This Small Korean American Church Offers A Hopeful Future For The United Methodists

In 2017, Jeannie Lee and a few others joined together to create a new United Methodist Church for the Korean American community. Ha:n Church was, from its inception, meant to be a safe, progressive spiritual home for all, including LGBT Korean Americans who have too often felt excluded from the more theologically conservative Korean American Christian community. Lee attended Yale Divinity School and is an active lay leader as well as the Director of Facilities and Hospitalities at Auburn Seminary. Lee Spoke with Editor of Voices, Paul B. Raushenbush, in anticipation of the Special Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in St. Louis.

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush: You started a new United Methodist Church. Tell me about the church.

Jeannie Lee: The church is a group of Korean Americans who were very aware of who was excluded from the church, especially Korean Americans who don’t conform to traditional “norms”. One of our members, who has a queer child, called us together to create a church that is open and affirming and for everyone. In fact, within the last 48 hours we are the first Korean American Reconciling United Methodist Church in America, that we know of, that is progressive and welcoming and affirming of all people. We may be the only Korean American Church, led by a Korean American Pastor, who will do same-sex marriages.

PBR: I know you went to seminary, so are you the pastor of the church?

JL: Thanks be to God that I am not the pastor, I am not even ordained. I believe it is my calling to be the theologically trained layperson and support the pastor—Rev. Daniel Cho—who is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church. We’ve been seeding the church for two years, and it was really a rag tag group of concerned lay people. We realized that we wanted to formalize ourselves as a church rather than be a fellowship and most of us happened to be United Methodists. It was amazing when we reached out to Bishop Bickerton of our conference and he was so excited about our vision and mission. We did a presentation to him and he decided to seed our church and Ha:n Church now has space at Grace UMC on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

PBR: What does the word Ha:n signify?

JL: One of our members, HJ Lee, explains that the word Ha:n is tied to Korea’s historically trying times, as a small nation that has experienced poverty and suffering due to frequent invasions, oppression, and tumultuous politics for 5,000 years. Many Koreans and Korean Americans today understand HAN through the experiences of their parents and grandparents who have endured the Korean War, Japanese Colonialism. Although the word HAN has developed through a history unique to Korea, this sentiment of long-endured suffering and the subtle-but-present hope of prevailing is most definitely a universal human experience. Today, HAN is experienced by the marginalized minority group, by the single mother struggling to support her children, by the bullied high-school student, by the worker with an unfair boss. The way we have spelled 한 (HAN) is the way the word used to be spelled with the old ` vowel instead of ㅏ and we have decided to reclaim the use of the spelling using the vowel `.

PBR: You are acutely aware of that meeting of the United Methodists are having in St. Louis on February 23rd. How do you feel about the way the questions around LGBT inclusion are being framed?

JL: I will be at this historic meeting with my pastor and fellow congregant. It’s scary. The denomination is not going to look the same, because there is such a fracture in the church, which is reflective of what is happening in the country. The dynamics of our political landscape are fueling how we are responding to the people of God for inclusion. There is no separation of church and state. We are attending this meeting because we are called to witness to the gospel of love and add to the support to reach full inclusion in the United Methodist Church.

PBR: There is a dynamic of pitting the Global South against LGBT inclusion. But your church doesn’t fit that easy dynamic.

JL: United Methodists are on four continents Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, but it is U.S. based, and this whole fracturing is being driven by the churches in the United States.  Our witness is to make sure we get as much inclusion as we can get for our LGBT neighbors. None of the proposed options are perfect so we are fighting for the lesser evil to at least create space for our LGBT neighbors if not to have them fully included and welcome at the table. Full inclusion of LGBT will be an ongoing journey.

PBR: What do you hope for your church?

That we can be that light, that progressive, safe space within the Korean American community. We want to be the church. Many Korean Churches are about the Gospel of Prosperity, but our mission is to be the house of God where all are welcome – whatever socio-economic, gender, sexuality, all people. We want all the ones who don’t fit in.

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