The Common Good
February 2011

The Ties That Bind

by Theresa Cho | February 2011

What brings churches together? Is a common language enough?

I grew up in a Korean-language church here in the U.S. I understand the need to have, and the comfort of having, a faith community that not only speaks one’s language but also affirms one’s cultural identity.

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But last year I joined several other Korean-American clergywomen to help persuade the General Assembly of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), to reject a proposal to create a new presbytery consisting of only Korean-language churches across the southeast U.S. (A presbytery usually consists of all churches in a particular local geographic area, regardless of language, although there are already four Korean-language presbyteries in the national church.)

Some believe that forming a Korean-language presbytery is a way of attaining more voting power for the Korean-American community, especially on hot, contentious issues. But I spoke against it for several reasons. Korean-American women have often struggled to be ordained in these language-specific presbyteries. It is also true that, in these presbyteries, leadership opportunities are pretty nonexistent for younger, second- and third-generation Korean-Americans, in part because they may be unable to speak Korean. And it may be that some Korean-language presbyteries do not function well in governance, polity, mission, or relationship. That last could be said about many of our geographic presbyteries as well -- including mine -- but the unique problem is that language creates a difficult barrier to adequate accountability and connection to the greater PCUSA body.

For years, Korean-American clergywomen have too often felt invisible and without a voice. I can’t describe the feeling that came over me at the General Assembly when I saw that in response to a few of our voices -- speaking, in part, about our struggles -- the proposal for a new Korean-language presbytery, which had passed overwhelmingly in committee, was defeated by a margin of more than 4 to 1.

I’ll be honest: After the General Assembly, I experienced little personal impact from speaking up. I went back to my wonderful life, working in a non-Korean-language church where I am appreciated for my pastoral skills regardless of my ethnicity, gender, or age. But three months later, I attended a pastor-theologian consultation about the challenges and opportunities facing Korean-American congregations in the wake of the defeat of the language-based presbytery proposal. The experience helped me understand how actions that I intended to be life-giving were anything but that for others, and vice versa.

As a woman in my culture, I am used to being silenced, but at this consultation I had the opportunity to be heard and to listen. With theological reflections as a springboard, the conversations were rich, deep, affirming, painful, and yet hopeful. We wrestled with the issues. I felt both joy for being heard and grief at doing so in a way that could seem disloyal to my parents' generation; honor for being acknowledged as a voice that matters and shame for participating in "airing out dirty laundry"; empowered to know that a few voices can change a vote and powerless to prevent my actions from being perceived as disobedience and disrespect.

Now -- when there is growing interest in creating more non-geographic presbyteries and as more congregations are deciding to "graciously" depart PCUSA for other denominations such as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church -- we need to talk about the bigger issue here: How does our denomination handle diversity, whether of gender, race, sexual orientation, immigration status, justice perspective, or theology? Are there safe spaces for diversity? Or is the only answer to separate into groups with little or no accountability? I don’t have the answers, but I do believe we are at a time and place where we need to address the questions.

Theresa Cho is a native of Reno, Nevada, who graduated from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago with awards in preaching and theology. In 2004, she was the 40th Korean-American clergywoman to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

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