For Korean American pastor, being open-minded builds relationships
By Tomi Obaro,
Peter Chin was a toddler when his father came home from the hat store he owned in Chicago, Ill., his eyes bloodshot. A man had sprayed bleach in them after beating him repeatedly with the butt of a sawed-off shotgun while demanding money. ¶ The man was black. ¶ It’s the kind of inchoate memory that helped shape Chin’s early understanding of black and Korean American relations. And although his parents never said anything, Chin could sense their distrust whenever the car door locks clicked as a group of black men passed by. ¶ Fast-forward to 2012: Chin, 33, received a call on July 4 telling him that someone had broken into his Langdon home. Despite Chin’s early memories, he did not jump to the conclusion that the criminal might have been African American. ¶ That’s because as interim pastor of Peace Fellowship in Northeast Washington, who has chosen to live in a mostly black neighborhood and work at a mostly black church, Chin is leading a much different life than what his parents experienced.
His relationships with parishioners and neighbors contrast sharply with the notion that Korean American and African American relations are fraught with tension and suspicion. That friction was highlighted this spring with D.C. Council member Marion Barry’s controversial remarks about Asians coming into black neighborhoods with their “dirty shops.”
While the condemnation that followed was understandable, the point by Barry (D-Ward 8) that Asian immigrants generally do not choose to live in the predominantly poor, black neighborhoods where they own businesses has merit. First-generation Korean American merchants “can be prejudiced against African Americans” because in South Korea they primarily dealt with other Koreans, says Kyeyoung Park, an associate professor of anthropology at UCLA who specializes in Korean American and African American relations.
Some African Americans can be resentful of shop owners who benefit economically from their neighborhoods while not living in them, as Barry’s comments demonstrated.
Chin’s choice to work and live in a mostly black neighborhood for the past three years appears to have afforded him a rare perspective.
“If we think superficially and we allow our first instincts to govern how we look at each other, then it’s very easy to think people will be prejudiced,” he says, “but when you’re a little bit open-minded, you build relationships.”
Peter Chin originally wanted to be a doctor. A summer spent as a counselor at a Christian camp made him change his mind.
“Working with these kids and seeing them really turn around and not want to live aimlessly for themselves — it was an incredible moment for me,” Chin says.
To the chagrin of his mother, Chin nixed medical school, went to seminary, got married along the way and wound up in Northern Virginia doing college ministry at Open Door Presbyterian Church, which has a predominantly Korean congregation. But he and his wife, Carol, preferred the energy of the city.
So the Chins decided to start a church, Riverside Covenant, in Columbia Heights in the fall of 2009. They moved to Langdon in Northeast because of the low violent crime rate.
Just three months into their move, they learned that Carol, who was pregnant, had breast cancer. Though the ordeal ended happily enough — Carol is in remission and gave birth to their first son, Jonathan, in 2010 — the events were so emotionally draining that the couple opted to close their church in January.
Meanwhile, in Deanwood, Pastor Dennis Edwards, who had led Peace Fellowship for 10 years, was considering a new position as pastor of a church in Minnesota.
Edwards, who is African American, started Peace Fellowship with the intention of creating a traditional black church east of the river that reflected the demography of Deanwood, a predominantly black, working-class neighborhood. But his connections as a former senior pastor on Capitol Hill and as a university speaker meant that a number of non-black, middle- and upper-class folks started attending. “They tended not to look like our neighborhood, but they really liked our church,” Edwards says.
Just as Edwards was finalizing his decision to move to Minnesota, the Chin family was looking for a new church. A Korean American friend invited them to Peace.
While Chin had found that many people tend to sort themselves along racial, ethnic and class lines on Sundays, he says: “Peace Fellowship didn’t seem to pay much attention to race or class. We were shocked — it was completely multiethnic, multiclass.”
Two or three weeks after Chin and his family started attending Peace, Edwards and Chin had lunch. “As we talked, we found we had a lot of similar philosophies to doing ministry,” including the desire to live where they served, Edwards says. “I really didn’t think much about his ethnic background.”
And that’s how Peter Chin came to lead a majority-black church flanked by two Korean American-owned liquor stores.
“Good morning, Peace!”
“You know, every Sunday is my favorite Sunday here at Peace. Especially Youth Sunday.”
Pastor Chin beams from behind the music stand that doubles as a pulpit. Once a funeral home, the sanctuary is a bright, albeit small, space, with “Jesus” written in 10 languages on a back wall.
Behind Chin, a white screen displays the title of today’s sermon: “The Lord’s Prayer: Our Father, Heavenly and Hallowed.”
“Can all the youths involved in the service stand up, and can we give them a round of applause?” Chin continues.
A cluster of nervous-looking preteens, all black, rises from the front row. The congregation responds with enthusiastic applause and wolf whistles.
Liz Bockenfeld, who is white, sits with her legs crossed. She’s a junior at George Washington University who has been coming to Peace for about 10 months, after a group of fellow students invited her. On the other side of the aisle, David Carter, an elderly black man with a halo of gray hair, hunches over a wooden cane. He lives in one of the brick apartment buildings adjacent to the church. A few rows up, an older Asian couple is dressed in their Sunday best.
Chin acknowledges that before he came to the District, his interactions with African Americans were limited to a few acquaintances. That he is an Ivy League-educated Korean American only added to his fears about pastoring Peace Fellowship.
He girded himself for rejection. Then he was happily surprised.
“I’ve been shocked by the level of acceptance and the willingness to allow me to be their friend and their pastor,” Chin says.
The transition at Peace from a black pastor to a Korean American one wasn’t jarring at all, says Sherrie Lawson, 38, who is African American.
“There were three Asian families attending Peace Fellowship, one for at least six years. We had great relationships with those families, so it was just kind of the natural flow,” says Lawson, a business analyst and adjunct professor.
Jason Edwards, Edwards’s son and the worship coordinator at Peace, says he would have had more trepidation about Chin if he didn’t live in the inner city. “You need to be involved in the community in a serious way,” Jason Edwards says. “There are black pastors who live in P.G. County but have churches here. That creates a huge amount of separation.”
‘Sense of community’
Living in Langdon for the past three years appears to have helped Chin bridge those gaps. The working-class neighborhood just east of Brookland has been slower to gentrify than other parts of Northeast, and as the sole Korean American family in the neighborhood, the Chins are conspicuous. But Chin says: “We know more of our neighbors than in any other place we have lived. The sense of community is very strong.”
Chin says he has found himself reflecting on generational differences among Korean Americans.
“What I’ve realized as a second-generation immigrant in this community, most of [my] concerns were fears based off of [my parents’] experiences, but my own experiences were very different as someone who grew up in America, who grew up in American culture, who understands English, who has a better understanding” of black culture.
Chin believes that his 6-year-old daughter’s generation may be even more open. After learning about segregation at school, Sophia scrawled “Only Blaks!” above her crayon drawing of four children playing on the playground. She was one of those children.
That she, as a student at a school that is 99 percent black, chose to identify with African Americans was encouraging for Chin. “That really touched me, her resistance to do what humans by nature tend to do, which is separate and differentiate themselves from others,” Chin wrote in a post on his personal blog about that moment.
Days after the Chins’ house was broken into, Peace parishioner Keith Schlabach, who is white and an amateur carpenter, came by to take measurements to replace their busted door.
Patrick Pete, a black elder in the church, came and asked if the Chins wanted security cameras, offering to pay for and install them.
Some church members arranged to bring meals, and Chin’s neighbors, all African American with the exception of an interracial couple, came by to check on the Chins and provided descriptions of the suspect to the police.
Although Chin had wondered if he were truly being embraced when he first arrived, he says he now knows the answer.
“The love you’ll feel here . . . it’s completely genuine,” he says.