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.”
(Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST) - Patrick Pete, an elder at the church, left, jokes with Pastor Peter Chin during a service on July 15, 2012 in Washington, D.C. at Peace Fellowship Church.
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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.