Sometime in high school, God told me I was going to become a pastor. The calling was clear, and the years in college only crystallized what I knew already in my heart. What was not so clear, however, was the type of pastor I would become.
Clarity came, but not in the way I anticipated. After my first semester in seminary, I became physically sick. My body weight fell to as low as 110 pounds, and I had developed a heart arrhythmia. The condition ended up being benign, but it certainly did not feel benign. Oftentimes, despite three cardiologists' telling me that I would be fine, I would lie awake at night counting the hundreds of arrhythmia wondering when my heart would stop beating altogether. This led to chronic insomnia and a whole host of other health problems. As you can imagine, this is certainly not what I thought my calling would look like. And, at the end of the day, that is what scared me the most. Dying prematurely was bad, but not nearly as bad as losing what I believed to be the purpose of my existence. Daily and viciously, my thoughts shot back and forth between anger and fear. How could God call me to ministry, and then kill me before I even laid my hands on the plow? Had I done something wrong to disqualify myself from ministry? It is this struggle that caused me to spiral down into anxiety and depression.
To recover, I took a two-year leave of absence. While that time was incredibly difficult, in retrospect, it was a necessity and a blessing. It is during this "desert" period that God revealed to me the type of pastor I would become. Prior to seminary, there was a particular group of people I struggled to embrace – people with mental and emotional illnesses. On the outside, I would embrace them with what seemed like a passionate, caring love, but inside I feared them. They "weirded me out." At best, I loved them at arm's length. But after becoming clinically depressed myself, God showed me not only was I no better than them, but that anybody can become broken in this way. Through this experience, I felt God saying, "Kee, now you understand. I want you to spend the rest of your life building a ministry that would embrace all broken people, especially those who are struggling mentally and emotionally."
It is also during these years that I learned an unfortunate fact about the Korean church: it is grossly ill-prepared to help those who are struggling with mental and emotional illnesses.
I know of a leader in the Korean church that recently committed suicide. After the funeral, her non-church-going friends revealed that she had been struggling with bipolar depression for years, but she never told anybody in the church because she felt too ashamed. They said she felt more comfortable sharing her difficulties with people outside of the church.
How is this possible? How is it that in the one place people struggling with mental illness should feel the most safe, they feel the least? Did not Christ come for all who are broken and all parts of those who are broken?
Having grown up in the Korean church, it was clear to me what the problem was – the Korean culture. After years of research and my own personal experiences, after years of working in the church, and after years of compiling anecdotal stories and evidence, I knew in my heart of hearts that the Korean culture had a fundamental flaw that was infecting the churches – shame . Do not misunderstand me. I am proud to be Korean. The Korean culture itself is not wrong. However, just like any other culture, it has flaws. Korean pastors have often balked at this critique. They usually retort, "How dare you attack our culture? This is our culture, and you have no right to criticize it." But that is a bogus argument, at least from the Christian perspective. Biblically, it is clear that Christ came to redeem human beings. However, if this is true, then Christ must have come to redeem cultures as well because who makes up cultures? Flawed humans.
It is not wrong to honor our elders. It is not wrong to emphasize the importance of family. The Bible does both. However, when the double-bind of shame and honor (which is rooted in pride) is the motivation behind those good things, they morph into evils that can destroy both person and community. The tragic history of the Korean people as well as our Confucian heritage help us to understand why we as a people now value achievement and progress; However, this does not excuse the destructive methods we have employed to propel our people toward these things. What is unfortunate is that Korean churches have blindly adopted Confucian values wholesale. In fact, some churches have championed such values over the gospel, which has had catastrophic consequences.
Of course, all cultures struggle with perverse forms of shame and stigma. These things are not unique to Koreans. However, in general, Koreans struggle much more with these issues, so much so that it is statistically significant. Suicide is the nineteenth leading cause of death among women in general; among Asian American women (including Koreans), it is the second highest cause of death. A recent Ohio State University study attempted to find a correlation between race, religiosity (measured by church attendance), and depression. They found that among whites and blacks, those who went to church more frequently were less depressed than whites and blacks who did not attend or attended less frequently. However, among Asians, they found those who went to church more frequently were more depressed than Asians who attended church less frequently. Unfortunately, these studies did not go so far as to pinpoint the causal factors. But when I couple these studies with my experience as a Korean American and with other studies that have found a connection between the high rate of mental illness among Koreans and our culture, it is clear to me we have significant problems with which we as a people must deal. A very recent study shows Korea has the highest suicide rates among developed nations.
Dr. Josephine Kim of Harvard University writes, "Contrary to popular opinion, rates of psychopathology among Korean Americans have been underestimated, and their infrequent use of mental health services is not an indication of a lack of psychological problems. Rather, it is an indication of how the salience of shame and guilt – two core values by which Korean Americans are raised – dictates social behaviors including the usage of counseling services. Culture-bound factors threaten the mental health of Korean Americans, placing them at risk for psychological difficulties. "
My current efforts at New Mercy Community Church are an outgrowth of everything I have shared. Our vision is that we would be "A Church for the Broken." Jesus reveals in the gospel accounts that he came for the sick, not for the righteous. His point is that everyone is sick, and he hopes everyone would realize this so they would come to Him for help. This is a central truth in Christianity, one which many Korean churches in their pursuit of health and wealth have forgotten.
In an effort to realize our vision, we have hired an in-house pastoral counselor and we have set up a counseling referral network. When we launched this initiative, I gave a couple talks about building a church where the people can share their struggles, the great need for counseling, and how Christ has freed us from the shame of seeking out help. After those talks and after putting intervention structures in place, congregants (including those not from our church) came into our offices virtually every week for months seeking help. The need is clearly there. Korean pastors simply need to do the work to make it safe for struggling people to come forward. This is a gospel mandate.
My hope is that Koreans would embrace the strengths of our culture and work toward overcoming its weaknesses. And while it is tempting for a second generation Korean Americans to point their fingers at their parents, I hope we can see that we are guilty of an even more insidious form of hypocrisy. On the outside we say we are progressive and open to counseling, but inside we would never seek it out ourselves. Why? Because shame is still entrenched in our lives. "Those 'other' people can use it. I don't need it." Unfortunately, until the self falls within the set of others, the shame will never be eradicated.
(Kee Won Huh, 34 years old, grew up in the NY / NJ metropolitan area and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, class of 1998. He, his wife and his two children (Peyton and Brandon) currently reside in Fairfield, New Jersey and is a pastor of New Mercy Community Church in Hackensack, NJ. For more information on the work he does regarding this issue, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the New Mercy Community Church website.)