Opening the Gates Between Rich and Poor
Oh Young Kwon | SEPTEMBER 5, 2019 | 4 MIN READ
Metal-framed walls surround the church buildings. Guards are on duty 24/7. Gates are shut and locked after 10pm. This isn’t a persecuted church overseas. It’s my church located near Downtown Los Angeles.
My Korean-immigrant church is in Lincoln Heights, a community once marred by gang violence and generational poverty. The church prides itself as one of the first Korean-immigrant churches in America. However, the church itself doesn’t reflect the surrounding community, which is predominantly Latinx and African-American. Needless to say, interactions between the church community and the surrounding neighborhood are minimal at best, non-existent to be fair.
In short, the term “local church” is foreign in my church context. Many people claim language barriers and ethnic differences stand as major hindrances in promoting a deeper relationship between the church and the community, but there is another unspoken factor: socio-economic status.
Suburban Youth and Poverty
Thousands of 1st and 2nd generation Korean-Americans commute to my church, but their everyday experience is far from that of the surrounding community. For high school students, college education is expected. Family vacations, brand new smartphones, and SAT prep programs are common features instead of luxuries. Perpetual poverty, economic disparity, systematic oppression are terms and ideas taught through textbooks and social media outlets instead of experienced. Multiculturalism is limited even in their interactions with different ethnic groups because the people from their schools come mostly from similar socio-economic backgrounds.
I believe such bubbles of affluence contribute to today’s crisis of our youth’s spiritual development. We are too isolated behind our church gates and walls, having no genuine exposure to the debilitating impact of poverty. In this bubble, we seek less of God’s provision and more of self-sufficiency. We seek less redemption and more stability. We seek less of God’s healing and more of uninterrupted comfort. And our churches often go along with the status quo of staying near or with people who are like us instead of building bridges or overcoming barriers.
From the Suburbs to the Inner City
My Korean American youth experience was similar to our second-generation youths. My family immigrated to an affluent neighborhood in the suburbs of New Jersey, where poverty and abundance were determined by the number of bedrooms or garages. My faith journey was not drastically different either, as all of my church friends received collegiate and graduate degrees in pursuit of their professional goals. My spiritual life was well-secured in the bubble of the middle/upper-middle class Korean American context.
But one day, God pulled me out of it. My experience with the marginalized began in my junior year in college. I volunteered in low-income communities, preschools, middle schools, and later, in jails. Many of the students I interacted with had at least one parent who was incarcerated. Most of them were reading below grade level and were pressured to work minimum wage jobs to supplement the family’s income. College education was a farfetched idea and high school graduation was an anomaly. It was here that I learned that the faithfulness of God was not only found in collegiate pedigree or lucrative careers, but also in the daily provision of donated food or weekly checks from low-paying jobs.
The Gospel message of my bubble was contained to salvation after death or deliverance from unexpected tragedy. The Gospel message for them was another hard-fought day with assured hope for a better tomorrow. The promise and provision of God weren’t seasonal nor situational: They were daily. The people I met in these communities were more than the case studies in school textbooks or the subjects of political messages: They were partakers in God’s redemptive plan. This is the goal of a multi-cultural church: a gathering of God’s people experiencing His faithfulness in affluence or poverty.
Listening to their stories made the Gospel message richer, more authentic, and more attractive. Partaking in the impoverished reality of my neighbors transformed my identity from a comfortable middle-class man to an agent of God’s faithfulness. Instead of pondering the elusive ideas of God’s redemption, I witnessed the manifestation of God’s hands and feet as neighbors served and honored one another. I didn’t have to wait for the next breakthrough in career successes or financial gains to experience God’s blessing: It was in every handshake, hug, and prayer.
The Church in the Broken World, Faith in the Hopeless Place
One of the best ways to train our youth is to help them experience the manifestation of the Biblical lessons outside the church building. We can start with the most marginalized and under-resourced communities around us. The parable of the Good Samaritan comes alive when we enter the most impoverished and neglected communities. The Beatitudes recover their blessings when the church ministers to the poor in spirit.
When the youth of today experience how the Gospel message moves beyond the church walls into the broken world, they become God’s promise of tomorrow; poverty and brokenness aren’t something to be avoided or ignored, but something that can and will be redeemed. As the walls and gates separating affluence and poverty are removed, the Gospel message will become more evident, potent, and authentic. The Word of God reminds us through James 2:2-4:
I eagerly pray for the day when the metal-framed walls come crumbling down and the gates open wide. Until then, let us go and experience God’s redemption one impoverished community at a time. You will find more than just poverty there; you will find a piece of God’s kingdom.
Oh Young Kwon is the English High School Pastor at Young Nak Church of Los Angeles. He loves his Californian students, weather, and food. Despite his love for everything California, he refuses to let go of his allegiance to NY sports teams (Yankees, Giants, Nets). His passion is to equip the next generation of Christian leaders to make a visible and lasting Kingdom impact in their immediate surroundings.