Female involvement in full-time vocational church ministry has been a hot topic among some and taken for granted by others. While it is a worthy topic to dive into both exegetically and theologically, we often miss the human dimension of this topic. We aren’t talking about women in the abstract here. We’re talking about real people leading real lives with real struggles. Here I Am provides such stories.
This book shares the stories of Korean-American women in full-time vocational ministry, or as Neal D. Presa the foreword writer notes, “the stories of Korean American clergywomen … by them, on their terms, in their way.”
In the introduction, Dr. Grace Kim, the editor, briefly surveys Asian-American immigration history. She frames the arrival of Korean women to the US as a need for greater freedom from the patriarchy of the homeland. The book begins by talking about the founding of the Korean American Presbyterian Clergywomen, a twenty-five year organization providing support for those who fit the group name. The stories within this book show the varied experiences of many women. Some struggle between being a mom and being in ministry, others with being a perpetual foreigner, others with patriarchal alienation within their own faith community, and still others with sexual orientation issues. What we have in these stories are three issues and they mix nicely with each other: race, gender and sexual politics. We don’t only have a single issue though each story might emphasize one. We have a hybrid of issues. With these stories, the book discusses a theology of resistance within Korean context both here and back in the motherland.
One important theological point brought out by some stories is the function of the Korean church. This aspect seems universal in all Asian American circles. The elephant in the room points to the social function of such churches. If we move the discussion negatively, the church becomes an ethnic social club. If we move the discussion positively, the church is a faith community for people with the same cultural background. Either way, we need to discuss this issue. What is a church? There’s no easy answer because the church is much more than a spiritual entity. So was its predecessor: the synagogue. To deny social needs in favor of spirituality is to be unrealistic, but how much is it social and how much is it religious? These are questions some of the stories raise. Touching stories about community building, returning from exile from the immigrant church and serving the homeless informs us that the church is capable of being so much more than serving a niche ethnic group. The starting point is the ethnic niche but the horizon is almost limitless.
In reading this book as an advocate of women in ministry, I have mixed feelings. I think her basic framework probably fits some (or maybe even large) portion of the Korean population. Dr. Kim’s statistics also show that it is a problem among Koreans both here and overseas. The low statistics on Korean American women being ordained as teaching elders are quite telling of a problem. Just because it doesn’t happen as much in my own faith community, it doesn’t’ mean stories like these don’t happen in some widespread way in a certain faith community. Without any doubt, I’m not an expert on the Korean population at all. I ought to state that I’m reading this as a Chinese-American. I think the idea of patriarchal framework while still quite alive and well is really more of a passing trend now overseas at least among my own ethnic group. It would be inaccurate for me to portray simply that my birthplace (i.e., Hong Kong, a place where I travel to often) is a place of harsh patriarchy. Yet, the Asian-American milieu I know here in the US (i.e., immigrants and children of immigrants and children of children of immigrants) have a much more patriarchal framework. What is it about America that causes this framework among Asians? I believe this is something this book can potentially explore more in other narratives. I’m not saying that overseas Chinese and other Asians can’t improve on making ministerial work much more gender equal, but the Asian diaspora’s situation in general is far more dire here in the US.
On a much more positive note though, marginalization is a real issue as is racism. As a man, I experience such and I can’t imagine the kind of experience women must go through. This book does tell that story very well. It’s a story that denies the claim of many overly optimistic voices that claim that racism and sexism here in the US are the thing of the past. One feature that really strikes me is the way title is used to describe the various contributors. Dr. Kim holds the title “the Reverend Doctor …” which is quite peculiar. Certainly, we don’t often find this sort of title being used in most published works. I suspect that this very rich description of titles shows that for these women, there’s often a lack of recognition for their contributions, and that’s why the titles are important. By doing so, they provide a kind of literary resistance not only in talking about the problem but by active resistance in their praxis. This detail, though small, tells a great deal about the experience of these women.
It is also worth pointing out in reading the history that the names of certain seminaries continue to come up in the support of the work of Korean American clergywomen. While many seminaries are trying to move towards greater diversity, some mentioned here are quite active. One such example that strikes me is McCormick Theological Seminary. That effort shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Overall, I believe we need more stories being told in book form in the study of both this and the next generation of Asian diaspora. These stories should be inclusive of what’s going on here as well as what’s still going on overseas. I believe this book gives us a good conversation starter.
 There’re some gaps in her survey which probably shouldn’t be missed. Even though she notes Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos and Indians, she hasn’t noted the arrival of Chinese, arguably earlier than Japanese and definitely much earlier than Koreans, and later Vietnamese Americans. To her credit however, she does mention the Chinese American Vincent Chin, the victim of racist attack.