Charged with espionage and facing a North Korean death sentence, Dong Sun Lim began to remember his brother's talks about the Bible--preachings that he had rejected in the past.
"But there in the jail cell, I began to pray and then I met Jesus Christ," he recalled. "I heard three answers:You will not die in jail. You will become my servant. Do not fear."
Released a few weeks later after the intervention of a highly placed acquaintance, he was sent south by the Communist authorities with instructions to infiltrate the student body at Seoul University before the outbreak of the Korean War. But once Lim crossed the border into South Korea, he never looked back.
His jailhouse conversion was the seed of a ministry that eventually led to the founding in Los Angeles of the Oriental Mission Church, which started with 30 members, half of them children.
'God Gave Me the Power'
It now jams more than 5,000 people each week into worship services and Sunday school classes in a remodeled supermarket and an adjacent education building on North Western Avenue. Many of them drive from outlying areas to attend the services near the heart of Koreatown.
"It is not my wisdom. God gave me the power," said Lim, who will be the first Korean pastor ever to preach in the Easter Sunrise Service on Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl.
His church is one of the most successful of more than 400 Korean congregations that have sprung up in Southern California in recent years, part of an evangelical boom that has seen more than 20%of the population of South Korea convert to Christianity in less than a generation.
About 70%of the estimated 700,000 Korean immigrants in the United States attend Christian services every week, surveys have found.
Christianity is especially strong in Southern California, where evangelists compete like Koreatown merchants for the loyalties of 150,000 to 200,000 countrymen.
In the remodeled Ralphs market that is the home of the Oriental Mission Church, Pastor Lim said, "Praise the Lord" when asked why his congregation has come to be rated as one of the fastest-growing churches in America.
"God has blessed our success," he said in an interview.
Now 65, Lim was in his early 20s when he opted to study for the ministry at a Baptist seminary in Seoul.
Joining the South Korean air force as a chaplain, he rose to rank of colonel ("full colonel" he proudly tells a visitor) before coming to the United States in 1964 to study at the old American Baptist Seminary in Covina and at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.
It was the mute evidence of Lim's worn-out Bible, held together by faith and Scotch tape, that persuaded a seminary professor to pass him on an oral exam despite his poor command of English.
"The professor said this Bible is a witness that this man will be a real good preacher," said an associate, the Rev. Kap Soo Cho.
Lim founded the Oriental Mission Church in his Los Angeles home on July 29, 1970, and moved it twice before settling in its current location.
He is well regarded in the Korean community for his devotion and self-sacrifice, said the Rev. Mathew Ahn, an Episcopal priest who serves a parish of largely Korean-born people in Hollywood. Ahn said Lim sold his own house to help raise the funds to buy the former supermarket.
"A lot of times we clergymen speak one thing on the pulpit and do in actual life like a lot of TV preachers," Ahn said. "He (Lim)is a guy who not only preaches but lives the way that he preaches."
Bursting at the Seams
Operating at a 1988 budget of about $2.85 million, Lim's church is so popular that a parking space shortage forces many worshipers to leave their cars at Los Angeles City College on Vermont Avenue and commute to Sunday services by van.
Next door to the church, a 1-month-old, $3-million education building is already bursting at the seams, according to education director Samuel Lee. "We need to set a very heavy time schedule to utilize these facilities," Lee said.
Lim spoke partly in English and partly in Korean as he explained that his church is not affiliated with any denomination because he wants "no boundary, no limitation, for promulgating the Gospel."
"The emphasis in my sermons is on three points: the Gospel, our attitude as immigrants and as new pioneers, and on the need to promote international understanding," he said.
"I tell the people that the value of living in the United States is not simply having a big house and big cars, but to be a good person and more committed to God."
Founded with the help of nine Korean churches, the Oriental Mission Church now supports 175 small churches in Korea in addition to 35 foreign missionaries elsewhere.
Church Ranks Swelled
Many converts from those churches swelled the ranks of the mother church when they immigrated to Southern California.