive now would amount to giving in to Satan. It is so easy to destroy a church.”
Not everybody’s shares Cho’s view.
“I don’t know whether I will contribute to their legal defense,” said a member of the church who asked to remain anonymous. “What happened should never have happened. As I see it, the incident was a manifestation of a deeper problem with the church leadership.”
The congregation member accused Kim of improperly guiding the two men and “dodging the responsibility” by not admitting that the church leadership was partly responsible.
Some members will leave the church as a result, the critic added.
Kim acknowledged that there are detractors who want to “use the incident” to discredit him and the church.
Still, through three services Sunday, hundreds of men and women prayed fervently, seeking divine intervention to enable them to love the three accused men.
“Love is patient; love is kind . . .” the congregation read aloud in unison from I Corinthians, Chapter 13. “There is no limit to love’s forbearance, to its trust, its hope, its power to endure.”
“This was just the message we needed today,” said Grace Jun, who, like other members of the congregation, has been struggling with her church’s involvement in the case.
“The only way we can overcome our difficulties is through love and prayer,” said Jong Hi Yoo, 57, a member of the church since its founding almost 15 years ago. “How does one explain something like this? The incident is so out of the ordinary, it is beyond my understanding.”
Jae Whoa and Kyung Jae Chung, longtime missionaries to Bangladesh, had come here on their way to a conference in Chicago. Here, they met Sung Soo Choi, who was in town to renew his visa, and sought his help. The Chungs and Jin Hyun Choi are permanent U.S. residents, and the Rev. Sung Soo Choi is a U.S. citizen, whose wife and two daughters are in China and unaware of what happened, church members said.
Some Korean pastors say it is difficult to believe that the men were involved in an “exorcism,” as it has been reported by authorities.
Korean churches practice ansu prayer--the laying on of hands, they said. In some of the more charismatic churches, members also practice a healing rite called anchal prayer, “a kind of religious body massage,” according to the Rev. Hang Ku Shim, president of the Assn. of Southern California Korean Churches.
Shim said he is not acquainted with Sung Soo Choi, who allegedly led the anchal prayer to expel demons from Chung. But he surmised that missionaries who work undercover in places such as China, where the government crackdown on religion is severe, may feel added pressure to deliver “miracles” to gain converts.
Some pastors who have witnessed anchal prayers suspect that is what happened in this case, not an exorcism in the traditional Catholic sense, although anchal prayer has a similar goal.
“Sometimes participants fall into a kind of frenzy and lightly pound the sick person’s back,” said the Rev. Peter Kim, pastor of Hollywood Korean Presbyterian Church, who has witnessed two anchal prayers.
Peter Kim, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and a strong opponent of anchal prayer, said the practice is based on an “incorrect understanding” of exorcism and the laying on of hands.
He expressed the hope that Kyung Jae Chung’s death will prompt church leadership to speak out against the practice and prevent such an incident from happening again.
Shaken by the news, the senior pastor at the Glendale church had initially tried to distance himself and his church from the defendants.
So worried was Andrew Kim at the possibility of being “falsely accused of heresy” that he did not initially give his church’s full name to reporters. That upset the minister of another Korean Presbyterian church in Glendale, with a similar church name.
Kim has regained his composure, encouraged by supportive calls and spontaneous prayer groups arriving at the church every evening this past week--dozens of people coming to church directly from work after 12-hour days as shopkeepers, painters, garment workers.
One concern of church members is that the incident has damaged not only the reputation of their church, but the Korean American community and perhaps even the bigger Christian community.
Jim Garretson, pastor at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Glendale, said he was present at an exorcism in 1990 during which a woman became violent. The woman was physically restrained to keep her from hurting herself or anyone else, but she was never struck, he said.
“There is no cause for hitting someone,” Garretson said. “There is no justification for it.”
Garretson, whose church is not affiliated with the Korean church despite their similar names, was among those who emphasized that although many Christians believe in demons, what apparently happened to Chung is an aberration.
The first awareness of any trouble came when Los Angeles police asked Glendale officers to arrest Jin Hyun Choi at his apartment, spokesman Chahe Keuroghelian said.
An autopsy had determined that Chung was killed by “multiple blunt force trauma,” Craig Harvey, chief of investigations for the Los Angeles County coroner, announced Monday.
Several members of the church said this week that the victim had gone for an acupuncture and moxibustion treatment--an ancient Asian cure of burning herbs on the skin--hours before she underwent the exorcism ritual.
“The [marks] that authorities talked about may be attributable to the moxibustion,” said Henry Kim, a neighbor of Jin Hyun Choi’s.
As the difficult week drew to a close, more church members appeared united in supporting the defendants and the church’s stance.
“Even if they were not connected to our church, I think we should help them,” said Kyu Woong Park, 31, a Glendale painting contractor who sings in the choir. “How much more when they are our church brothers.”
And Cho said: “It is at a time like this we realize what being our brother’s keepers really means.”