The increasing number and size of Korean churches throughout Queens over the past decade has soured relations between the Korean community and its white neighbors. Tensions reached fever pitch during a community board meeting last month in Flushing when the board members voted 32-4 against the expansion of a Korean church in the area. “They are changing the character of the neighborhood,” said Gene Kelty, chairman of Community Board 7.
The fight is far from over, however. The city’s Board of Standards and Appeals is currently reviewing the case, and according to Kelty the agency has a history of accommodating this church. “I hope to testify before the board,” he says.
Kevin Goodman is an unhappy man. He says outsiders have taken over the neighborhood where he has lived for over four decades. Not only are the numerous Korean shop signs along Northern Boulevard near his East Flushing home incomprehensible to him, but a Korean church recently took over a two-family house across the street from his home in the once predominantly white, middle-class community.
“They come to my country and make me feel like a foreigner,” says Goodman, with little attempt to hide his dislike for the church, its congregation, and Korean immigrants in general. He claims that since the churches moved into the area, his $500,000 home has depreciated in value. “Who am I going to sell it to?” he says.
Frank Skala, who heads the East Bayside Homeowners Association, in a demographically similar enclave some three miles east of Goodman’s, also fought construction of a Korean church in his neighborhood. Skala says that the church made illegal additions to the property (which were later removed). “They showed insensitivity to the community by having the back of the church facing the community and the front end facing a parking lot,” he says. “And the neighbors are complaining about the smells coming from the church’s kitchen.”
Although other immigrant groups—including Greeks, Indians, and Pakistanis—have established churches, temples, and mosques, and Jews in South Flushing and Forest Hills have built synagogues, the relatively small number of these facilities has not caused as much concern.
“It is a very complicated issue,” says Roger Sanjek, professor of urban anthropology at Queens College, who has studied the impact of Korean churches in Queens over the last 20 years. “In some cases the parking and other problems caused by the churches is a legitimate argument against them. But it is also used by people to express their anti-immigrant and prejudicial sentiments.”
The Korean Church
The proliferation of Korean churches has outpaced those of other immigrant houses of worship. According to the Council of Korean Churches of Greater New York, an umbrella organization of these institutions, the first Korean church in Queens was established in 1969 and had a congregation of about two dozen. Today there are 500 churches in the five boroughs (and parts of Long Island and New Jersey) with about 400,000 worshipers. More than half of these churches are in Flushing—where the largest number of Korean immigrants live—as well as in Elmhurst and Corona.
The council estimates that roughly 25 percent of Korean Christians attend church every Sunday. Many churches conduct early dawn services that have regular attendance; some 70 percent of the city’s Korean Christians are actively involved in one way or another with church life. “The Korean people here are mostly new immigrants who do not speak much English,” says Han Young Lee, a liaison between Flushing City Council member Julia Harrison and the Korean community. “For them the church is the place to socialize, look for jobs and friends.”
But the sheer volume of Korean churches in and around Flushing has created a conundrum for many white residents. For example, in a single block near Murray Street and Sanford Avenue, there are five churches. Hi Seon Lee, the pastor of the New Covenant Baptist Church in Flushing, and liaison between the Korean Council of Churches and the community at large, says the reason for the proliferation of churches dates back nearly a hundred years to social and political developments in Korea.
American Protestant missionaries arrived in Korea in the late 19th century and spread the gospel among the largely agrarian and impoverished population. The promise of an egalitarian religion was immensely attractive to the poor. Pastor Lee says that 60 to 70 percent of Korean Christians are Presbyterian; others belong to Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal denominations.
In 1905, the Japanese occupied Korea, forcing Korean Christians to worship the Japanese emperor. “There were those who wanted a compromise and to appease the Japanese by worshiping both the emperor and Christ,” says Pastor Lee. “The more orthodox Presbyterians decided not to do so.” While emperor worship has long since stopped, the schism continues today: On Murray Street, there are two Presbyterian churches, one still more conservative than the other.
Fortunately for Korean churches, outdated city zoning laws have helped them flourish. Zoning laws adopted in 1961 allow the establishment of community facilities, such as religious centers, doctor’s offices, schools, and day care centers, in residential sections. If a church decides to take over a house, but not make any additions, it does not require community board approval.
“Community facilities were originally supposed to be benign entities and passively react with the community,” says Paul Graziano, chairman of the zoning and land use committee of the Queens Civic Congress and Green Party candidate for City Council.
When legislators wrote the law, says Graziano, they envisioned a religious facility with fixed seats like pews and mandated a certain quota of parking spots, accordingly. But most Korean churches have found a loophole; by using folding chairs, they circumvent the law. “The law has been stood on its head,” says Graziano. “We must revoke the [old provision] . . . and immediately change the parking requirements.”
John Liu, a Democratic candidate for the Council, agrees. “The church is a good thing,” he says. “But too much of a good thing makes it less desirable.” The Taiwanese-born Liu, who has already garnered Korean support for his candidacy, refuses to take a firm stand on the issue of Korean churches, but says that the community at large should have a say in where and how “community facilities” are established.
One white observer says that what rankles white homeowners about Korean immigrants is that “[they] do not stand on the street corner with an apple cart and . . . hats in hand.” Instead, Koreans are by and large self-sufficient, hardworking, and prosperous. With the churches providing myriad services and a sense of belonging, interactions with non-Korean neighbors is often unnecessary and simply avoided.
Han Young Lee believes that it’s important for the Korean community, especially the church, to get involved in the life and the business of the community. So far, there has been little progress despite meetings between white homeowners and Koreans. Lee’s recent request for a local church to get involved in a neighborhood clean-up program was met with indifference. “The Korean church only concentrates on itself and church matters,” she says. “This is unrealistic; we must get involved in the community; we must wake up.”