Korean Baptists in Odessa stay true to God, roots

KEYSTONE

On the surface it looks just like any other Baptist church. There are Bibles. A choir stand. Crosses on the walls. But a closer look reveals its uniqueness. A translating machine sits beside the entrance of the sanctuary. Hot tea is available to members. Behind the main church building is a small "prayer room" with an altar, Bible and cross. The cultural differences make the congregation feel more at home.

Looking for spiritual fellowship in their own language and customs, a group of Koreans began meeting more than 20 years ago for church services. In time, they formed the Keystone Korean Baptist Church. Today there are more than 80 members.

Their mission is growth.

"Anybody is welcome," said Pastor John Kim. "This church is not only Korean, it's open."

Tampa Bay's Korean community has grown in the past decade. In 2000, there were about 600 Koreans throughout Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2006, that number was 1,011, according to the bureau's American Community Survey.

In the early 1900s, Korea underwent a spiritual revival when much of the Buddhist country converted to Christianity. As immigrants came to the United States, they brought their new faith with them. But language and cultural barriers kept Koreans from finding church homes.

As a result they began using already established churches for meeting places.

Members of the Keystone congregation initially met at West Hillsborough Baptist Church before moving into their own sanctuary at 7029 Van Dyke Road in 1989.

Today, there are Korean churches of several denominations in the United States, including Methodist and Presbyterian. According to the Korean Baptist Church directory, more than 3,000 Baptist Korean churches exist, including five in the Tampa Bay area.

"Our purpose is to provide an opportunity for them to hear and respond to the Gospel in their own heart language and culture," said Frank Moreno, language division director for the Florida Baptist Convention, of which Keystone is a member.

At the core of the Korean church service is the same Bible-driven Christian message heard at other Baptist churches, only delivered in Korean.

Pastor Kim, 49, wears a billowing robe like other Baptist ministers during Sunday services. There's a small choir. And the congregants follow along in their Bibles.

The prayer house behind the church is a custom that grew out of the prayer mountains in Korea, said Yoon Shin, Keystone's youth minister.

"Because of their devotion to prayer, a prayer house is place where they can get away," said Shin, 28.

Another custom is a traditional Korean lunch served after Sunday service. Plates piled high with bulgogi pork ribs, bowls of kimchi — a spicy pickled vegetable dish — and rice are normally on the menu.

"It's one place where Koreans can still have their culture practiced in the community," Shin said.

Maintaining ties to their culture is paramount, said Jin Chao, who teaches Korean language classes at the church.

After lunch on Sundays, the church's youth learn how to pronounce and read Korean words. Many of them are second-generation Koreans, and English is their first language.

But "being Korean, it's very important to know your native language," said Chao, 31, an accountant. "America is a mixture of different cultures, but you should still keep in touch with your native country."

Still, Pastor Kim makes sure to note the church's inclusiveness.

On a recent day he pointed to the words above the entrance to the sanctuary.

"God is spirit and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth" the words read in English. Beneath it are the corresponding words in Korean.

"We (are) here for everybody," he said.

To show it, Kim gives visitors a welcome gift that speaks to the nature of Korea's heavy agricultural background.

A fresh egg, laid by chickens kept in a coop behind the sanctuary.

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at nhutcheson@sptimes.com (813) 226-3405.

FAST FACTS

Everyone is welcome

Keystone Korean Baptist Church is at 7029

Van Dyke Road in Odessa. Sunday services begin at 11 a.m.

Korean Baptists in Odessa stay true to God, roots 03/04/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 4, 2010 3:30am]

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