No Place Like Home: An interview with ECF grantee Seung-Hwan Kim

| By Emily Ruppel


No Place Like Home: An interview with ECF grantee Seung-Hwan Kim


ECF grant recipient and pastor Seung-Hwan Kim wasn’t always a Christian. Born in South Korea and raised by Buddhist parents, Seung-Hwan was first introduced to the faith at five years old, when his older brother (who had come to believe as an adult) brought Seung-Hwan to a Vacation Bible School at his church. While VBS was a positive experience and Seung-Hwan was proud of his older brother’s leadership, it wasn’t until Seung-Hwan had come to the US to pursue graduate work in medical sciences that the seed planted as a youth blossomed into mature Christian faith. Today, Seung-Hwan is a pastor in the Southern Baptist church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We interviewed Seung-Hwan about his life and work as part of the Evolution and Christian Faith grants program.

You came to believe as an adult, far from home. What did your parents think and feel about this change in your life?

They still can’t understand, because they’re not Christian yet. I think it’s shocking to them for me to be a pastor. My parents wanted me to be a scientist—so unfortunately for them but fortunately for me, I became a pastor after years of going down that path originally.

Now they are trying to understand what I’m doing. I try to explain what I’m doing and who Jesus is, and it’s getting better and better to talk with them because they’re trying to understand. I just want to spend my life showing Jesus’ love, but you have to understand Asian culture—where I come from it’s not good to have two religions in one family. My parents were very against me becoming a Christian. Throughout my childhood I saw my older brother struggling to be understood as a Christian, and I didn’t understand what was going on when my parents treated him in a way that seemed harsh.

So, when I came to the US I brought Buddhist statues and looked for a temple to worship Buddha. But the other thing that happened when I came to the US is that a Christian pastor offered to help us integrate—he helped us get a car, helped us navigate stores to buy groceries, taught us about the culture. I was touched by how he was so loving and so generous, so when he asked me to start studying the Bible with him we started meeting one on one every week. And that’s how my wife and I went to church for the first time, in a Nazarene church. Six months later I accepted Jesus into my heart.

What happened from there?

Haha, this is a good question, because, everybody has problems—Christians aren’t perfect, and everyone is always growing in maturity. I had some hard times and went to other churches, in fact I almost didn’t stay in church—but finally I went to a Baptist church in Houston which was part of what we call the “house church” system. This idea rises out of the fact that in the early church there was an intimate fellowship of Christians and they gathered in houses in small groups—and that’s what we do in the house church system. If we only see each other on Sunday morning it’s not easy to share our lives together, I mean yes, we worship God and meet God in our Sunday worship, but there’s not a lot of other fellowship—we just say hi and bye. The most amazing thing in this church I found was our intimate fellowship with each other, and I believe that that is one of the strongest driving forces to grow the church and it was really amazing.

When I finished my PhD in 2004, we came to Boston so I could pursue postdoc training in cancer research. Boston was very different from Houston!

What challenges did you find in Boston?

My background is as a scientist, and especially as a biologist, so I grew up studying evolution. So in Texas, as Christians, there isn’t any problem—no one is talking about evolution, there’s no real chance to talk about it. But when I was at Harvard at lunchtime there were often fights and arguments about this—my colleagues were very confused that I was both a Christian and a scientist—they looked at me as kind of a barbarian or something, an emotional person rather than a rational person.

It was a big shock to them when I decided to study theology in seminary and be a pastor. Actually what happened was that had been suffering from a bit of depression—in 2004 when I came here first, I thought: this research, this is my mission field. But five years later, I was struggling with my faith, and I didn’t want to have to defend my faith all the time to my friends and colleagues. Sometimes I would even try to hide my Christian faith because I didn’t want to get into that discussion. And I was so sad being in academia and living like this. I like a comfortable warm area where people show love to each other—but here there is a lot of criticism and struggle to prove yourself and best other people academically and scientifically. So when I decided to follow my call to ministry, my Principal Investigator and others were like, whoa, don’t do this. But I could not continue in what I was doing, so I resigned and applied at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

What kind of church did you establish in Boston and why?

There are currently 60 Korean churches in Boston, and I wanted to establish a Korean house church in Cambridge. I planted a church here and I am trying to grow the house system in Cambridge — but it’s not easy! Everyone is busy, so busy. Many Christians don’t make it to service on Sundays—and there’s a lot of self defense, they don’t want to open up… Boston culture is very competitive, people are anxious to survive, anxious about their futures, the living cost is very high, most apartments are small spaces and hard to gather in.

When I finished my second year at Gordon-Conwell I prayed hard about my calling, and I felt God was asking me to go to Harvard again. The Southern Baptist church treats the Boston region as a missionary region—it’s not easy to plant a church up here—so I’m kind of seen as a missionary in my denomination. It was my personal decision to try the house church, and we now have three of them that gather in dorms, cook together on Friday nights and invite unbelievers, because that’s what they did in the New Testament.

I think probably God is calling me to the ministry for this community in the Boston area, because they are having the same problems that I had struggling with my faith, so I want to help them. Everyone is so worried about success and getting this or that honorable diploma—the people here are smart and understand many complex things perfectly—but it’s a long distance from the head to the heart.

It seems harder to simply be a Christian in Boston than it is in Texas, but is it easier to talk to other Christians about evolution?

Yes and no. The idea of evolution is pretty new to Korean Christians who are generally very traditional and conservative. Many people aren’t exposed to the evidence for evolution because creationists fight the same battles there as they do here. One of my friends and faculty members back home who was teaching about evolution, recently he lost his job—it’s a big problem.

The harmony between science and Christian faith is a pretty new idea to Korean students and scholars—for the most part they haven’t had a chance to think about it. So, I searched for resources about this and all the sudden I heard about ECF. So I wrote my proposal and got the grant, and my group at Harvard was willing to help me holding forums and talks to explore these issues, and surveying fellow Christians and scientists about their views. This year I’m trying to establish a practical theology for what we can say about evolution in the church—especially the Southern Baptist church. Because believers in the Southern Baptist church tend to hold a more “literal” view of Genesis, I have to take some risks when asking if there’s a better way to look at the science of evolution and how it fits with Scripture rather than just looking at it one way.

Next year, based on our experiences and what we learn, I want to publish some materials for Korean churches in two languages about teaching evolution in the church. The idea here is to make peace, not war.


About the Author

Emily Ruppel

Emily Ruppel Emily Ruppel is a doctoral student in rhetoric of science at the University of Pittsburgh. Prior to her PhD work, she studied poetry at Bellarmine University in Louisville and science writing at MIT. She has also served as blog editor for The BioLogos Foundation and as Associate Director of Communications for the American Scientific Affiliation.


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