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Korean Church's Relocation To Centreville Causes Unease

The Rev. Danny Ro blesses Abigail Kim and her son Shaun Chung, 11 months, at Korean Central Presbyterian Church in Vienna. The 4,500-member church plans to move into a larger building, which will cost $40 million, in Centreville.
The Rev. Danny Ro blesses Abigail Kim and her son Shaun Chung, 11 months, at Korean Central Presbyterian Church in Vienna. The 4,500-member church plans to move into a larger building, which will cost $40 million, in Centreville. (Photos By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)

Members credit the Rev. Won Sang Lee, the longtime senior pastor, with the church's enormous growth. The soft-spoken Lee, who retired in 2003 but remains active in the church, won admiration with his evangelical Biblical principles and his custom of praying for each of his thousands of parishioners by name each week.

"He would know his congregation by name -- even 10 and 15 years later," said youth pastor Esther Chang, who grew up in the church. "It would shock me."

Several years ago, traffic and activities around the growing church roused neighbors' anger, and conflicts grew ugly. Church members say some neighbors spied on them, taking pictures in an attempt to discover any possible illegal activity.

After civic organizations succeeded in defeating a church plan to build a bigger sanctuary at its Vienna locale, the church turned to Centreville, to which a growing number of Koreans are migrating. Koreans own the golf course and supermarket. Along with Korean restaurants and video stores are Korean accountants and lawyers, Korean bank branches and a $10 million Korean-style bathhouse set to open in May. Centreville real estate agent Nancy Han said that in some residential communities, half the homeowners are Korean.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the church unanimously last year, despite civic groups' objections and county planning department staff members' recommendation against it because of its potential effect on the environment. The board said the objections were too vague.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who rarely gets involved in local land-use decisions, urged the board to approve the church.

Davis, chairman of the Board of Supervisors in the 1990s, said houses of worship often draw controversy because of concerns about traffic, but "it's been even tougher, in my opinion, for minority churches." As board chairman, he said, he received "ugly" letters after voting to approve a synagogue.

Church leaders said they expect 20 percent of the church -- up to 1,000 people -- to move in the next five years to the Centreville area, where a Korean commercial core thrives and about 20 percent of public school students are Asian American. The Korean-born population in Fairfax has climbed 14 percent in five years, to 32,000, according to census figures, although that does not reflect Korean Americans born in the United States.

Annandale postal clerk Lisa Shin, 52, a church member for 16 years, said she expects to move to Centreville when the church relocates. She attends its popular 5:45 a.m. weekday services where, she said, "I feel very peaceful."

Seeking to overcome a perception of insularity, Korean Central Presbyterian is reaching out to wary Centreville residents by becoming involved with community projects, including a senior center and homeless services. It also has offered its new sanctuary for community events and agreed to limit church events during rush hour and coordinate services with nearby churches.

Two dozen church members enrolled in the county's Neighborhood College, which offers classes in how local government works.

"The way that they're ultimately going to overcome any objections is to reach out and get involved in other aspects of the community, and I think that they're doing that," said Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), who represents Centreville.

Church leaders have another concern. The move to Centreville has increased the cost of expansion from $25 million to $40 million -- a strain even for a community known for its generosity to houses of worship. But they say they must expand nevertheless.

In the 500-seat sanctuary, a digital clock facing the ministers counts down the minutes and seconds so that each of the five Sunday services -- four in Korean and one in English -- ends on time. As one finishes, worshipers pour in for the next.

In the kitchen of the education building last Sunday, volunteers tended rice cookers that can steam 300 servings while soup in bathtub-size cauldrons and vats of kimchi were readied.

Non-Koreans in Centreville "should accept what the trends are," said Heisung Lee, who directs the church's senior center. "They might as well learn to live with the Koreans."

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