I first attended church at seven years old at the London First Korean Presbyterian Church in London, Ontario, Canada.
Without friends or many companions, my general uncomfortable demeanor around other kids grew into a helpless awkwardness. At school, I grew complacent in my silent existence, afraid of judgment, often going days at school without speaking at all for fear my accent or broken English would be mocked. No one saw me, and at the time, I reasoned it was better than being seen for the wrong, humiliating reasons. In my empty school days, I daydreamed. I made a habit of fantasizing about being a beautiful white woman — someone who didn’t have to try to capture the attention of friends or strangers and naturally gained the adoration of others. In these dreams, I was celebrated, vibrant, and triumphant.
When I met Ms. Kim, a Korean neighbor, it seemed as though I bridged a gap between this fantasy and a more grounded reality. Young and beautiful, Ms. Kim was helpful to all the new Korean immigrants and trusted by the white people who had resided in the apartment complex for decades. My earliest memory of Ms. Kim was meeting her at the doorway of my apartment complex. I remember her long black hair shifting behind the glass as she waved at me excitedly as if she knew me. She swung open the door and called me over, and thinking I was in trouble, I wondered what I had done wrong. When I approached her, she knelt down, her dark eyes gleaming and her pale, round face glimmering with perspiration. She asked me if I wanted to play with some other Korean kids that lived in the building, she was treating them to some cold drinks and popsicles at her house. It was the first time I had been invited to someone else’s home. It was also the first time I played with the kids in my building complex. Ms. Kim invited us kids over several times in the week, cooking us roasted nuts and peeling large platters of pears, happily giving all of our parents a much-needed break. She encouraged all the kids in the building to become friends, and for the first time ever, I made a group of friends. This wasn’t the only first with Ms. Kim however, because she also took me to church.
Surprisingly, while my parents were not Christian and had no desire to attend church, they did not stop their two young daughters from going to church with a woman who was basically a stranger to them. Back then, my parents trusted anyone who helped feed my sister and me, and they believed we would be safe with Ms. Kim. So every Sunday afternoon for two years, Ms. Kim drove us to church.
When we arrived, there were donuts. This was my first memory of church; it was the thing that drew me in and the thing that kept me coming back. Like jewels in a display case, several unassuming white boxes revealed glimmering glazed, cream-filled, jam-filled and raisin donuts. The sugarcoated twists were my favorite — I still associate Sunday mornings with the taste — so when I got the chance, I ate one right away and wrapped a second one in a napkin for Sunday school. After the service, we had a simple Korean meal of rice, various soups, some banchan (a variety of Korean side dishes made of marinated and fermented vegetables, fish, or meats), and of course, lots of kimchi. During these meals, we would sit with friends in the fellowship hall and socialize. Here, I shyly began to make the friends I have known all throughout my life.
For me, these simple rituals offered a rare refuge from the isolation that became commonplace in my regular life. In 1970s London, Ontario, I was faced with the constant reminder that I was alternative, novel, exotic, and peculiar. Whether I was at school or in the grocery store with my family, I felt my acute difference with every interaction. But at church, I was the norm; I was just like everyone else, speaking a hybrid lexicon of Korean and English. At church, I could be with people who looked like me, smelled like me, and ate the foods I ate. It was a deeply happy part of my childhood. Eventually, my parents saw how much we enjoyed our Sundays and our newfound dedication to this practice and decided to attend as well to see what all the fuss was about.
As I get older and reflect on it, I grow more aware of how this early formative experience of the church — riding in Ms. Kim’s rickety car, licking sugar off my fingers, and sharing kimchi with other kids — formed my outlook and perspective of church. This ritual brought me the simple gift of communion, of kinship in a time when isolation crept into my every aspect of living. It was also the beginning of my spiritual awakening, marking the road map for the future of my faith journey. Church began as a place where I sought to find connection. Eventually, it became a place where I could offer others community. As time went on, church began to define how my parents wanted my sister and me to spend our time. The church’s most significant influence manifested through the impact of worship and fellowship, providing real, lasting friendships and vivid memories of coming to know God. The church is a refuge for so many who seek community — more specifically, for minorities who desire a common meeting place that encompasses fellowship, worship, family, education, culture, and economy. For many immigrants, the church is where fragmented diasporas connect; in the church, immigrants can bond over their own food, converse in their own language, and share news of employment, their native homes, and their children’s education. Church becomes an extended family for immigrants who have lost or left their families and experience discrimination in the larger community.
My parents couldn’t find a place of acceptance in white Canadian society. They couldn’t speak English well enough to ever have white friends with whom they could socialize, and ultimately, they never acclimated to non-Korean social life. This was not rare for many first-generation immigrants in the mid-1970s. All my parents’ friends were either from church or from the wider Korean community. The church became an embracing ethnic cosmos that reminded them of their homeland — an escape from the larger community that was so distant to them. For immigrants, church can be more than a place of worship. Since we did not have any other family in Canada, the church members became our family, and church gatherings included birthday celebrations, graduation parties, and wedding receptions to which everyone was invited. In some sense, church became one large community where regular family events were extended to all members. However, just as families have complicated dynamics, power relations, and issues, so does the church.
Attending church was the beginning of my faith journey, when I began to understand myself, the world, and God. The racism, discrimination, and xenophobia embedded into my daily life were normalized, swiftly decreasing my self-worth as well the worth of other Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese kids I grew up with. Helplessly, we tried to see ourselves reflected, but especially in each other, we found only mere echoes of insecurity. This insecurity, which should have been palliated, was deeply felt at church. The normalized discrimination — the effect of institutionalized racism and sexism — that existed at school took a different form at church, morphing into a fully mature, pious, rational kind of bigotry. Then the church was not a haven or an oasis from the difficulties of racism but a place that also practiced, exhibited, and harbored hatred.
My invisibility evolved from a form of self-protection to a more dangerous form of pacification, even comfort. It seemed to me that it was easier to exist passively. But now, I ask myself if it really was. What does it do to the human spirit to be invisible? What does it mean to be invisible? What do we lose as a society when we erase a group of people? This is the ongoing struggle I endured as a child growing up in the church: learning to recognize and validate my own value.
Excerpted from Invisible: Theology and the Experience of Asian American Women by Grace Ji-Sun Kim. ©2021 Fortress Press. Used with permission.