Churches Meet Not Only Religious, but Social and Cultural Needs among South Koreans in Greater Hartford Area

September 10, 2019 · Collections ·
picture of First Korean Presbyterian Church, text of sign in English and Korean language

by Joseph M. Carangui

Connecticut, believe it or not, is home to many diverse cultures from around the world. The Greater Hartford area is one of the state’s regions where this can be beautifully witnessed.

Over the summer, I was an intern at the Connecticut Historical Society (CHS) working for the Connecticut Cultural Heritage Arts Program (CCHAP) to conduct fieldwork with one of these cultural communities. I chose to study South Koreans because I knew the population was there and I wanted to learn more about their culture. My supervisor, Kate Schramm, asked me to look into folklore in their community, in particular traditional and heritage arts that are being practiced by people. Often, these art forms reveal what brings the South Korean community together, and supporting healthy community-based arts is one of the goals of CCHAP.

During the course of my fieldwork, I quickly learned that many South Koreans get together at their respective churches for Sunday service. I had been visiting New England Grace Presbyterian Church in West Hartford and First Korean Presbyterian Church in Manchester (pictured here). Both churches have services in Korean and English, which is how the ministries are divided up. The Korean ministry in both churches is made up of mostly first-generation immigrants who are over thirty years old, whereas the English ministry in both churches consists of second-generation immigrants who grew up in the U.S. for either most or all their lives.

After service in both churches, everyone enjoys a community meal together, which almost always consists of delicious Korean food. During this time, I would ask people if they knew any Koreans practicing traditional or heritage arts in the area. At times, it would seem I was getting closer to finding heritage arts, but then the lead would not uphold. Not long afterwards, I met with Kate and told her my concerns. Even with my extensive contact list, which consisted of college students, elders (long-standing church members), pastors, and others, I was still not able to locate Korean traditional arts in the Hartford area. However, I had learned that church services on Sundays brought the South Korean community together and even drew residents from Massachusetts to make the commute.

Folklore studies looks at expressive practices that tie a community together. Since Christianity seemed to be what ties the South Korean community together here, Kate and I agreed that focusing on individuals’ experiences within their churches would be the best route to take my research assignment.

I had the opportunity to interview two people who attend the First Korean Presbyterian Church: Heejoo, a professor at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, and Eunsoo, a long-standing church member. Both of them attend the Korean-language ministry and are first-generation immigrants. In the interview, I asked them what their faith means to them and the role they believe Christianity has among South Koreans in the Hartford area. For length purposes, the excerpts used only reflect the latter portion of the interview.

Interview with Heejoo

Heejoo (50:08): So in the United States, we try to gather more as Korean American. So that is why church could be the base of the whole thing (community). So not only the believers, but the non-believers come to church to socialize and business reasons.

Interviewer: What do you think of the socialization aspect?

Heejoo: They just want to meet people. They feel lonely and they want to speak Korean because they feel tough [stressed], being in American society. So at least one day, Sunday, they want to gather with the Korean people. Talk to people and meet people.

Interviewer: What ages does this apply to?

Heejoo: Age I think doesn’t really matter because those who came from Korea who are not comfortable in English are coming [to Korean church].

Interview with Eunsoo

Eunsoo (35:53): Korean Christians in America. Some of them they went to church in Korea, but you met Mrs. Lee at lunch time. She told you she didn’t go to church in Korea. When she came to America and she became a Christian. You know why? When she came to America, she couldn’t get help from any place because she varied in English. So, if she comes to church, she can get help. They can get all information… So naturally, the newcomers that come to America, they are involved with church. Through that one, they keep coming to church. They didn’t have any faith in their mind, but when they come over and over, and then become Christian.

Eunsoo (43:35): People say, Chinese, when they come to America, they open restaurants. Korean guys, when they come to America, they open churches.

It is evident from Heejoo and Eunsoo’s accounts that Christian churches act as a meeting space that not only fulfill religious needs, but also social and cultural needs. This applies mainly to members of the Korean ministry who, as stated earlier, are usually first-generation immigrants that may face language and cultural barriers in everyday interactions outside their Korean network. Churches provide a sense of relief by providing a space where Koreans can speak their native language and enjoy their cultural foods with friends once a week, as well as providing support for newcomers on how to navigate in a new culture. In addition, cultural customs can continue to be practiced and seen by a younger generation of Korean Americans.

I would like to thank members of New England Grace Presbyterian Church and First Korean Presbyterian Church for their willingness to listen and help me with my research assignment. Both churches welcomed me kindly from the beginning. Lastly, thanks to CCHAP for giving me the opportunity to expand my knowledge on South-Korea-related topics and East Asia.

If you want to learn more about the data I collected during my fieldwork, which includes the interviewee’s personal stories on Christianity and the history of missionaries in South Korea, please contact Kate Schramm (kate_schramm@chs.org) to learn how to access CCHAP’s archive.

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