Korean American Clergy -- Domestic Violence First Responders

Korean American Clergy -- Domestic Violence First Responders

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There’s a persistent belief that domestic violence victims must grin and bear it, Dr. K. Samuel Lee explained to a crowd of more than 100 clergy members.

“When female church members confess [to being abused], often pastors say, ‘This is your test from God, this is your cross to bear.’ But this is unethical,” he said in Korean.

Lee was speaking as part of a domestic violence conference aimed at Korean American clergy, who are often the first responders when such incidents occur, but don’t always know how to handle such matters and may even counsel the victims just to forgive the abusers. The conference, held June 10 at a hotel in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, was organized by KFAM (formerly known as the Korean American Family Service Center), a social service agency that also runs a number of programs for domestic violence victims, as well as anger management classes for the abusers.

Among Asian Americans, Korean Americans are affected disproportionately by domestic violence. According to figures from the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, 80 percent of all

Asian domestic violence cases in the city involved Korean Americans. A 2000 study from the nonprofit women’s resource center, Shimtuh, found that out of 214 Korean women surveyed in the San Francisco Bay area, 42 percent reported knowing another Korean woman who was being or had been abused at the hands of her partner, while another 50 percent reported knowing a Korean woman being abused emotionally.

KFAM’s conference, conducted almost entirely in Korean, was a step toward educating Korean clergy about how to help domestic violence survivors and linking them with local nonprofit service organizations that have the expertise to deal with this issue. The Korean American church can play a vital role in referring abused and battered women to outside resources that can offer assistance and safety, said participants.

“Church is not only important to Koreans for spiritual reasons, it’s a place where they share information, a place of social gathering, so the church plays a really critical role in our Korean society,” said Connie Chung, the executive director of KFAM. “Clergy are the first responders when it comes to Korean domestic violence. Koreans don’t tend to go to counselors or other professional services, [but] instead they share and open their heart to their ministers.”

During the conference, representatives from the Center for the Pacific Asian Family, Home on the Green Pastures and the Legal Aid Foundation led informational sessions that introduced clergy to the services available to survivors, and addressed related legal questions about immigration status and family law issues, since victims’ immigration status may stop them from reporting abuse, for example.

A pastor and former professor at Claremont School of Theology, Dr. Chan-hie Kim said many Los Angeles area clergy are unaware of the resources available to victims, and can be overwhelmed when congregants come to them with such issues. Pastors, he explains, are not counselors in this way, and they need to provide their members with the information necessary to get the help they truly require, outside of the church. He asserts that the protection of victims is a human rights issue.

“Theologically speaking, the church is the place where we should encourage and promote that everybody is the same in the sight of God, and we should really encourage that every human being has the right to live with dignity,” Kim said. “[But] a lot of Christians are confused about forgiveness. … [F]orgiving does not correct wrongs done to any individual; justice means everybody has that equality and dignity. Sometimes forgiveness [is] used as a means of covering up, instead. ‘Let’s not talk about it, let’s forget it.’ But that does not heal the community.”

Indeed, a 1999 study carried out by the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence found that 29 percent of Korean respondents said abuse should not be reported.

Chung from KFAM said she hopes that the conference will help lead to victims seeking help, and that local churches will invite organizations like hers to hold informational sessions for clergy.

As Dr. Lee said in his opening address, while faith has its place, when it comes to domestic violence, “prayer is not enough,” and that there must be changes in attitudes towards victims.

“The church needs to be a sanctuary for victims,” Lee said. “The church has to be a place of helping, healing and hope.”