Both Sides of the Truth: Non-Geographic Presbyteries

27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. 28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” 29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”  But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” (Genesis 32.27-30)

This moment for Jacob was a turning point in Jacob’s life. This is the moment where Jacob’s name is changed from Jacob “the Heel” to Israel “the one who struggles with God.” Jacob is on his way to meet his brother Esau – his twin brother whom Jacob has cheated from getting his rightful blessing and birthright. Needless to say, Jacob doesn’t expect this to be a joyous reunion of long lost brothers, but possibly revenge that is long overdue. Jacob truly lives up to his name. He is a real heel. Then comes this mysterious moment where Jacob finds himself wrestling with an unknown man and it culminates to the point where this unknown man injures Jacob because he can not overpower him. The Hebrew word for “wrestle, struggle” is sarah. It is a unique verb that literally means “to stir up the dust.” In the stirring up of the dust, Jacob doesn’t only wrestle with God, but God wrestles with Jacob. And it is costly for Jacob: he is marked and wounded after it. After this encounter, Jacob limps, bearing the scar of the encounter, bearing the scar of death, one might say, the death of Jacob the heel and the birth of Israel the nation. What is also interesting about this particular moment in Jacob’s life is that it is significant for Jacob – enough so that he marks the spot and names it Peniel, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” (v. 30)

Names are important. I share in my blog bio how my dad gave me the Korean name Eungyong – “Eun” meaning “silver” or “crystal clear” and “gyong” meaning “the sound of a bell.” He said that when I was born, his hope for me was that I would grow up to use my voice, ringing truth as clear as the sound of a bell. Discovering the meaning of my name came at a time in my life when I was having some real hang-ups about preaching. I had grown up in a church atmosphere where the pastor’s words were digested as if they were God’s truth. Although, I knew that to not be true, the sense of feeling worthy or capable of exegeting God-inspired words was still a hurdle to overcome.  Much like Jacob, the conversation with my dad was a turning point for me to begin living into my name. The task of preaching is still not my favorite, but it has become a discipline that I have grown to truly appreciate. The 219th GA gave me an opportunity to speak a truth that I was not expecting to speak to. (You can see the video here: session 5, part 9.) Personally, it was an incredible moment because it felt for the first time like I had truly embraced and lived into my name “Eungyong.” It was a moment worthy to be named like Jacob did. However, “truth” is complicated. It is multi-faceted. Depending on one’s perspective and life experience, truth can mean different things.

Last week, I attended a Pastor Theologian Consultation in Colorado Springs which was hosted by the Office of Theology and Worship. (You can see pictures of the event here.) The focus would be on the challenges and opportunities facing the Korean American congregations in light of overture 04-08 to organize another non-geographic, Korean language presbytery not passing. I was intrigued about the theological approach that we would be taking in addressing these issues. Kevin Park, who gathered us there, reminded us that the solutions are not technical or rational, but theological. We all had written short theological reflections and spent time sharing and responding to each other. Amongst the 15 participants, 8 were men and 7 were women; 5 were 1st generation, 6 were 1.5 generation, and 4 of us were 2nd generation; 11 were pastors, 2 were seminary professors, 1 was a hospital chaplain, and 1 was General Assembly staff. Having such diversity within our Korean-American community all sitting around the same table was a precious experience. Rarely have we all had an opportunity to sit cross-generationally and gender to discuss such a delicate topic.

If I had to name another turning point moment in my life it would be this one. Mainly because as a woman in my culture, I am used to being silenced, invisible and never heard. At this consultation, I had the opportunity to be heard and to listen. As a 2nd generation, the younger doesn’t speak up to share differing opinions with the older. It is seen as disrespectful. At this consultation, I had the opportunity to speak up and to listen. As someone who only speaks the English language, bilingual conversations are difficult to truly convey one’s thoughts and articulate one’s point. At this consultation, although English was primarily spoken, Korean and English flowed back and forth and we all took the responsibility of translating thoughts with one another. By using our theological reflections as a spring board, the conversations were rich, deep, affirming, painful, and yet hopeful. We wrestled. One thing I truly realized is how complicated the matter is. It isn’t simply about whether one is for or against non-geographic, Korean-language presbyteries. There are greater issues involved.

The Pastor Theologian Consultation was a yin-yang moment for me – a conversation that I will spend a long time processing. I’ll be honest, after GA, I had the luxury of going back to my wonderful life. I received the accolades of my colleagues and peers for having the courage to speak up. And although I did hear some of the “gossip” of the effects of how the defeat of overture 04-08 was impacting some of the Korean community, the only personal impact to me was hearing some of the difficult remarks being made to and about one of my colleagues and friend who also spoke against the overture. Besides that, I went back to my life, working in a non-Korean church where I am appreciated for my pastoral skills despite of my racial ethnicity, gender, and age. However, my time in Colorado Springs shed a light on how what I intended to be life-giving actions were life-taking for another and vice versa. Throughout these discussions, I felt the extremes of both emotions: joy for speaking out and being heard and grief for knowing that it was at the expense of my parent’s generation; honor for being acknowledged as a voice that matters and shame for participating in “airing out the dirty laundry” and betraying my people; and empowered to know that a few voices can change a vote and powerless when it is perceived as disobedience and disrespect. I wrestled with the extremes of my emotions.

One question that really sticks with me is “What is the real issue regarding non-geographic, Korean-language presbyteries?” This question has to be answered carefully because the answer often defines the solution.

  • It is true that Korean-American women have struggled or continue to struggle to find a call and therefore be ordained as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament in these presbyteries. If these presbyteries started to open and pave the way for Korean-American women to be ordained, then is there a real problem with having non-geographic, language-specific presbyteries?
  • It is also true that due to age and inability to speak the Korean language that opportunities for leadership in these presbyteries are pretty non-existent. If these presbyteries began providing opportunities of younger leadership as well as simultaneous translation at meetings and gatherings or if the 2nd/3rd generation agreed and were allowed to switch and join their geographic presbytery, then is there a real problem with having non-geographic, language-specific presbyteries?
  • Another truth might be that there are some Korean-language presbyteries that do not function well in governance, in polity, in mission, and in relationship, which could be said about many of our geographic presbyteries as well. (I live in one of them.) The unique problem here is that language creates a difficult barrier to provide adequate accountability and connection to the greater PCUSA body. But again, it begs the question that if this problem was solved or even the intention to address the problem was initiated, then is there a real problem with having non-geographic, language-specific presbyteries?

Although these are issues that certainly need to be addressed, by focusing solely on the problems with having these presbyteries, we overlook the reasons why they were formed in the first place as well as some of the interest for other non-geographic presbyteries to form distinguished by another language or theologically. We lose the opportunity to wrestle with some important issues. Some believe that by forming more Korean-language presbyteries, it is a way of attaining more voting power especially on hot, contentious issues. Some believe that it is a way of segregating oneself in order to function with minimal accountability and connectionality to the greater denominational body. While I do believe there may be factions where this is true, for the most part, there is quite differing opinions about the formation of these presbyteries. In 1983, the Synod of Southern California first proposed to form a non-geographic presbytery. Initial motivations had to do with language and cultural difficulties. Growing up in a Korean Presbyterian church, I understand the need and comfort to have a faith community that not only speaks one’s language, but also affirms one’s cultural identity.

The bigger issue highlighted here is how our denomination handles diversity, whether it is gender, race, QGLBT, immigration, justice, and theological. This is a vital question especially when there is growing interest to have more non-geographic presbyteries. Also as more congregations are deciding to “graciously” depart PCUSA for other denominations like EPC (Evangelical Presbyterian Church), we need to talk about how we as a denomination handle diversity. Is there room and safe spaces for diversity? Or is the only answer to separate into groups with none to little accountability? PCUSA already struggles with how to keep Korean-language presbyteries accountable to the polity and connectional to the greater mission of the Church. And what does this say to our core principle that we are connectional? I don’t have the answers, but I do believe we are at a time and place where we need to address the question.

Maybe a good place to start is by hosting more theological conversations like the one I participated in – where differing opinions can co-exist and using God-inspired words to be the framework and spring board – so that we can be able to see God face to face in each of us, remembering as we wrestle with these issues, God is wrestling with us. Let me assure you that after my time in Colorado Springs, we did not hold hands in uniformity, singing “Kum Ba Ya.” We did however manage to hold hands in prayer filled with tears, pain, and yet hope. No problems solved. No solutions manifested. But conversations transformed and relationships built. It’s a start. It’s a turning point in our Korean-American community. One that deserves to be named. My hope is that similar conversations can happen throughout the diversity of our denomination.

6 thoughts on “Both Sides of the Truth: Non-Geographic Presbyteries

  1. Theresa, thanks so much for sharing what went on at the gathering and your reflections on the gathering.

    I’m curious as to what are the solutions when 2nd/3rd generation people choose to remain in 1st gen founded church? Can a church have dual membership with the KM in the language presbytery, and the EM in the geographic presbytery?

    1. Thanks Rich. I have the same questions. I definitely think we need to have some real discussions about this, especially with those 2nd/3rd gen in Korean Language presbyteries. I know that some EM’s have decided to become their own church and some find it more suitable to stay with KM’s. In some ways, it is different strokes for different folks, yet further complicates having a simple solution to your questions.

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