Cross-cultural/cross-racial appointments: Part two

March 27, 2017

“I see myself as a missionary here. I can say, missionaries, we go to native towns, villages, and learn about them; and live with them, speak their language, and live in their life context. Over time God makes me one of them and we celebrate the relationship God wants us to have.” – Rev. Jinwoo Chun

“We like to make them,” Vermont District Superintendent Brigid Farrell said of cross-cultural/cross-racial appointments.

“It gives us a chance to bring some diversity into a place that might have very little diversity,” Rev. Farrell said, adding that building cultural competency – the ability to interact appropriately with people of different cultures – is one of the perks of cross-cultural appointments, both for the congregations and the pastors.

We talked with four pastors who are currently serving in cross-cultural/cross-racial appointments about their experiences. Over four weeks, the pastors will share some of the joys and challenges of working across cultures as well as some advice for pastors and the congregations that seek to welcome them.This week, meet Jinwoo Chun.

The opportunity to cross cultures is exactly why the Rev. Jinwoo Chun crossed the ocean from Korea to the United States.

“I came to the states to learn the true meaning of diversity,” said Rev. Chun, 44. “I cannot speak for Korea now, I left there 20 years ago, but until then the society was very homogeneous in terms of race and culture.”

Rev. Chun, the son and grandson of Methodist pastors, said he wanted to “understand Christianity and Jesus Christ’s Good News from viewpoint of the recipients of the Gospel.”

He admits that at first he had some misconceptions about Christianity in the U.S.

“I thought everybody goes to church Sunday morning hand in hand,” he said, “and every single church is packed with enthusiastic Christians.”

Then he walked by a bar housed in a former church building. “I was old enough to know what was happening in the bar,” he said. “Looking at this church being used as a place for all that stuff really shocked me.” It was after that experience, Rev. Chun said, that “I started feeling and questioning if God may be calling me to ministry here.”

Now serving a predominantly white congregation at the Belfast UMC in Maine, Rev. Chun is both learning and teaching lessons about cultural diversity.

When he and his family first moved to Belfast, their stuff still in boxes, Rev. Chun went out to pick up a pizza. A young boy eating with his parents kept staring. The boy’s mother tried to dissuade him, but he finally said, “Mom, look at that Indian.”

“I was (perhaps the) only non-white he had encountered,” Rev. Chun said. “I was the first one, in person, who had a different skin color, and he automatically thought I was Native American.”

Rev. Chun said the boy was trying to fit him into a context he understood. Helping people learn how to engage with people who are different from themselves is part of being a pastor in a cross-cultural/cross-racial appointment.

“From my experience over the years – especially in a rural area – they were born and raised here, they might not have had opportunity to expose themselves to different cultures in their lives,” Rev. Chun said. “They have to learn to deal with something new. It’s not just about you. Anything new can be challenging to them. They don’t know how to deal with you because you are new.”

His advice: “Try to build a relationship.”

“That’s my summary of Christianity,” he said. “If somebody asks me ‘What is Christianity?’ It’s all about relationships; relationship with God, relationship with people, and relationship with myself; and it’s based on Jesus Christ’s greatest commandment: love God, love your neighbors, love yourself.”

Speaking of meeting his current congregation almost seven years ago, “When they had to receive me with this beautifully blended accent and looking different,” he said with a grin, “probably they had a hard time. Many of them had to learn to deal with something new. They were not necessarily racist, but had to learn to deal with something new in general.”

Over time, their relationship has solidified.

“I can tell you with confidence and humility I have no question that I am one of them,” the pastor said.  

He spoke of an 11-year-old girl who had written him a card to say goodbye when she was adopted by a family in another state. She addressed it to “My Blood Brother in Christ.”

“I believe that card really shows my relationship with my people here,” Rev. Chun said.

Cultural misunderstandings, of course, can happen on both sides.

Rev. Chun recalls a proud grandmother telling him her granddaughter had shot a squirrel for the first time. He was shocked, he said, and it showed on his face and in his voice. He knew she was insulted.

“She called me – all of a sudden she called me reverend – she said, ‘Reverend, listen, when you don’t have anything to eat, you can hunt anything to help,’” said Rev. Chun.

“I was preoccupied by my own culture; I – this person who thinks diversity is so important, that’s why I came all the way from the other side of the world to learn the meaning of diversity – now this is how I responded to this grandmother’s proud statement.”

The ability to recover from a mistake like that, Rev. Chun said, will depend on the relationship you have established.

“You have to have integrity. If you have that integrity and that’s how you live, then I don’t have to fear ‘oh, I made a mistake,’” he said. He was honest with the woman and apologized.

“I’m so sorry. I learned this (hunting squirrels) from you ... I never heard about that before. But I didn’t mean to insult you or your granddaughter. (I didn’t realize this was) an event we could celebrate together and we should have celebrated together. … With my limited experience, I couldn’t see the message when you told me about that,” he recalled.

In the end, “if you decide to be offended, you can be offended a thousand times a day,” he said. “But as far we have a clear vision, a clear mission to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ to different people and we focus on that, we can work through it.”

And even those difficult experiences can lay the path to greater understanding.

“Because I know the pain of living as a minority, when I talk about it, it can be real; it’s not book knowledge. It’s a real story,” Rev. Chun said. “When they see their pastor going through pain because he’s a minority, people get it.”

His personal experience, Rev. Chun said, includes some insight into what it’s like to be an undocumented immigrant.

“When I was in Rhode Island, I almost became undocumented,” he said. “I did everything right. I did every single thing, but (the paperwork) was delayed, so it almost didn’t go through by the deadline.”

That presented a “great learning opportunity for my congregation,” he said. People who may have thought of undocumented people as having entered the country illegally or as lazy and untruthful, got a new perspective.  

Living in a different culture speaking another language is an ongoing challenge, Rev. Chun said, but there hasn’t been a time he didn’t feel equipped by God for whatever he was facing.

“Being unique, being equipped with a diverse heritage and wide, various experiences, I believe God knew God was going to use me here,” he said. “So over the years, God equipped me with all those things. I just live as I am, and I’ve used them in sharing my life with these people.”

Next week: Meet Wanda Santos-Perez, serving Quinsigamond UMC and Oxford UMC in Massachusetts.
Read the profile of Pastor Crystal Gardner, serving Whitman UMC in Massachusetts.