Eugene Cho

six years – suffocating and intoxicating

Quest quietly turned six years old two Sundays ago.  No hoopla.  No hurrah.  No fireworks.  No big party.  Just a quiet reflection with my wife at home.  We enjoyed a small cake ourselves [for my birthday]. The six years have been immensely adventurous.  At times, unbearable, painful, and suffocating.  Other times, intoxicating, profound, and beautiful.  Through it all, God has been steadfast and faithful.  We feel so humbled and privileged.

Here’s a picture [before the warehouse/cafe renovation] and an article from the first year:

copy-of-warehouseworship2.jpg

In our first year, the Seattle Times  stopped by to write a story about our personal story, the vision of Quest, and some of the sociological aspects of being Korean-American.   This was shortly before we officially “launched” the church.  We barely had 30 people.  No ministries…just a small community of people trying to learn to do life, community, and ministry together.  Learning to BE the church.  [On a side note, if folks knew how much flack I got from people about my quote about Al Sharpton.  I actually lost financial supporters!] 

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Church an Avenue to Forging an Identity by Michael Ko, 9/7/01

In July 2000, after his wife became pregnant with their second daughter, Eugene Cho abruptly quit as assistant pastor at one of the largest ethnic churches in the region — Onnuri in Edmonds, which draws about 1,000 people of Korean descent every Sunday — leaving behind a steady salary and a confused congregation.

He gave himself the title of “experience architect,” scrubbed toilets at a local bookstore to keep food on the family table and started Quest, an unconventional church based on the search for personal identity — particularly for younger Korean Americans.

“I want to encourage the younger ethnic people to reach out, to engage the larger culture,” says Cho, 30, who emigrated from Seoul when he was 6 years old.

“We have a lot to receive from this country, and we have a lot to give, using our very lives, our finances, our jobs, as a means for making a big impact on our community.

“I want to be mindful of who I am, but I don’t want to place my limitations based on that.”

At root, Quest is a multiethnic church with Bible passages, worship songs and sermons. About 50 people — mostly Korean Americans, a few whites and a Chinese-American man — have participated regularly in the preliminary services, committing time and money. Home base is in the Interbay area near Magnolia; Quest is scheduled to publicly launch Oct. 14.

Cho also sees Quest advocating and establishing social justice and community-service programs: a computer clinic for kids who can’t afford one; a health plan for the homeless; recording and publishing venues. But a step beyond that, Quest is a vessel for younger Korean Americans, a new and rapidly growing ethnic group that is integrating into mainstream culture.

THE ‘1.5 GENERATION’

The primary wave of Korean-immigrant families arrived in the United States in the 1970s and the early 1980s, as South Korea experienced drastic political and social upheaval. Their children are growing up in the United States and starting to attain social status, leadership positions and jobs of their own.

“(The Korean-American) history in America is not very long. You will see more and more people joining powerful positions, becoming more audible, raising their voices,” Cho says.

“It’s taken me several years where I view this as my city. I love this place, and there are certain things that I want, not just for myself, not just for Christians, but for all people.”

Cho wants to tap into that emerging population and make it politically and socially conscious. Quest’s motto is “Loving God, loving people, loving Seattle.”

He acknowledges seeing himself in a role somewhat similar to the Rev. Al Sharpton or the Rev. Jesse Jackson, African-American leaders emerging from religious roots to take on larger issues.

“Most of these kids, most of their life … everything has been provided for them,” Cho says.

“Now it’s about taking ownership, taking responsibility; it’s about breaking free from the safety of our parents’ generation.”

Cho belongs to the “1.5 generation,” a unique population born in Korea and raised in the United States. Their lives are an interesting blend of shopping malls, delivery pizza and Warner Bros. cartoons folded in with the strict expectations of immigrant parents and the kitchen smells of dank, pungent kimchi — the spicy, fermented lettuce, cabbage and radish dishes that are the staple of traditional Korean meals.

The 1.5 generation is named for its place between the first generation — those who spent most of their lives in Korea before emigrating — and the second generation, who were born in the United States.

A GROWING MAJORITY

According to census statistics, people of Korean descent in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties numbered 23,901 in 1990. That figure grew to 38,209 in 2000, an increase of 60 percent. By comparison, the state’s population has increased by 21 percent in the past decade.  

Koreans and Korean Americans now make up 29.7 percent of the total Asian population in Pierce County, 21.8 percent in Snohomish County and 10.7 percent in King County. People of Korean descent in northern suburbs such as Mukilteo, Mill Creek and Edmonds exceed 31 percent of those cities’ total Asian populations.

The 4,417 Koreans in Federal Way are 5.3 percent of the city’s population. That city has a Korean mayor, Michael Park.

According to Clark Sorensen, chairman of Korea studies at the University of Washington, those numbers are predominantly Korean immigrants. More specifically, many are the families of college-educated men who place high values on education and believe in the American dream, he says.

Those families began working small businesses — dry cleaners, restaurants, grocery stores, motels — and pushed their children into careers such as law, medicine and engineering.

Meanwhile, the families built their social identities around Protestant Christian churches, which were not only solaces for spirituality.

As a Western idea, their attraction to Christianity was a reaction to the Buddhism instituted by Japan when it colonized Korea in the early 20th century, Sorensen says. Practically, the churches became a comfortable weekend clearinghouse for the exchange of business ideas and the familiarity of native language and culture in a foreign land.

But those churches ran their services in the Korean language and were centered around the Korean culture favored by the parents, and especially autocratic fathers, who still constitute the majority of the pastors, elders and lay leaders.

Their decisions and strict hierarchical structures are conservative compared with the individualism encouraged in the United States. It was only relatively recently, for example, that Korean churches even offered Sunday school in English.

But this is the beginning of the 21st century, which Cho thinks is an unprecedented opportunity for minorities, largely unencumbered by the racism and the lack of opportunities that confronted other groups in the past, including Japanese Americans who spent time in internment camps and Chinese Americans who labored for the railroads.

“The building of a Korean-American identity is something that’s going on now,” Sorensen agrees. “The second generation has to figure out what their identity is.”

Cho is seeking to direct that search for identity, an identity that is less insular than the traditional ethnic enclave he experienced in his youth. At the same time, he doesn’t want to lead an ethnic church; he sees people of all backgrounds being a part of Quest.

To that end, he wants to take God into nontraditional venues, such as coffeehouses. Cho admits being frustrated with the mainstream religions’ failings in attracting and retaining younger generations, whose lives are steeped in the popular culture of music, art, dance, sports, design, movies and technology.

“A lot of people in the church are afraid of culture; they’re very reactive. That’s scary. That’s wrong,” Cho says. “Jesus Christ himself, his ministry was powerful because he spent time among the people. We in the church hide behind our building walls. Our desire should be to engage.”

Quest’s Web site — www.seattlequest.org — was created as one such portal. Detailed and artistic, the site links to movie reviews and other pop culture Web sites and features poems written by some of Cho’s supporters.

WINNING OVER CONVERTS

Cho’s conviction has won over Jin An, 26, a Korean American who recently quit his Internet consulting job, bought a coffee shop with his wife in the University District and took on unpaid responsibilities as Quest’s church-operations administrator.

“It’s a suffocating feeling, thinking you can change things and yet choosing not to because of things like money and jobs,” An says. “Was my decision irresponsible? I don’t know yet, but this is what I always wanted a church to be.”

After a recent Sunday of preaching at a preliminary Quest service, during which daughter Trinity is strapped to his back, Cho’s voice is hoarse and his shoulders are slumped. For the past year, he has been exhausted by questions and doubts.

What if he fails? The wear shows.

“This may sound cowardly, but had I known how tough it was going to be, I don’t think I would have left Onnuri,” Cho says. “It took me four months just to get a job, my kids were on food stamps, my wife had surgery. If I had known about that, I wouldn’t have had the guts to do this.

“But God demonstrates his faithfulness, through my wife’s commitment to me, the fun, the random acts of kindness.”

He suddenly brightens up and smiles. Four out of five new churches fail in their first year, he says. He excuses himself to tend to the myriad pressing needs, trying to make sure he won’t be among the deserted.

Filed under: church, faith, religion, seattle, ,

4 Responses

  1. Dennis W. says:

    Congratulations and may you continue to experience and trust His presence.

  2. georgesong says:

    wow… the good ol’ days! leading worship in a condemned warehouse! looking forward to the next 6 years…

  3. Blake says:

    Good times. These past 5 years sure have been a ride worth riding. 🙂

  4. e cho says:

    well, lookie here. mr. george song has a blog.

    FYI, that guy on the left leading worship in the picture is george.

    same george.
    same hair.
    same guitar.

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