Korean immigration to Los Angeles
A first wave of Korean immigrants in Los Angeles settled at the foot of Bunker Hill and worked as truck farmers, domestic workers, waiters, and domestic help. The Korean United Presbyterian Church was established on West Jefferson Boulevard in 1905. A Korean community developed around this church. In the 1930s the Korean population shifted to an area between Normandy and Vermont Streets in the Jefferson Boulevard area. This Korean area, which became known as the “old Koreatown,” was in proximity to the University of Southern California. In the 1950s, Los Angeles received a second wave of Korean immigrants resulting from the Korean War and the children of the first generation of immigrants gave birth to the next generation. After the passage of the Hart-Cellar Act in 1965, Korean immigrants increased. After the Watts Riots in 1965, many Koreans began moving to suburban communities.
In 1970, the Koreans in Los Angeles and Orange Counties made up 63% of the total number of Koreans in the United States. Around this period, the Korean community moved to the Olympic Boulevard area where the modern Koreatown is located. The Korean community was severely affected by the 1992 Los Angeles civil unrest. Over US $400 million worth of damages occurred, including the destruction of over 2,000 businesses owned by ethnic Koreans. Following the unrest, many Koreans moved to suburbs in Orange County and the Inland Empire counties of Riverside and San Bernardino, although reinvestment in Koreatown caused the community to rebuild.1
Koreatown - bounded approximately by Beverly Boulevard to the north, Jefferson Boulevard to the south, Crenshaw Boulevard to the west, and Hoover Street to the east - got its start as a commercial district in 1969, with the opening of a supermarket on Olympic Boulevard. Neighboring stores quickly cropped up, and the retail boom continued through the next two decades; Korean investors opened scores of restaurants and bars and, Korean merchants dominated the retail business in an otherwise overwhelmingly Latino residential district. With the boom in immigration, Korean Christian churches multiplied dramatically; as of 1992, more than 600 Korean places of worship dot the landscape from Ventura County to San Diego.
As of 2008, the Greater Los Angeles area had the largest Korean community in the United States with about 260,000 ethnic Koreans, which is about 26% of the Korean American population (about 1 million) in the United States: Korean Americans lived in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino, and Riverside Counties. In the same year, over 46,000 Koreans lived in Koreatown, accounting for 17.7% of the residents there.2 Koreatown in Los Angeles, while also housing other ethnic groups, is home to hundreds of Korean- and Korean-American-owned small businesses, churches, and community institutions.
Following the 1992 Los Angeles civil unrest, many Koreans moved from Koreatown, just west of downtown Los Angeles, to suburb locations in Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties. By 2008, many Korean ethnic communities had appeared in the northwestern San Fernando Valley, including Chatsworth, Granada Hills, Northridge, and Porter Ranch. By 2008, Korean communities had also appeared in the cities of Cerritos and Hacienda Heights in Los Angeles County, and Buena Park and Fullerton in Orange County. The particular geography of Southern California, an advanced modernity, and physical setting are all factors that help explain the region’s religious culture (Roof 2007, 86).
Given the fervor of Korean Protestantism, in what follows, I examine five cases of large congregations in different regions of the Los Angeles area: YNPC of Los Angeles at the edge of Chinatown, Oriental Mission Church (OMC) and Berendo Street Baptist Church (BSBC) in the modern Koreatown, Grace Korean Church (Grace Ministries International; GMI) in Fullerton of Orange County, and SaRang Community Church of Southern California (SCCSC) in Anaheim of Orange County.
The ecology of the Korean megachurches in the Greater Los Angeles area
Being the recipient of hundreds of immigrant groups, all of which bring their own religion and culture with them, Southern California has a long-standing reputation for having a fertile religious climate, with Los Angeles the most diverse religious population in the world. Although the religious ecology continually changes, the level of religious activity in Los Angeles still surprises the theorists of secularization: “Religious institutions may always have been a place where immigrants could speak their native language and eat food from their country of origin, but now churches, synagogues and mosques are assuming a much more assertive role in mediating between the Promised Land and the homeland” (Miller 2000).
Recently, there is revived interest in an “ecological approach” (e.g. Dear 2002) in which religious institutions are seen as one asset among many within a diverse postmodern urban setting such as the Los Angeles area. While some observers argue for religion’s role in producing a cultural “melting pot,” Los Angeles challenges this theory. Thus, rather than stimulating the assimilation of various ethnic groups, according to Donald E. Miller and colleagues, religious congregations are “unrivaled as the place where homeland values are maintained, celebrated, and passed on to the next generation. In performing this function, religion is permanently changing the culture of Southern California” (Miller et al. 2002, 106).
In 2002, according to Donald E. Miller’s observation (Miller 2002, 283), Koreans had two highly visible congregations in Los Angeles - the OMC and YNPC - both of which continue to maintain several thousand members.
OMC, though notorious because of continuous internal strife over leadership succession in recent years, has the distinction of being one of the early Korean churches in the modern Koreatown area. Established by Pastor Dong Sun Lim on July 29, 1970, the nondenominational church moved from Pastor Lim’s residence to its current location on Western Avenue in 1975, just north of Koreatown.
A generation ago, the Los Angeles Tinies (April 2, 1988) published a story about OMC under the title of “From Faith and Scotch Tape: One of the Country’s Fastest-Growing Churches Was Rooted in Pastor’s Jailhouse Conversion.” According to this article, Dong Sun Lim experienced a jailhouse conversion while charged with espionage and facing a North Korean death sentence, which was the seed of a ministry that eventually led to the founding in Los Angeles’ Koreatown of OMC. The church started with 30 members, half of whom were children. By 1988, OMC packed more than 5,000 people each week into worship services and Sunday school classes in a remodeled Ralphs supermarket, and an adjacent education building on North Western Avenue. OMC also has a considerable global reach with sister missions in Latin America and Germany. The church could be regarded as an example of Donald E. Miller’s characterization of the typical nondenominational evangelical church as a “new paradigm church”: “The typical new paradigm church meets in a converted warehouse, a rented school auditorium, or a leased space in a shopping mall. These meeting places boast no religious symbols, no stained glass, and no religious statuary” (Miller 1997, 13). Behind these few stylistic accommodations to contemporary White, middle-class American tastes, lies an unwavering commitment to traditional evangelical orthodoxy (Wilford 2012).
Since the 1970s, the Koreatown population was constantly being replenished by new arrivals of upper-middle-class Koreans and university graduates with their fundamental values of education, discipline, diligence, and spiritual fervor. It was known that people chose OMC because of its location and the wide range of classes to children (Kang 1992). This suggests that the success of religiousorganization is dependent on their appealing to local communities (Wilford 2012), or, as R. Stephen Warner has put it: “religious institutions flourish when they reflect, as well as engage, the cultures of the people who are their local constituents” (Warner 2004, 105).
Young Nak Presbyterian Church of Los Angeles (YNPCLA) was founded in Hollywood in 1973 with seven adults. The name Young Nak means “Eternal Pleasure.” The church’s namesake church in Seoul, built by North Korean refugee Christians under the leadership of Rev. Kyung-Chik Han after the Korean War, is one of the Korea’s “super-churches” with membership in the tens of thousands. Within two years of its founding, in 1975, YNPCLA bought a church building originally built as a synagogue at 1218 S. Fairfax Avenue, and then finally moved to the present location at the edge of Chinatown at 1721 N. Broadway in 1989.
The first senior pastor, Rev. Keyong Kim, fled from North Korea to South Korea after the Korean Liberation in 1945 and then settled in Los Angeles in 1973. In 1975, Rev. Kim invited Pastor Emeritus Kyung-Chik Han of the YNPC in Seoul for the special revival meetings of his church. In the following year, he invited Cho-Joon Park, the then pastor of YNPC to come for the same revival meetings. This connection to YNPC illustrates two things. First that YNPC in Seoul is indeed the mother church of YNPC of Los Angeles. Second, this also suggests that the majority of congregants of YNPCLA are originally from North Korea via Seoul to Los Angeles.
The Young Nak Church of Los Angeles, with close ties to YNPC in Seoul, helped new immigrants from South Korea find jobs, register their children in school, and locate housing. And although a considerable number of YNPCLA members were considering a move to the suburbs, YNPCLA decided to stay in the city, expecting to receive members coming from all directions. The Los Angeles Times reported the Young Nak church’s moving as follows:
One of the biggest Korean-American congregations in Los Angeles will move into a newly constructed church complex (1,200 seating and parking for more than 500 cars) next weekend - a $9-million symbol of the robust church activity among Korean-heritage Christians. Despite inconvenient parking and makeshift classrooms at their old Koreatown facility, the Young Nak Presbyterian Church was ranked last year as the fourth fastest-growing U.S. church in attendance. Attendance at Young Nak services and religious education classes grow to more than 4,600 churchgoers on the average Sunday in 1987, according to the latest survey by the Church Growth Research Center in Bolivar, MO. The 4.7-acre site, which once accommodated an auto dealership, is on Broadway, east of Chinatown and not far from the intersection of the Pasadena and Golden State freeways (Dart 1989).
After the 1992 civil unrest, the church become a hub of even greater activity in the Los Angeles Korean community, providing help to thousands of Koreans affected by the unrest and assisting in the effort to improve relations with other ethnic and racial groups (Kang 1992). At the time, the church had 7,000 registered members - with 5,000 attending every Sunday - making YNPCLA the biggest Korean church in the United States, drawing worshippers from as far away as Riverside and Palm Springs.
BSBC, the second Korean Baptist church in the United States, was founded by Rev. Don Kim and his wife (E. Sook Ahn) with 31 young Korean students in a one-bedroom apartment on Adams Ave., on March 10, 1957. Both of them were also North Korean Christian refugees, and Ahn is the author ofJukentyeon Jukelila (Ahn 1968). Her dramatic story, based on the spirit of martyrdom, was published in Korea, Japan and China, where it became a national sensation, being translated into English in 2001 and later made into a movie (Kim 2001). Her bold defiance of the tyrannical demand to bow to pagan Japanese Shinto shrines condemned her to a living death in a Japanese prison. Ahn spent six years (1939-1945) in Pyongyang prison during World War II as a result of her faith.
After her release she was married to Don Kim in the United States, and the couple toured Europe and the United States speaking to audiences of how God sustained their faith during those harrowing years. The couple devoted themselves to the ministry of BSBC for 32 years (1957-1999). Within 20 years they had achieved the construction of a new church building at the current location at Berendo St. and Olympic Blvd. This was the first church building constructed by Koreans in the United States. According to a 2007 Christianity Today report, BSBC has functioned as an epicenter for the establishment of the modern Koreatown around Olympic Boulevard since the 1970s. Following Rev. Kim’s leadership, Rev. Sung Kun Park was appointed as the second Senior Pastor of BSBC in 1989. Trained in the United States, Rev. Park is known to be an excellent expository preacher. In 1994, BSBC renovated and enlarged its main auditorium and built two new buildings for their education and mission ministries, respectively. In 2007, BSBC celebrated its 50th anniversary with 2,000 attendees and published its 50-year history (Los Angeles Korean Baptist Church History). As in the case of YNPCLA, the people of BSBC once were considering moving to the suburbs. But considering the historical and symbolic meaning of BSBC as the first church constructed by Koreans in the United States, they decided to stay in the center of Koreatown. In 2018, BSBC completed its third building construction project, the “Lifeway Vision Center,” on the plot of land that used to be its parking lot across Berendo St. from its current location. The new building has seating space for 1,500 people.
Even though the majority of Korean immigrants spoke little English and relied on the Korean-speaking infrastructure of shops and services, the defining characteristic of the Korean community was its “upward mobility.” The general pattern was that as soon as people could afford it, families left the enclave, seeking better schools and safer neighborhoods. After the 1992 civil unrest, Korean-Americans, who were professionals and white-collar workers, chose to leave Los Angeles, moving to suburbs stretching from South Pasadena to Orange County. Consequently, Koreans have two highly visible mega-churches in Orange
County: Grace Korean Church (GKC) in Fullerton and SCCSC in Anaheim. The Fullerton area, known among Korean families to be a good and safer place for education for their children, is now often called as “new Koreatown” in Orange County. As of 2007, GKC’s attendees numbered 4,500 and SCCSC’s were 8,000 attendees. The two churches are located close to each other. The former is Pentecostal/Charismatic nondenominational, whereas the latter is a Presbyterian Church in America congregation, whose theology is conservative and evangelical.
The current location of GKC on Valencia Drive in Fullerton was originally the site of the Hunt’s Ketchup factory. GKC was founded in 1982 by Pastor David Kwangshin Kim, the president of GMI with three families. Pastor Kim was born into a Christian family in South Korea. He graduated from the prestigious Seoul National University in South Korea and went on to become a businessman in the United States. He went to church every Sunday but it was not until he was 42-years-old that he had a conversion experience. Afterwards, Kim abandoned his business and entered Talbot School of Theology in the neighboring town of La Mirada. In 1985, three years after its founding, the church grew to about 1,000 members and had an annual budget of US$1,500,000. Pastor Kim declared Grace Korean Church as a “World Mission Ministry,” and allocated 50% of the church budget to missions and mission programming. The GKC buildings on the former ketchup factory grounds were constructed from 2007 to 2009 (Grace Korean Church 2012).
The worship services at GKC stand out for their exuberant worship style. When the congregation sings hymns led by a “worship team” and accompanied by an orchestra and a full choir, the mammoth sanctuary feels like a music hall. Some worshipers get up and dance. At times the current Senior Pastor, Rev. Paul Gilhong Han, will urge congregants, saying, “Let’s give Jesus a big hand!” The sound of applause then fills the sanctuary. GKC also developed a special spirituality training program for laypersons called Tres Dias, which has expanded to other locations in Southern California and the world. Tres Dias is a Christian interdenominational three-day event which aims to concentrate closely on the person and teachings of Jesus Christ. In 1985 Tres Dias became an international organization when communities were chartered in Korea and Germany.
SCCSC’s namesake church in Seoul, South Korea, is one of the Korea’s “super-churches” with membership in the tens of thousands - currently about 80,000. “SaRang” is Korean for “love” and the church is located in the affluent middle-class Gangnam area of Seoul. SCCSC is the largest Korean church outside of Korea (Republic of Korea) as well as the largest Asian church outside Asia.3 The church was founded in the Los Angeles County suburb of Cerritos in 1988 by Pastor Jong-hyun Oh and had 12 adults as founding members. In 1999, the current church building, called the “Miracle Complex,” was completed. The church is located in Anaheim, on the comer of Brookhurst St. and La Palma Ave., overlooking the iconic 5 Freeway, which runs the length of California, from the Mexican border to Oregon and on to the Canadian border.
By 2003, within 15 years of its founding, the church’s membership had grown to reach 6,500 attendees. That same year, Pastor Oh accepted a call to pastor a megachurch of the same name - SaRang Church - in Seoul. The next year, Rev. SeungWook Kim (Daniel Kim) was installed as the new pastor and stayed until 2011 when he left to become the pastor of the Hallelujah Community Church in Korea. In 2012, Rev. ChangSoo Noh, a 1.5th generation Korean American, was called to serve as the new pastor and continues to this day.
Being a Korean immigrant church, SCCSC has been trying to focus its mission outreach to the local community, focusing on people within a two- to three-mile radius (Orange County Register 1992). For example, to raise awareness of their Easter festival event, church volunteers went around the local neighborhood -which straddles the Anaheim-Fullerton border - leaving fliers on door and extending a personal invitation to anyone they encountered.