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[Kim Ji-hyun] Korean church in Japan ripe with strife

As with the subways, buses, government buildings and the overall urban atmosphere, the streets of Tokyo bear a strong resemblance to those of Seoul. 

There’s the narrow roads, road signs and even the way the trees are planted.

But there is one big difference. And that’s the lack of churches.

On almost any given street in Seoul, or any alley big or small, you are bound to encounter a church cross or a sign.

Not in Tokyo. 

The Japanese population is composed of a plethora of religions, as opposed to South Korea, which is about 30 percent Christian.

The church plays an equally significant role in the overseas Korean community. It’s not only a religious shelter, but it’s where Christians come together to make friends and basically build a new nest.

As a baptized Christian, I too attend a Korean church in Tokyo. It’s a pretty big organization, with a congregation of around 1,000 people.

But I have recently stopped going after a very public rift between the pastor and some of the elders.

The pastor is an honest-faced man whose sermons I genuinely enjoyed. He would add anecdotes from his own life for vitality, and his words often offered sound advice.

Despite these positive traits, the man ended up in the bad books of some of the powerful old-timers at the church. Recently, he was ousted from the Tokyo pastors’ committee.

His crime: At an election for appointing new elders, the pastor had dared to back candidates who were not blessed by the rest of the elders.

These elders have since then formed an antipastor faction of the congregation. My biggest problem with them is that every week, they hold up placards damning the pastor. They flank the main and side entrances. It’s impossible to ignore them. 

My 9-year-old son shoots questions at me, but I remain silent. I refuse to acknowledge these people. It is not because I do not side with them. I just think their opinions should be voiced through other avenues of communication.

Similarly, I believe the John Church of Tokyo was wrong for having so publicly aired the dirty laundry of its previous pastor. He was eventually ousted for charges of sexual harassment. But many say he was kicked out for other reasons. Perhaps he rubbed the elders the wrong way.  

Power struggles and corrupt leadership are hardly new trends in the Christian community. They have been present as long as the church has existed. As an organization, a church is bound to be inflicted with organizational issues.

Some churches, for instance, are too overtly political.

The church I go to in Tokyo is aggressively conservative. Top diplomats are known to attend, and the elders generally lean to the right.

A few weeks ago, one of them was gushing over lunch how he wished South Korean presidents could have two terms so that President Park Geun-hye could stay in power for another five years.

Organized religion can never be a strictly holy affair, but I do believe in having a relationship with God, or whatever spirit or being anyone chooses to believe.

That holy relationship will inevitably suffer when the religious organization starts showing too many cracks.

And often, when the church is situated overseas, outside of mainstream society, it seems like both the congregation and the leadership becomes sloppier. Or they start viewing the church as something they own.

One goes to church for God, not for the people you meet there. 

I agree. However, unless the church can stand without a congregation, there will always be people, and people will always make mistakes. But if they take too long to repent, the church may lose their congregation.  

Long gone is the age of the holy crusades. Take the petty battles somewhere else, I say. This is religious ground.

By Kim Ji-hyun

Kim Ji-hyun is The Korea Herald’s Tokyo correspondent. She can be reached at ― Ed.


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