Answering the Call in Koreatown, FACE to Face

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As the daughter of Korean immigrants who worked as ministers in Southern California, Hyepin Im got an up-close view at the challenges faced by the region’s burgeoning Korean American community and immigrant pastors involved in church life.

Her parents, who were Southern Baptists, “answered God’s call and thought they would preach the gospel and lead people to salvation,” says Im.

“But they also ended up becoming unpaid social workers,” she says, half-jokingly, “because the needs in their congregation were so great as they were ministering to new Korean immigrants. People needed help finding jobs, getting licenses, finding housing, and enrolling their kids in school. People's needs were so big and the resources were so thin. My parents' connections outside of church weren’t always enough to help everyone.”

"Church is about helping others, caring for them, and helping them grow in the best ways they can. When you shine a light, then all people get blessed to be in that light."

As an adult, Im initially took a different path than her family. She earned an MBA from the University of Southern California and worked for Ernst & Young, among other consulting groups, where she focused on nonprofits. But her Christian faith and deep roots in Los Angeles’ Korean communities kept tugging at her as she climbed the ladders of the business world.

“I thought of my parents and their struggle,” she says. “In my heart, I knew there could be a better way.”

A friend and mentor from a popular African Methodist Episcopal Church with a strong social-justice outreach program pushed her to take action.

Faith and FACE

In 2001, Im fused her professional and family background to launch Korean Churches for Community Development, which is now called Faith and Community Empowerment (FACE). The Los Angeles-based nonprofit trains and empowers pastors and church leaders to apply their faith outside of their church walls to launch and grow ministries in community service, housing, homeless outreach, schooling, activism, and more.
FACE does this all using grants from local and federal groups, as well as corporations. In the last two decades, it’s expanded its focus from Korean American churches to a wide variety of immigrant and non-immigrant church communities. The projects have ranged from a program to help 8,000 low-income homebuyers in Southern California receive millions in down payment assistance to working with the Obama White House to organize 5,000 Korean American church communities around creating jobs and economic growth.
Today, FACE offers training sessions and seminars on race relations, money management, mental health, affording housing, foreclosure prevention, and more, aimed both at church communities and individuals unaffiliated with houses of worship.
While it no longer focuses exclusively on Korean Americans, that demographic makes up a large portion of its audience through Im’s deep personal connections — and because of deep needs.
More than 300,000 Korean Americans live in Southern California, according to the U.S. Census, and 39.3% of Korean American households in the country are “linguistically isolated,” meaning their members have limited English skills. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles have found the community in Los Angeles has the lowest homeownership rates among ethnic groups. Yet church connections are often strong, as more than 70% of Korean Americans in the U.S. are Christians, according to Pew Research Center.
“Faith organizations play a huge role in immigrant lives, in communities of color," says Im. "They can be on the ground and touch people in ways the government can’t. But despite this commitment, they often have a lack of connections and tools to make the biggest difference. That’s where we come in.”

Shining a Light

One of FACE’s most popular and newest programs, C2, is a months-long seminar that trains pastors, church staffers, and people of faith to become leaders in social-justice programs outside the church.
Now in its third cohort, C2 typically brings in more than a dozen people for regular sessions in Los Angeles’ Koreatown neighborhood to meet with elected officials, activists, and nonprofit leaders to help them develop skills to grow and promote their church-based community projects. These days, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the cohort is meeting on Zoom.
The Rev. Mandy McDow, the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, is among the current participants. Her church, which does not have a traditional building and usually meets in a downtown parking lot it owns, serves a community where most churchgoers are homeless.
During the pandemic, meetings have stopped and services have moved online. A volunteer group works monthly to do outreach on the streets to homeless community members in need of hygiene products and clothing, while McDow works on long-term plans to build permanent housing for the homeless on the church property.
“We’re trying to show what it means to be Christian, which is to love your neighbor,” says McDow, who describes FACE as an “asset” in connecting her like-minded church leaders working on similar outreach in their communities.

"Her church, which does not have a traditional building and usually meets in a downtown parking lot it owns, serves a community where most churchgoers are homeless."

Im says she views such efforts as an example of using “your God-given potential to think big and expand the meaning of what it is to be a church or a pastor.”
“This is what we are trying to teach and help people create with churches, that it is about more than your building or Sunday service,” says Im. “Church is about helping others, caring for them, and helping them grow in the best ways they can, which is what we at FACE try to support. When you shine a light, then all people get blessed to be in that light."

Tags: Social Justice, Faith and Social Justice, BIPOC

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JD Turner

JD Turner is a writer and puppy parent based in Los Angeles. See Full Bio

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