On busy Sundays at Korean First Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, almost 400 people gather for worship throughout the day.
Senior pastor Yoochan Choi conducts adult services in Korean in the church sanctuary. Other staff members lead worship in English for the children (kindergarten-fifth grade) and youth (sixth grade-high school) in one of two trailers. Services continue into the evening.
Every Sunday afternoon, they clear out the main sanctuary, set up tables and eat lunch together as a whole church, enjoying Korean food and cake produced by their own cooks.
Korean First Presbyterian began in 1985 as a nondenominational community in Charlotte. Four years later, it joined Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States. The church nested within other churches before moving to Wallace Road in east Charlotte in 1995 under the Rev. Seung Tae Lee, who served for 19 years.
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The staff today includes youth pastor Yoonjung Na; children’s pastor Elisabeth Son; and three ordained pastors: Choi; the Rev. Youngsung Lee, associate pastor; and the Rev. Peter Kim, who leads Crossroads English Ministry, a ministry within the church for English-speaking adults above high school age. (General adult ministry at the church is conducted in Korean, while children’s and youth ministry is in English. Choi is the only pastor who is not bilingual.)
Kim, 46, came to the United States as a boy and grew up in Dallas. He met Choi 10 years ago while they were serving as associate pastors in Greensboro. At Choi’s invitation, Kim began English Ministry in Charlotte in September 2013, to reach out to new adults – transplants from other cities, or members who aged out of the youth groups.
Most of the church members are immigrants. Some have been in Charlotte for only a few years; others since the late ’70s, when there were few Asian-Americans in the city. Choi says the Korean/Korean-American community in Charlotte today totals more than 4,000 people.
Since March 2011, when he became their fourth pastor, Choi has seen Korean First Presbyterian grow from about 120 members. They’re looking forward to celebrating their 30th anniversary next year. They’re looking forward to something else, too: Choi “has the dates where South Korea plays in the World Cup. We’re going to try to have our ... big screen and stream it live so people can come and watch Korea play other teams in Brazil,” Kim says.
(Peter Kim translated Choi's remarks for this story.)
Senior pastor: The Rev. Yoochan Choi, 53, grew up Presbyterian in Seoul, South Korea. He majored in voice at Seoul’s Yonsei University, singing low baritone roles in “The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Magic Flute,” among other operas. After college, Choi studied theology at Seoul Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He received a master’s at Liberty Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, Va., in 1997. From 1993 to 2001, he served at a Seoul church called Onnuri (“All Nations”), with a congregation of 40,000 people. Choi arrived in Seattle in 2002 to minister at the city’s large Community Church, and went to Greensboro the following year. Over his time at Korean First Presbyterian in Charlotte, “so many of our church members have radically transformed. Their friends and closest loved ones can see (the change),” he says. “It’s a church that really is soaked in prayer.”
Christians in Korea: Around 31 percent of the South Korean population is Christian (24 percent Protestant, 7 percent Catholic); 24 percent Buddhist; and 43 percent profess no religion. Pockets of Christianity have existed in Korea since the 15th century, when Korean diplomats encountered Catholic missionaries in China, but ruling dynasties did not tolerate the religion. In the late 1800s, when Korea opened to the West, Protestant missionaries arrived from Europe and North America. They translated the New Testament into Korean in 1884; the first Presbyterian missionaries came that same year from the United States. Today, five of the 10 biggest Protestant megachurches in the world exist in South Korea. The largest, in Seoul, boasts over 800,000 members.
Point of pride: Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery in Seoul contains graves belonging to late 19th- and early 20th-century Christian missionaries. Choi carries postcards in his office bearing names and quotes from the missionaries in that cemetery. His vision, he says, is to be a missionary, to network with other Korean churches in Charlotte and beyond; and he hopes his multiple associate ministers at Korean First Presbyterian will one day go forward to start new churches: “There’s nothing you can do alone in this world.”