The Common Good

Korean-American Women and Ordination in the Church

In 2004, I was the 40th Korean-American clergywomen to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. denomination. Forty seems like such a small number when you consider that in 2011, Korean-American Clergywomen (KACW) will be celebrating their 20th anniversary. However, many Korean-American women are still wandering the desert of the ordination process without a rock, well, pitcher, or even a drop of water in sight to quench their thirst to serve as God has called them. There have been times when we wished there was a Moses to break the rock or the obstacle so that freedom and the ability to serve as a minister of the word and sacrament would gush abundantly, but the reality is that many Korean-American women cannot find calls or find the support they need to find a call.

The world of waterphoto © 2007 Third Eye a.k.a. D. Basu | more info (via: Wylio)

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I, however, was not aware of the difficulty for Korean-American women when I felt called to go to seminary. All I knew at the time were two things: 1) I didn't want to be a chemist and 2) I was thirsty for something more. I remember meeting my first woman pastor who just happened to be Korean-American -- the Rev. Mary Paik (4th ordained Korean-American clergywomen). Not only did she put a face to my sense of call, but she was my Moses. She became the proof that anything is possible. In a way, she was my first cup of water because it was the first time I really felt my thirst was quenched.

This year at the 219th General Assembly, the gathering was quite a historic moment for us Korean-American clergywomen. Six of us were commissioners and four of us served in leadership positions -- Rev. Wonjai Choi, Vice Moderatorial Candidate; Rev. Yena Hwang, Moderator of National Capital Presbytery; Rev. Irene Pak, Vice Moderator of Committee on Theological Issues and Institutions; and myself, Vice Moderatorial Candidate and Moderator of Committee on Social Justice Issues A. I can't express in words the feelings of accomplishment and pride that we were feeling for each other. Well, like any good Korean, we can't go long without a kimchee fix and were delighted to load the bus that would take us to the Korean Presbyterian Church of Minnesota to have a Korean meal hosted by the National Council of Korean Presbyterian Churches (NCKPC). We were disappointed when during the lunch presentation, only the accomplishments of the male clergy were recognized when sitting before them were four wonderful, emerging leaders of the church (if I do say so myself). All the kimchee in the world couldn't make up for the invisibleness we felt. Unfortunately, it wasn't an unfamiliar feeling.

The lack of voice and feeling invisible were nothing new. For years, we had no Moses, no Aaron to guide us through the wilderness or to crack rocks that would expose abundant sources of water. We have each other. We depend on each other to carry us through the desert, to be wandering companions through the ordination process, to share water that is supplied by the tears of shared experiences and stories, and to remind each other of God's faithfulness and greater purpose. We are each other's Moses, listening to each other, making sure someone is hearing our voices. You can imagine how surprised we were when a few of our voices changed the vote on overture 04-08 to organize another non-geographic, Korean language presbytery.

Our expectation and intention was not to change the vote, but simply to be heard and to speak on behalf of other Korean-American clergywomen who had no voice. While I recognize the legitimacy of wanting to organize another non-geographic presbytery, some of the reasons I spoke against it revolved around lack of accountability on issues of inclusivity and ordination of women, as well as lack of representation and leadership opportunities for non-Korean speaking, 2nd/3rd generation Korean-Americans in those presbyteries. I felt most compelled to speak because I knew I had little to risk. I do not work in a Korean congregation and therefore do not have much to lose by speaking out. Because this overture passed overwhelmingly in committee (43-2-0), my only hope was that I would be able to get to a mic in time to speak. I can't describe in words the feeling that came over me when I saw the vote change to 125-514-7. Our little and few voices were heard by the greater body, and they resulted in change. Our thirst and the thirst of many that went before us wasn't only quenched, but almost drowned in the abundant gush of support that we felt.

The theme for this General Assembly was 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water' (John 7.38). Right before Jesus cites this line of scripture, he cries out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink" (John 7.37-38). That theme couldn't have come more alive for me than it did at that moment. My hope now is that this action will make room for conversation so that together as a body, a Korean-American body, we can discern God's will and call.

portrait-theresa-choTheresa Cho is a Reno, Nevada native who graduated from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago with awards in preaching and theology. She blogs at Still Waters.

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