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Koreans Sue Presbytery, Allege Bias, Deceit, Theft

February 05, 1989|JOHN H. LEE | Times Staff Writer

In a tangled feud, the nation's oldest Korean-American church is charging its governing organization with racial discrimination, conspiracy and fraud.

The Korean United Presbyterian Church of Los Angeles, in a suit filed in Superior Court in December, accused the Presbytery of the Pacific of using deception and coercion to steal a property title valued at $3 million.

Led by the Rev. Sang Bom Woo, a majority faction of the church charged presbytery officers with taking advantage of congregation leaders' limited knowledge of English during a business transaction in which the church's property title was signed away without the knowledge of the minister.

Presbytery representatives and a group of dissident church members, in turn, claimed that the allegations are the disgruntled rumblings of a misguided congregation. The real issue, the presbytery claimed, is not communication or property ownership, but the renegade tendencies of Pastor Woo.

The presbytery said Woo's struggles to maintain control of the church have resulted in the exodus of about 25% of its 400 active members. The governing body in January filed a cross-complaint in court calling for an "ejectment" order to remove Woo and his followers from the church.

Beyond the property dispute is the question of who controls what is considered the mother church of Korean Christians in America. The wrangling has touched on numerous issues not found in the lawsuit, including new and old theology, charges of an "old-boy network" and the changing ethnic landscape of today's churches.

The presbytery is a nonprofit corporation that handles financial and judiciary matters in part of Southern California for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Inc.

David Meekhof, the organization's executive administrator, noted that the church has had a history of supporting minority churches that don't have independent financial resources. But the diverse ethnic makeup of the presbytery's 23,000 members, he added, makes for sometimes volatile partnerships.

"With worship services held in 10 languages, we walk a fine line in being sensitive to our minority congregations and remaining true to our Presbyterian rules of order," he said. Of the presbytery's 56 Los Angeles churches, 18 are principally ethnic congregations, Meekhof said.

Several ministers with primarily ethnic constituencies said they share the Korean church's feelings of being discriminated against and manipulated by the presbytery. But, they said, most ministers are afraid to speak out because they don't want to fall from the good graces of the denomination, as Woo has.

Want Suit Settled

The ministers said they are eager to see how the suit will be settled.

"I know the presbytery has taken actions that are not in the best interest of their ethnic churches," said a black minister who fought the presbytery over the closure of his church. "It is an organization ruled by the good-old-boy network," said the minister, who did not want to be named. "There is no understanding of the black heritage, the Hispanic heritage, or Korean heritage."

The lawsuit filed by the Korean church stems from a $200,000 loan from the presbytery in 1983 that helped pay for a 400-seat sanctuary addition to the modest church complex in the 1300 block of Jefferson Boulevard in South Los Angeles.

Korean church elder Chung Won Kim said two church elders were under the impression that they had signed a temporary transfer of ownership that would guarantee payment on the loan.

Title Copy Obtained

But last year, while the church was making payments on the loan, a church officer obtained a copy of the property title while researching an unrelated matter. The name of the congregation appeared nowhere on the title, and the presbytery had sole ownership of the church.

"Everyone was shocked," said Mark Song, director of the church's educational ministry.

Song said he has since looked into four other conflicts between minority churches and the presbytery in recent years. The presbytery allegedly misused its authority to remove ministers who did not agree with property policies and interdenominational politics, Song said.

In the four cases, ministers were deposed, congregations were dispersed and the presbytery kept control of the property, he said.

Parker Williamson, editor of The Layman, the national publication of a conservative group often critical of the denomination's liberal-to-moderate leadership, said property disputes within the denomination are not uncommon.

Typical Scenario

"Cases run something like this: A local congregation will find itself not in favor of the positions of the denomination. They will say we no longer want to be a member of the governing body and we want to take our church; we paid for it," Williamson said.

"According to secular property law, ownership goes to the party whose name appears on the deed. But if you look at the Presbyterian constitution it says very clearly all properties of the individual churches are held in trust for the denomination."

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