The ICAS Lectures

No. 2003-0509-CGH

Pilgrimage or Self-preservation:
Korean Churches in the U.S. as Transitional Objects

Chang-Gyu Hahn

ICAS Summer Symposium
August 9, 2003 10:00 AM -- 5:30 PM
Montgomery County Community College
Science Center Room 214
340 DeKalb Pike
Blue Bell, PA 19422

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

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Biographic Sketch & Links: Chang-Gyu Hahn

Pilgrimage or Self-preservation:
Korean Churches in the U.S. as Transitional Objects

Chang-Gyu Hahn, M.D., Ph.D.

Since the abolition of the National Origins Act in 1965, there had been a surge of Korean Immigration, which led to the increasing number of Korean Churches throughout the U.S. Studies have shown that Korean Christians are intensely involved in church activities, devoting a greater proportion of their financial resources and time to their church than the congregants of other ethnic churches. In contrast, it was well documented that first generation Korean American (K-A) Christians are "least involved" in the communities and "less giving" to those in need outside their churches. The dualistic nature in the social commitment of K-A Christians has been identified by many scholars and has been termed as "In-group commitment and out-group indifference".

Various perspectives have been considered as to why K-A Christians exhibit the "In-group commitment and out-group indifference" and yet a comprehensive picture of the issue is far from complete. In this manuscript, we propose that the separation/individuation psychodynamic plays a crucial role in forming K-Así intense church involvement and social disengagement. Mahler and others have observed that the separation/individuation, starting from the early childhood, is a crucial developmental task towards the individuality. Furthermore, their experiences during the developmental phases of the separation/individuation may influence their coping mechanism of future life events. The separation/individuation dynamic also appears to be important during immigration process. Psychoanalytic scholars have suggested that the assimilation/and or acculturation process of the individual can be influenced by how he dealt with the separation/individuation issue.

The way in which the developmental challenge of separation/individuation is experienced in the Korean upbringing is somewhat different from that of Western culture. In psychoanalytic theories based on Western upbringing, separation from the mother is seen as a major challenge to the child and the impetus for growth and eventually individuation. In Korean culture, however, separation is still an important developmental challenge to the child, but the individuation process is somewhat different in that they tend to maintain a strong connectedness to the parental figure. Immigration, as another challenge to the separation/individuation dynamic of the individual, reactivates his previous coping mechanisms in Koreans. Thus, Koreans tend to want to remain connected with their motherland and look for an object through which they could do so.

During the early development, a child uses a "transitional object", (the term coined by Winnicott), that is a physical representation of the need to be connected during the process of separation. In Korean culture, the transitional object still appears to be crucial during the child development. Korean Churches in this country can be seen as a transitional object that Korean immigrants needed during the separation in the process of immigration. The intensity in their church involvement for Koreans in the U.S., thus, can reflect the profound nature of the separation anxiety that Koreans experience during immigration.

Within the K-A Christian community, the rapid proliferation of Korean churches and K-Así intense involvement has been interpreted as Godís special calling on Koreans for worldwide evangelism. In that theological vision, the immigration to the U.S. is a pilgrimage for Koreans. The inwardness and the lack of interest in outside communities of the K-A churches, however, do not support this theological interpretation. Instead, a psychodynamic understanding of church behaviors of Koreans suggests that their intense religious involvement may be a reaction to the separation anxiety associated with immigration. Furthermore, we propose that the Korean churches have been a transitional object to which they experience intense attachment. Such collective behaviors may be seen as conscious or unconscious efforts of self-preservation, not as a sign of being on a pilgrimage, unless the K-A church community is more properly guided by the church leaderships, which play roles of surrogate parents for Korean Immigrants in the psychodynamic formulation.

This page last updated 1/14/2004 jdb

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