Atop a sloping hill in Porter Ranch, a gargantuan new home for a Korean congregation is taking shape.
The 85,000-square-foot Valley Christian Presbyterian Church, under construction just north of the Ronald Reagan Freeway, is already a landmark in a community sprouting from the dry hills of the northern San Fernando Valley.
To analysts of the Korean church, the $12-million project, which is scheduled to be completed in March, symbolizes the religious fervor of Korean immigrants, their willingness to make financial sacrifices and their desire for recognition.
"Because of our long history of oppression under the Japanese and others, Koreans like big things; they strive to be No. 1," said theologian Chung-Kuhn Lee, past president of the Council of Korean Churches in Southern California.
Lee, senior pastor of the Union Evangelical Holiness Church in West Covina -- who also teaches Christian education at Azusa Pacific University -- said it's not an accident that six of the world's 10 largest Christian congregations are in South Korea.
Porter Ranch, 40 miles from Los Angeles' Koreatown, may seem like a remote setting for a 1,600-seat Korean immigrant mega-church. But about 50,000 to 70,000 people of Korean descent live in the Valley, the result of a steady migration since the 1980s out of central city neighborhoods and into suburbs, according to estimates from Korean community, church and business groups. The church will be the largest of roughly 100 Korean churches in the Valley.
To church members, the 14-acre site, bordered by a running stream and a grove of willows and oaks, is the promised land, an answer to prayers.
"Every day for the past 15 years, we have gathered for prayer at dawn," said Jae-Jo Lee, a founding member of Valley Christian Presbyterian, which has worshiped in a rented Lutheran church in the east Valley neighborhood of Arleta since 1988.
In 1999, after years of negotiations, the church acquired the Porter Ranch parcel from the city of Los Angeles in exchange for 54 acres of rocky hills several miles farther west that the city needed to expand a park. In return for the parkland, the city gave the church 14 acres and $2.8 million in Proposition A bond money.
Senior pastor Jae-Youn Kim, 56, described as "visionary" by supporters and "overly ambitious" by detractors, has big plans for the facility, which is across from the Porter Ranch town center shopping center.
"Our first priority is missions," said Kim, a former businessman who entered the ministry relatively late in life. To reach out, he wants to open up the place to non-Koreans in the community for sports, recreation, music and theater events.
"I want our church to be the place where people come, not only to worship and pray, but to eat, play and relax," he said as he showed off the park-like site, complete with a trickling stream shaded by decades-old oaks. "Wouldn't this spot make a wonderful place for family picnics?"
The two-story main sanctuary is designed like a concert hall, with a stage that can accommodate hundreds of performers. Classrooms, indoor basketball and volleyball courts and a fellowship hall capable of seating 800 people are planned for the adjoining multipurpose facility.
Kim, whose father and older brother are also Presbyterian ministers, became a pastor after he got a second lease on life.
In 1973, two years after he arrived in the United States, tuberculosis put him in a hospital for three months. While there, Kim said he told God, "Lord, if you will give me my health, I will be your servant for the rest of my life."
God answered his prayer, he said. "I have not been sick once since then," Kim said.
After a successful stint in the travel and insurance businesses, he completed studies at two seminaries -- one Korean and one American -- and was ordained in 1985. He started his church in 1987 in his Van Nuys home with 25 people.
Today the congregation has 1,200 registered members, with about 700, including children, attending Sunday services. In addition to presiding over the congregation and the building project, he is working on a doctorate at Fuller Theological Seminary, where his son is a seminarian.
Christians make up fewer than a quarter of South Korea's population, but in the United States, about 70% of Korean immigrants say they attend Christian churches, according to research by demographer Eui-Young Yu, a sociology professor at Cal State Los Angeles.
The churches are among the most important institutions for Korean immigrants in the United States, offering not only spiritual support, but also a vital social network.
In the Los Angeles area, Korean churches range in size from the 8,000-member Young Nak Presbyterian Church of Los Angeles, which occupies nearly 10 acres between Chinatown and Lincoln Heights, down to house churches that sometimes seem to crop up out of nowhere and just as quickly close their doors.
At any given time there are more than 800 Korean churches in the region, according to those who study them.