Stem-cell scandal inspires talk of faith, ethics and culture

An organization of researchers called Korean Christians in Science examined issues raised by the Korean stem-cell scandal at a conference Sept. 8-10, 2006. The event was a sign of the enormous growth of Christianity among Korean-Americans, the developing interplay between religious ethics and science, and the increasing interconnectedness of cultures around the world.

The conference was an opportunity for journalists nationwide to explore the depth and diversity of the growing Korean-American Christian community.


About the stem-cell scandal

In winter 2005, the world of biological and medical science was rocked by news that a team of South Korean stem-cell researchers led by Woo Suk Hwang of Seoul National University had fabricated results previously hailed around the world as a dazzling breakthrough that would hasten revolutionary treatments for many grave diseases. For scientists everywhere, the revelation damaged not only biology’s hottest field, but also confidence in science’s ability to police itself. For patients and patient advocates, it shattered hopes of speedy cures.

For Koreans, and especially for Korean scientists, the impact was especially devastating. Hwang’s research had brought both a surge of national pride and the expectation that Korea would soon attain recognition as a world leader in one of the most visible and important areas of research. But the scandal, which culminated in indictments for Hwang and five associates, crushed those expectations, instead bringing the nation shock, humiliation and intense soul-searching

About the Korean Christians in Science conference

Korean scientists living in the United States were also deeply affected. To grapple with the issues raised by the scandal, a group of Korean scientists who live and work in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., organized a conference to take a careful look at the ethical and religious implications for their own lives as scientists. Washington is home to hundreds of scientists from Korea, many of them postdoctoral fellows and junior researchers at such federal research establishments as the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, as well as at local universities. These researchers, like the great majority of first-generation Korean-Americans living in the United States, are Christians who belong to Korean-language churches.

Korean Christians in Science examined the issues raised by the Hwang scandal at their second annual conference, held Sept. 8-10, 2006, in Rockville, Md. Originally begun by members of Rockville’s National Korean United Methodist Church, KCIS has an executive committee that includes members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and a Baptist. The group believes it is the only organization of its kind in the United States. Approximately a hundred people attended the conference, including a delegation from Korea and participants from other parts of the United States. The executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation, a national association of scientists who are Christian, presented a keynote address in English, although the proceedings generally took place in Korean. The program included religious activities as well as presentations and discussions.

About Korean-American Christians

The KCIS conference highlighted several aspects of Korean Christianity in America: the adaptation of Korean Christians to American life; the central role of churches in Korean-American community life; the growth of Christianity among Koreans in this country; the intersection of faith, ethics and science; and the increasing interconnectedness of cultures around the world. In addition, KCIS went beyond its own ethnic community by reaching out to the American community of scientists who are Christian through continuing involvement of the American Scientific Affiliation in their conferences.

  • Numbers: Although exact figures are not available, experts believe that about three-quarters of the estimated 1 million to 1.2 million Koreans in the United States are Christians, according to the Rev. Kyunglim Shin Lee, a United Methodist minister and vice president for international relations at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
  • Makeup: Most Korean Christians in America are Protestants who are members of Baptist, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) or United Methodist congregations. Most consider themselves evangelical, and some participate in nondenominational churches or ministries. In Korea, only a quarter of the population is Christian (mostly Roman Catholics), and most of the rest practice Buddhism. The great majority of Korean immigrants become Christian after arriving in the U.S. and then join one of an estimated 4,000 Korean-language Protestant churches nationwide, Shin Lee said.
  • Churches: Korean churches are dynamic evangelizers. In addition to fulfilling religious functions, they serve as social and cultural centers for the Korean community, helping newcomers adjust and establish themselves as well as connecting them to other Koreans. Only an estimated one in four Koreans in America remains within the Buddhist tradition, although Korean Buddhist temples also exist in the United States.
  • Generations: Although Christianity is growing rapidly among first-generation Korean-Americans, there is a sharp drop-off in commitment to Korean churches among the second and later generations of Korean-Americans, who tend to be much more oriented to American culture and identity, experts say. Korean-American immigrant churches generally combine their Christian faith with Korean cultural traditions rooted in the nation’s Confucian background, which includes intense respect for education. Educational opportunity for their children is a major reason many immigrate to this country. Women clergy are relatively rare in Korean Christianity, although their numbers are growing. In addition to Korean-language activities, some churches provide English-language ministries for immigrants’ English-speaking children.
  • Largest communities: In addition to metropolitan Washington, D.C., which has the fourth- or fifth-largest Korean population in the U.S., major centers of settlement are found, in general order of size, in Los Angeles, the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, Chicago and Atlanta, the last of which has seen rapid growth in recent years. The majority of Korean immigrants work as small merchants or entrepreneurs, but there is also significant representation in academics, research and other professions. Many of these highly educated individuals, like the young researchers who started KCIS, first came to this country for advanced training.

Why it matters

Faith is a strong motivator in the growing community of Korean-American Christians, whose beliefs and works are having an impact on communities – and, sometimes, professions – around the country.

Questions for reporters

  • Are there Korean Christian churches in your area? What denominations are represented? Are there also Buddhist temples? What types of activities and services do these congregations provide for their members? Have they discussed applying their religious beliefs and ethics to the stem cell scandal?
  • How do the different generations of Korean-Americans in your area relate to the Korean religious institutions?
  • How do the Korean Christian churches in your area relate to the American churches of their own denominations? Are there differences in religious practices or attitudes?

Additional articles

International sources

  • Nam Soon Song

    Nam Soon Song is Ewart Professor of Christian Education and Youth Ministry and director of the Centre for Asian-Canadian Theology and Ministry at Knox College, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

National sources

  • Randy Isaac

    Randy Isaac is a solid-state physics research scientist and executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation, a national, nondenominational organization founded in 1941 for “men and women in science and disciplines that relate to science who share a common fidelity to the Word of God and a commitment to integrity in the practice of science.” He can speak about what makes us human.

  • Ho-Youn Kwon

    Ho-Youn Kwon is associate professor of sociology at North Park University in Chicago, executive director for the Center for Korean Studies and co-editor of Korean Americans and Their Religions: Pilgrims and Missionaries From a Different Shore (Pennsylvania University Press, 2001).

  • Young Lee Hertig

    The Rev. Young Lee Hertig is a senior lecturer in the global studies and sociology department at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, Calif., a Presbyterian minister and author of Cultural Tug of War: Korean Immigrant Family and Church in Transition.

  • “Korean Churches, Campus Fellowships and Christian Organizations”

    See a website that lists links to Korean churches, campus fellowships and organizations around the country. It is posted by a student from University of California-Berkeley.

  • “Korean-American Ministry Resources: Churches”

    See a state-by-state map that links to Korean-American churches across the country, posted by Korean-American Ministry Resources.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • S. Steve Kang

    S. Steve Kang is associate professor of educational ministries at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass., and co-editor of Growing Healthy Asian American Churches (IVP, 2006).

  • David Kyuman Kim

    David Kyuman Kim is an assistant professor of religious studies at Connecticut College in New London, Conn., and director of the college’s Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity.

In the South

  • Elaine Howard Ecklund

    Elaine Howard Ecklund directs the religion and public life program at Rice University, where she is also a professor of sociology. She is the author of Korean American Evangelicals: New Models for Civic Life.

  • Jung Ha Kim

    Jung Ha Kim is a senior lecturer in sociology at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She is author of Bridge-Makers and Cross-Bearers: Korean American Women and the Church (Scholars Press, 1997), co-author of Singing the Lord’s Song in a New Land: Korean American Practices of Faith (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005) and co-editor of Religions in Asian America: Building Faith Communities (Alta Mira Press, 2002).

  • Paul Chang-Ha Lim

    Paul Chang-Ha Lim is assistant professor of the history of Christianity at the Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn.

  • Elizabeth Underwood

    Elizabeth Underwood is associate professor of sociology at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, and author of Challenged Identities: North American Missionaries in Korea, 1884-1934 (Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch, 2004).

In the Midwest

  • R. Stephen Warner

    R. Stephen Warner, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and co-editor of Korean Americans and Their Religions: Pilgrims and Missionaries from a Different Shore (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001).

  • Peter T. Cha

    Peter T. Cha is associate professor of pastoral theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., and co-author of Following Jesus Without Dishonoring Your Parents: Asian American Discipleship (InterVarsity Press, 1998). He also co-edited Growing Healthy Asian American Churches (IVP, 2006).

In the West

  • Antony W. Alumkal

    Antony W. Alumkal is an assistant professor of sociology of religion at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver and author of Asian American Evangelical Churches: Race, Ethnicity and Assimilation in the Second Generation (LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2003).

    Contact: 303-765-3131.
  • Boyung Lee

    Boyung Lee is assistant professor of educational ministries at Pacific School of Religion and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

  • Edmond Yee

    Edmond Yee is a professor of Asian studies at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif., and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He wrote The Soaring Crane: Stories of Asian Lutherans in North America (Augsburg Fortress, 2002).

  • Eugene Eung-Chun Park

    Eugene Eung-Chun Park is Robert S. Dollar Professor of New Testament at San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, Calif., and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

  • Russell Jeung

    Russell Jeung is assistant professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University and author of Faithful Generations: Race and New Asian American Churches (Rutgers University Press, 2004).

  • Jonathan Kim

    Jonathan Kim is associate professor of Christian education at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, Calif., and author of “The role of Christian education in the Korean church” in the Jan. 1, 2003, special edition of Christian Today newspaper.

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