A Thriving Church: the Philadelphia (Korean) Corps
Philadelphia is home to one of the largest Korean populations in the United States. There are as many as 200 Korean churches in the city, some with congregations numbering in the thousands. Through God’s power and the hard work of Captains Do Sung and Jae Eun Park, The Salvation Army Philadelphia (Korean) Corps, one of three Korean Corps in the Eastern Territory, has prospered among the hundreds of Korean places of worship in the city. It has become an integral, beloved part of the Korean community of Philadelphia.
The ‘Baby Captain’
In 2003, Lt. Colonels Chongwon David Kim and Myong–Ja Kim retired as corps officers of the Philadelphia (Korean), Pa., Corps. At the time, members consisted mostly of Korean adults and senior citizens and had been under the leadership of the Lt. Colonels Kim in the six years since the corps began. So it was a bit of a shock to the members when a pair of captains in their mid–30s, along with their infant daughter, arrived as the new corps officers from the Korean corps in Englewood, NJ.
Because of his age, the members of the church affectionately referred to Captain Do Sung Park as their “Baby Captain.”
Captain Park understood their feelings. The Lt. Colonels Kim had been peers to many of the corps members. Some wondered how an officer with a family of his own, yet young enough to be their son or grandson, would be able to take care of them.
“The Korean culture puts a lot of importance on age and experience,” explains Captain Park. “When Koreans meet someone for the first time, the first thing we ask isn’t always ‘What’s your name?’ but rather, ‘How old are you?’”
Says Captain Jae Eun Park with a smile, “They may have called my husband ‘Baby Captain,’ but the role of the pastor is held in very high regard in the Korean community. They respected him and his position, and though it took the corps some time to get used to the new leadership, when they did, the corps grew in numbers and in age ranges.”
Soon, the corps realized they had nothing to worry about under the leadership of the “Baby Captain.” They trusted the Parks to continue the work of the Lt Colonels Kim.
Embraced by the church community
Being accepted by the larger community of Korean Christians was also a challenge for the Captains Park and the corps. Presbyterianism is a major denomination in Philadelphia and accounts for as much as 90 percent of all Korean churches. Methodist, Baptist, and other denominations are much smaller and struggle to find and keep members.
Captain Do Sung says, “When we arrived, many residents and members of the Korean churches did not know that we were also a church. Pastors told their members to avoid us. They thought we were a business.”
Eventually, the community saw the Army for what it is and saw how the money it collects through kettle campaigns helps support Korean senior citizen centers. Other people were impressed to see the Salvation Army’s outreach to Korean children. Though many Korean churches offered schooling, the Korean corps was the only one to also have a music and arts program.
Today, Captain Do Sung says that every Korean church leader in the community knows The Salvation Army and what it does. Along with his duties of corps officer, he serves as secretary for the Council of Korean Churches of Greater Philadelphia, which represents 65 Korean churches.
“The pastors tell me that, to see us thrive as a church, rather than just be here, is very impressive. They congratulate us on what we bring to our neighbors.”
“We went from church leaders warning their members to stay away from The Salvation Army, to now those same members telling us that they cannot wait for our next Christmas concert, or asking how they can volunteer for Kettle collections,” says Captain Do Sung.
“And even the pastors are volunteering. They stand at Korean markets, ringing the bells, representing the Army—as a church. I find that amazing! Sometimes I even stop and ask myself How did it happen?”
‘An immigrant church’
The Korean Corps is also a ministry for people who are new to the United States.
“We are proud to be a church with a large immigrant population,” says Captain Jae Eun Park. “Sometimes we have everything they need to get settled as soon as they arrive in the United States, starting with a ride from the airport to their new home.”
As in many Hispanic and African–American communities, church for the Korean people is much more than just a Sunday service. Many children from Korean families go to church to learn the Korean language, history, and culture. Families gather in church for meals and bond socially as well as spiritually.
Says Captain Jae Eun, “Both Do Sung’s and my family are in Korea.” “Likewise, many of our church members are the only ones from their family in the States. After a few weeks of them coming to the Korean corps, we get to know each of them very well, better than we know our own families back in Korea.”
But as in many immigrant cultures, there is an urge to return home.
“One year, 15 members of our church returned to Korea,” says Captain Jae Eun. “We understand why it happens, why they save up to go home. But it still makes us sad to say goodbye to our members. Our enrollment numbers look like a roller coaster, going up and down. Some people tell us ‘It’s ok, because you’re still keeping your numbers even,’ but I tell them ‘No, I don’t want even. I want to see them go up!’”
“The Korean corps community is family in every sense. They’re our moms, dads, and grandparents.”
“It’s what I pray for”
Captain Do Sung agrees that higher numbers are always a blessing from God, but spiritual growth in each person is what he wishes to see.
“When corps members call me to say that they were moved after our last sermon, that it has inspired them to live a better life for Christ, it’s the greatest gift you can give me as a pastor. It’s what I pray to God for, to bring them closer to Him. The larger churches may have higher numbers, but I’m not always sure that their people are growing spiritually, like I’ve seen at the Korean corps.”
The Parks acknowledge that they have been in Philadelphia longer than they could have imagined, but they leave their future in His Hands.
“Thirteen years is quite a long time to be at a single corps,” says Captain Do Sung. “We may not have control of where we go. But we continue to serve the Korean community, and we pray for many more years in Philadelphia and in this beautiful corps.”
by Hugo Bravo
Para leer este artículo completo en español, por favor visite http://saconnects.org/los-parks/
Music at the Corps
Both Yennah Park and her older sister Hannah grew up with a love of music, thanks to their parents, Captains Do Sung and Jae Eun Park, corps officers of the Philadelphia (Korean), Pa., Corps.
Yennah says, “I remember hearing my father play a song on the piano that I called the Golden Goose song. Years later, I found out that it was really called “Fur Elise”. It made me want to play the piano too, but it was so difficult!”
Yennah’s older sister Hannah also became interested in playing the piano. In 2015, Hannah and Si Yeon Hwang, another soldier from the corps, took 1st place in the Star Search piano competition in Level 2 and 3, respectively.
Yennah hopes to one day learn piano, as did her sister and her father. For now, she enjoys playing timbrel (tambourine), an instrument with a strong historical connection to The Salvation Army.
Two years ago, the Korean Corps debuted a music and arts program. With 40 students and 10 professionally trained teachers, the children received high-level classes. Now every Saturday, the building is alive with the sounds of guitar, timbrel, piano, and art classes.
“The art school is another wonderful way to reach the Korean community,” says Captain Jae Eun Park.
“We are the only Korean church in Philadelphia with a program like this. It’s a benefit to us and to the community,” says Captain Do Sung Park. “Parents tell us how happy they are that we can do this for their children. Those children are now competing in Star Search, and getting to know the Army in new and exciting ways. “