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Seeking Souls of O.C. Korean Americans : Religion: Pioneering pastor offers the young an alternative to tradition

November 14, 1994|DOREEN CARVAJAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — The church is borrowed, the hymnals donated and the preacher subsidized by worried East Coast and South Korean congregations that are praying vigorously for the far-flung missionary outpost in suburban Orange County.

Just four months ago, the makeshift mission of Newsong Community Church in Irvine was little more than their common prayer.

Then came the Rev. David Gibbons, 32, of Ellicott, Md., a missionary more comfortable in stone-washed denim than clerical collar, the son of a U.S. veteran and a Korean woman. Navigating a rented truck, he rumbled 3,000 miles west to Southern California in search of what he termed the "Silent Exodus": young, second-generation Asians who are drifting away from traditional immigrant churches.

The truck came to a halt in Irvine, where Gibson surveyed the flat landscape of sparkling shopping strips and noodle restaurants, the bustling UC Irvine campus and neighborhoods where the Asian population has been boosted by a steady migration of Korean immigrants in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots.

Fertile territory, the missionary concluded, for a rich harvest of souls. The perfect place to launch a contemporary church catering to young, English-speaking Korean Americans, who have been slipping out of the church pews in rates as high as 60%, according to some surveys.

Unfortunately, Gibbons, who resigned his ministry in Maryland to move to California, couldn't even afford to rent a pew.

"We didn't have enough to start a building," recalled Gibbons, who held the original prayer meetings for Newsong in his cramped living room. "I was having second thoughts. We have three children with another on the way."

But he took comfort from his strategic master plan: "Our vision is to start a church-planting movement. Presently, we have selected Orange County, California, as the site of this hub church because of its close proximity to Los Angeles and its Asian American harvest that seems ripe for the Gospel message."

Citing this eight-page plan, Gibbons set about appealing for financial and spiritual help from mega-churches as distant as Seoul, South Korea.

"They need a mother church, a Korean church," said Yong Jo Hah, the senior pastor at the 10,000-member Onnuri Church in Seoul, which is one of the largest congregations in the world. "The first generation is good because they use the mother tongue. But the second generation knows the United States. And they don't know the Korean church. So we must give some help."

And they did; Onnuri Church sent Gibbons a plane ticket to visit their congregation and then pledged $3,600 toward the opening of his church.

Gibbons also sought support from Bethel Presbyterian Korean Church in Maryland, where he previously presided over the English-speaking ministry for the affluent, suburban congregation. Church members started praying and collecting monthly donations of $2,000 to subsidize the work of Gibbons, whom they label simply "our California missionary."

And he turned to the sprawling South Coast Community Church, a nondenominational congregation in Irvine that regularly attracts thousands to its Sunday services at Bonita Canyon Road but had failed to draw the growing Asian population.

"I've had this nagging low-grade stress over the question of how we could best serve the needs of the Asians around us," said Bob Shank, the senior pastor, who every Sunday noticed how few Asians were at his church services.

South Coast didn't have money to offer Gibbons, but instead they gave much more: a meeting room, office equipment, child care services, moral support. The results were swift.

Two weeks ago, Newsong hosted its first service in a spacious meeting room with a baby grand piano, tropical plants and almost 100 worshipers--two-thirds of them young Asian adults.

For the opening service, Gibbons shed his denims for a dark suit and tie. He faced the new church members with hands clasped, almost casually delivering a sermon that he had practiced nearly 20 hours at home.

"My mother is the Korean part of my background," he introduced himself. "And my father is the Anglo--he's the one with green eyes. I was always embarrassed to hang out with my mother."

He would distance himself from her in stores when she would haggle with bemused salesclerks over prices. And he would hide from her bellowing laugh that seemed to fill a shopping mall. He knew well that he was the mirror of his mother, yet he didn't consider himself Korean.

"I think of those days--my mom embarrassing me. But now those memories are precious. It was just 10 years ago that she was killed by a drunk driver," Gibbons said. "Oh, I wish she could be here in the front row."

There was silence, a rustling of paper. Deep in the back rows, Insung Kim carefully studied the preacher, counting the new members of the congregation.

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