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The Business of Faith
The Full Story of how Evergreen Christian Church
uses demographics in ministry. . .
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A model church for Korean immigrants transforms a Chicago suburb, bringing down the unemployment rate while raising up disciples who are giving back to the community—and their congregation—far more than they were given.

For Evergreen Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Arlington Heights, evangelism is a pressing business. Two years ago, 43-year old Choon Ja Choi, a recent immigrant from South Korea, stopped by a local dry cleaning business in Arlington Heights, Illinois, in hopes of finding some desperately needed work. Sook Ja Roh, the owner of the dry cleaners and a pastor's wife, not only gave this mother of three a job, she also provided the training needed for her to start her own dry cleaning business. That chance encounter at the cleaning counter would soon turn Choon Ja into much more than a successful business owner. Within months, Sook Ja's husband, the Reverend John D. Roh of Evergreen Christian Church, would extol Choon Ja as "number one evangelist in our church." Pretty amazing when you consider that up until that time Choon Ja had never even been inside a church, much less professed faith in Jesus Christ.

For Choon Ja, winning souls is a 24-hour proposition. From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Choon Ja runs her business, then from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., she keeps her shop open to teach scores of other new Korean immigrants garment alteration and small business skills. While the students are patching garments and sewing seams, Choon Ja is busy sowing the Word of life into receptive hearts.

Choon Ja's story is not an isolated one. In John and Sook Ja's minds, business and ministry are seamless. In a close community like theirs, they believe that one of the best ways to ensure the eternal security of new immigrants is to first help them develop the skills that will affect their temporal security.

A Legacy of Labor

When the first wave of Korean immigrants arrived in America on January 13, 1903, they carried little more than their culture, their values and a strong work ethic. What set them apart from other Asian immigrants was both their Christian faith and their desire to take their homeland back from Japan.

"In terms of material possessions they brought very little," says Edward Schultz, Director of Korean Studies for the University of Hawaii, but it was the nonmaterial things that were so impressive."

Korean-American Christians
throughout the last several generations have, despite poverty, language barriers, and new surroundings, managed to provide an increasingly better life and education for their children. Korean-Americans in general are leading the way in both starting and owning a small business. In part this is because with limited language skills it's easier to start a business than join an existing English-speaking one, and also because it provides an income for more than one member of the family. In the suburbs of Arlington Heights, for example, Korean-Americans own over 80% of all the dry cleaning businesses in the community.

In large part, this successful assimilation into Western culture is owed to churches like Reverend Roh's Evergreen Christian Church. For Pastor John Roh, (who added the first name of "John" because he wanted to reinforce his identity as a Korean-American when he became a citizen just three years ago), targeting and helping new immigrants—especially unbelievers—is his church's primary mission.

It was a mission that might not have ever happened had Reverend Roh not used demographics to help him with a new church plant. Upon
graduating from the University of Chicago seminary, Roh did what many new seminarians do—he waited for "the call." Unfortunately, or fortunately, as time would prove, Roh's phone never rang. Not one to wait around for an opportunity to present itself, John came to the conclusion that God might just want him to step out in faith and plant his own church.

Because he was already serving as a part-time staff member in the position of Associate Regional Minister for the Christian Church (Disciples) in the Illinois and Wisconsin Region, Roh was able to avail himself of Percept's demographic resources—tools that the Christian Church (Disciples) had used successfully in the past to help both existing churches and new church plants.

There was only one hindrance—the newly ordained seminary graduate was not sure of what he wanted or even where he wanted it. Dana
Worrell, the Percept Administrative User of the Illinois and Wisconsin Region (Disciples), agrees that at first Roh was not exactly focused.

"John was kind of groping from different areas as to what he wanted," says Worrell. "So, when I gave him the Percept information it had lots of factors that told him that whatever he was looking for, it was not in that area. So for him, it became more of a process of elimination."

That lack of focus on Roh's part soon changed. With the help of Percept's ZIP Code FirstView and PeopleArea FirstView, John was able to focus his search, eventually establishing a new church in Arlington Heights—a suburb located just 25 miles from Chicago. It was an area that had been identified as having a large amount of Asian immigrants, and in particular, recent Korean-American immigrants.

Are You My Mentor?

Korean-Americans who are already established and successful have a strong desire to turn around and help their fellow immigrants adjust to life in America. When you consider Korea's past—a nation that in its two-thousand year recorded history has been invaded over 900 times and has had entire families split apart after the Korean War, you can understand this kind of solidarity. New immigrants often take advantage of an ancient Korean tradition, in which a group of people set aside a sum of money called "kye." A newcomer borrows the kye for a period of time to start a business, then repays it and passes it on to the next person who needs it. All of this leads to a kind of immigrant imprinting. Like the baby bird in the famous children's story, Are You My Mother? new immigrants come to America feeling displaced and fearful—not sure where they belong or how they'll survive.

"When a Korean person comes to America, someone is always there to welcome them—a family member, or whoever," says Roh. "And whatever job that greeter has, that will often end up being the same kind of work that the new immigrant will adopt—because, frankly, that is the only job  they know."

It is precisely that demographic—the new immigrants who are coming to Arlington Heights—that Evergreen Christian Church is reaching out to. What draws many of these new Americans into the church is the congregation's main outreach ministry—Evergreen Christian Academy. Started just after the church was planted a little more than two years ago, the academy offers free ESL classes, small-business classes and music classes. The phenomenal attendance at these classes (over 300 students total) has had, not surprisingly—some very gratifying results. Seven new families, as well as many singles, have joined the church. The rest were brought to the church either by word of mouth, door-to-door evangelism and/or the extensive media coverage in local Korean newspapers. Many in the community consider Evergreen to be a model church.

Reverend Roh and his wife stand amazed at what God has done—over 70% of their congregation is now comprised of the previously unchurched—specifically, people who had either been Buddhists or had no religion at all.

"People have come, no matter what their religious background was," says Roh. "They didn't care about denominations. For these unchurched people their image of church was what it could do for them."

While that may seem like a self-centered motive to some observers, it is a realistic one. Much of the church growth happening today is a result of extensive outreach ministries developed to the unchurched. According to Roh, it's more than a social experiment—it's biblical. And for minority groups like Korean-Americans who understand the value of helping—and
being helped—it works. They are people like Choon Ja who, in the relatively short time she has been going to church, has already given back far more than she was given, and new member Seung Hae Yu, a 34-year old single woman who travels for over an hour—sometimes several times a week—to attend Evergreen.

"Joining Evergreen Christian Church was best decision I ever made in my life," says Seung Hae. "It is most wonderful church that provides practical services for the Korean community with sacrificial love for new immigrants."

Seung Hae's gratitude to God—and to her church—was expressed publicly last month, when, along with ten other new members, she was baptized in front of the entire congregation. "I feel God is with me always now and I'm finally free from worry," said Seung Hae. "I have so much peace." "She has become a very good evangelist," says Roh, who
measures the spiritual health of Evergreen's members by their success in bringing others to the Kingdom.

Dana Worell cites Evergreen Church as a definite success story. "Reverend Roh took the Percept data, interpreted it to his satisfaction and really made something wonderful," says Worrell. "I admit that at first I was very skeptical, but John had a lot of faith that it would go, and it has. They are strongly evangelistic, going door to door and also having their members tell other people about the church. John would say, 'You know people, go talk to them!' And they did. They had cells of people who would go talk to their friends. It was literally 'Bring your friends to church.'"

Evergreen Christian Church is clearly a fulfillment of a dream—but Roh insists, it is not his dream. "Our vision, or motto is 'We are a church that is marching forward towards God's dream,'" says Roh. "And God's dream is for souls. He tells us to 'Go and make disciples.' And that is what we are doing."

Roh does have his frustrations. His biggest one is that at the present time, their 100+ member congregation has to share their building with another congregation. And while Roh says the Lutheran leadership there has been very kind and open-minded, having limited access to the building thwarts his desire to have a church that will be open 24/7. When asked why a church would even need to be open both day and night Roh doesn't hesitate in answering. "I want to provide a church that will be the whole center of people's lives," says Roh. "Before I became a pastor, whenever I saw a church building open just a couple of hours on Sunday, I would think to myself—'that is so useless!' To me, that was such a waste of God's resources. And if we really open our eyes we would see that there are so many needs in our communities—not just the needs of Koreans or the poor, but of all people."

Besides wanting to offer critical programs like after-school care, Roh also sees the need for workshops and seminars for couples that will help keep their marriages together. Sadly, the divorce rate among Koreans is beginning to match those of other Americans, and Roh, for one, wants to help change that statistic. For new immigrants, he also plans on expanding the Evergreen Christian Academy and providing social services like translation, job search and housing resources. And for the more affluent people of the area, the demographic for whom Percept identified as having a high preference for recreation, Roh wants to build a gym—as well as have the "first ever Evergreen Soccer Team" (something he seems particularly excited about). The youth of the church are also part of the planning process. As it stands now the special youth service is offering something that Roh feels is unique among most Korean-American churches—a bi-lingual worship service.

But one of Roh's greatest frustrations is not being able to have 7-day-a-week prayer meetings. For most Korean Christians, prayer is pivotal to spiritual life. One of the most famous landmarks in South Korea is a place called Prayer Mountain. Hosted by Yoido Full Gospel
Church, the world's largest Protestant church, it is here where thousands of committed Christians amass at 4:30 in the morning—before going to work—to intercede both for their country and for the church. On Friday nights, over 15,000 people meet regularly to pray. But prayer in South Korea is not just confined to one place. Throughout the entire country, people gather early in the morning in prayer cells to ask God to bring revival to their land.

It is this kind of commitment to prayer that drives Roh. He believes that prayer is the only force that breaks up the soil of hard human hearts and makes evangelism easy. "Prayer is very important, says Roh. "It's number one priority in life. And this year I announce that I personally want to pray for three hours a day and also do three hours of Bible study. Although I know it is hard to accomplish that goal, it shows you how important I believe that prayer is."

Looking at a drawing given to Pastor Roh by a Korean artist, one gets a sense of the passion for prayer that infects Evergreen Christian Church. The picture depicts a figure, prostrate in prayer with both hands grabbing hold of the trunk of an evergreen tree.

Interestingly, the name "Evergreen" came to Roh on a cold December morning as he sat, staring out the window, watching the snow gently fall on the ground. "I was thinking and praying—asking God what is the best name for this church," says Roh. "And I saw these Christmas trees for sale which led me to start thinking, 'Oh, Evergreen, that's a good name because faith and truth are everlasting, unchangeable—always green, always new.' And especially when you say that word in Korean, it's much more elegant."

Roh claims that some of his members started going to Evergreen just because of the name alone. According to them, it sounded—well, hopeful. And for new believers like Choon Ja and Seung Hae, whose lives before coming to Evergreen Christian Church had been anything but hopeful, that makes how you choose your words—and your ministry—of divine importance. -Jenni Keast

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