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Elderly Korean Americans stand up to church closure by mega-denomination

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For more than two years, elderly Korean-American church members have been battling a mega-denomination.

It was like banging head against the wall. Kisup Park (87) and Kyung Hee Park (79) had been complaining to the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) that the denomination had to follow procedures to disband the church and sell the building, even if there were only a few members left.

Eventually, the heads broke the wall. The case arose during the dismissal of the 46-year-old Hanyang Presbyterian Church in Aleta (founded in 1978).

It was on January 9, 2022. Only five members remained at the church, which was established by the first generation of Korean Americans. The senior pastor had retired. Only elderly Korean Americans in their 70s and 80s who had difficulty communicating in English remained.

The church was part of the PCUSA’s Presbytery of San Fernando. On this day, the presbytery held a joint session (congregational meeting) to close the church. It was a one-sided process because there were only a few members left in the church.

The church building of Hanyang Presbyterian Church in the Aleta neighborhood. [Captured from Google Maps]

“The joint meeting was supposed to be held under the decision of the session, but the presbytery did it unilaterally without asking the remaining members and without due process,” said Seung-cheol Koo, who translated for the church members. “Perhaps if we were an English-based American church, the presbytery would not have done this way,” he said.

For Korean immigrants, the church is a place where they put their blood and sweat. It’s a sanctuary where they’ve given a portion of their paychecks, where they’ve struggled to contribute, and where they’ve found comfort in their faith for the unspeakable hardships of immigrant life.

The presbytery decided to close the church without due process or alternative because there was no session (the voting body of elders) and only a handful of members remained.

The few remaining members formally appealed the matter to the Presbytery on January 18, 2022, citing the unfairness of the process. As an American denomination, English communication was important. They asked Seung-cheol Koo, a former member of Hanyang Presbyterian Church, to help translate.

The presbytery swiftly dismissed the appeal. They said the appeal was not detailed enough. They even questioned Koo’s qualifications to translate, saying that he was not a member of Hanyang Presbyterian Church and therefore could not represent the complainant.

On February 17, 2022, Koo and the church members submitted another appeal to the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii, the presbytery’s higher authority. The synod did not listen, stating that it affirms the decision to dissolve the presbytery.

The church members did not back down. This time, they filed an appeal on August 4, 2022, to the PCUSA’s highest body, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission.

In the PCUSA, the denomination owns church property, including buildings. This is why PCUSA churches that decided to leave the denomination in 2014 in response to its policy of allowing same-sex marriage had to give up their property rights.

Hanyang Presbyterian Church was no different. The presbytery that unilaterally dismissed the church sold the building (for $3.8 million) even though the members appealed to the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission.

The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, however, saw things differently. It thoroughly reviewed the issues raised in the appeal.

The review determined that the appeal was clear, contrary to the claims of the presbytery and synod. It also found that the appellants had submitted several written requests for relief, that their claims had been overlooked during the process, and that the presbytery and synod had not met their obligations.

Brian D. Ellison, Moderator of the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly, said, “Neither presbytery nor synod had a transcript of the hearing. Ellison also said that the Assembly found this case to be rife with obvious bias and injustice.”

In the end, the General Assembly decided to overturn the presbytery’s and synod’s decisions in a ruling on April 7, and to address the matter in a later trial.

It also decided to freeze the proceeds from the sale of Hanyang Presbyterian Church’s building until a final decision is made, and to defer action to dissolve the church.

The decision has implications for small immigrant churches, which are particularly vulnerable to marginalization.

“It’s a small church, and the remaining members are old and powerless, but our small voices have been heard,” said Kisup Park, who has attended Hanyang Presbyterian Church for 44 years. “If there are any churches that are struggling with wrong practices within the denomination and are not protected, I hope they will find strength.”

BY YEOL JANG, JUNHAN PARK [jang.yeol@koreadaily.com]

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