A Hub of the Community


From his vantage point on a hill overlooking downtown Los Angeles, the Rev. Sung Jong Shin has fashioned a vision for his growing church of Korean immigrants.

In one direction lies Chinatown. In the distance is the northern end of Koreatown. His church above Sunset Boulevard is nestled in a Latino residential enclave.

"The community! That's most important! Yet they remain separate," Shin said, spreading his hands apart to drive home his point. "Why do they stay this way?"

If Shin and his congregation of more than 1,000 members have anything to say about it, Holy Hill Community Church will become a hub of civic cooperation--and another example of how faith communities located in areas where ethnic neighborhoods converge are looking for new ways to serve.

Such community-building programs have fast become one of the staples of urban ministry. In the Mid-Wilshire District, the First Church of the Nazarene, once a bastion of white, Northern European Christianity, has directed its programs to meet the needs of Latinos as neighborhood demographics shifted. In the Pico-Union district, St. Sophia's Greek Orthodox Cathedral and St. Thomas Catholic Church, which recently suffered a disastrous fire, have joined in cleaning up and improving their neighborhood.

But academics who have studied Los Angeles immigrant churches say that it is unusual for a first-generation Korean church to reach beyond the needs of its own members and engage the larger community as Holy Hill Community Church is doing.

"This would have to be regarded as a pace-setting [Korean] congregation," said John Orr, emeritus professor of religion at the University of Southern California. "The picture you get is that most of these churches have been very first-generation-immigrant oriented. The kind of support services that they offer are usually more familial."

Shin's congregation, which is affiliated with the theologically conservative Presbyterian Church in America, gets more than the usual fare of preaching, teaching and networking.

With push brooms and other tools, Korean congregants have joined with Chinese groups in cleaning streets in Chinatown. Its young people have helped paint over graffiti. Food and clothing are donated to the homeless and the less fortunate of all races. The church opens its facilities for community-wide garage sales. At Easter, it invites the multicultural neighborhood for a community Easter egg hunt and carnival, as well as church services. Short-term missions have been sent to Mexico.

In the future, Shin said, he hopes these programs will grow and new social services--perhaps an anti-gang program and a retirement home for the elderly--will take shape.

"I try to relate [my congregants] to society itself, not just with the church," Shin said this week minutes after recording his daily radio broadcast to Korean listeners. "The fish cannot swim without water, and we cannot survive without the society, so community is very important."

Shin is no stranger to American ways even though he has been in the country as a permanent resident for only five years. He was educated at Temple University and the Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

"I understand the American culture," said Shin. "My sermons are a little bit different."

His approach toward the larger neighborhood wasn't only a good deed born of Christian concern. As it turned out, it may have been smart politics. Shin said without support from his Chinese neighbors it might have been more difficult to win city approval for the church's new 1,200-seat sanctuary that is now under construction and scheduled to open Sept. 12. Last year, his church won a community organization award from the Chinatown Public Safety Assn.

Housed in a former Metropolitan Water District headquarters, the church bought the 200,000-square-foot property, including a seven-story building and a wing with an indoor atrium, for $8 million. The church is attempting to lease large amounts of unused floor space for noncommercial purposes that serve the community, associate pastor David Ko said.

The new sanctuary, complete with a pipe organ, is being added. For the time being, the congregation has been holding its four Sunday services, including one English language service, in the old MWD board room, which seats only 200.

To reach the new sanctuary--being built for a mere $1 million because of the donated labor of church members, who include architects, artisans and builders--worshipers will descend from the street down a grand outdoor staircase flanked by a waterfall and mosaics depicting Bible stories. Each of the seven staircase landings is marked by a word cast into the concrete: faithfulness, goodness, kindness, patience, peace, joy, love.

As important as it will be for church services, Shin sees the sanctuary as more than worship space. He wants the church, like the world's great cathedrals, to become a venue for concerts and other events for building a better community.

"Los Angeles means the City of Angels, but actually it is not a city of angels right now," said Shin, 62, the author of 50 books in Korean and a former university and seminary professor who previously served in the world's largest Presbyterian church, the 50,000-member Choong Hyun Presbyterian in Seoul. "There is crime and drugs. I want to make this building as a mission center to evangelize Los Angeles . . . not only Koreans, but immigrants and Americans and everybody."

Naturally, the church has its own internal priorities as well. The first is caring for its elderly members, many of whom feel displaced in America with "no place and no hope," says Shin.

The second concern is children. The church offers English language classes, as well as classes in Korean language and culture. "I emphasize that they must know their identity," Shin said. He worries that too many young Koreans are neither culturally Korean nor American. "I teach them that if you do not become good Koreans you cannot become good Americans."

"I don't try to separate us from the mainstream. We must be with them. Of course we are Koreans and Korean Americans and, finally in the future, we will be Americans.

"The church is supposed to help the community," he adds. "It's not the community helping the church."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World