Mt. Morris Twp. Mich— Reverend Hakbae Moon stood tall on his pulpit with a smile plastered across his face as a small crowd of about 40 congregants looked back at him. In the middle of his sermon commemorating the 41st anniversary of the church, Moon announced to his congregation it was time for the church to grow.
“For our first 40 years, that was the time for us to become something new. Now, there is a new chapter, a new block and I want to start with new goals…. To commemorate this 41st anniversary I challenge you to this. We have grown into a fruit and now have to ask how can we become a seed and spread our gospel into the community rather than being just a good fruit…. Why don’t we plant ourselves into the Flint community?” Moon said.
Moon’s challenge to his congregation was one he had planned on making since his first visit to Flint. After 40 years of “surviving” as Moon put it, he felt it was time for the church to do more. Though it now sits in Mt. Morris, the Unity Presbyterian Church of Flint was originally located on Van Slyke Road on the border of Flint Township and the City of Flint.
According to a census taken by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, there were approximately 9521 religious congregations in Michigan in 2010. The Unity Presbyterian Church of Flint was just one of them. Unlike virtually all of the other congregations in the state, however, the Unity Church has spent the last four decades catering specifically to Michigan’s Korean population.
The Unity Church is one of only 20 or so Korean churches in the state. More specifically it is one of only 2 Korean churches that are both north of I-69, with the second being the Michigan Nanum Presbyterian Church in Saginaw.
Over its 41-year-long existence, the Unity Church became a community center, if not a cultural and religious haven, for Korean people living in cities as far away as Gaylord and Ann Arbor, with some members attending regularly through Zoom in Minnesota and Georgia.
Standing at the pulpit with his daughter Jihyeon Moon, who provided a real-time English translation to his words, Moon touched on the importance of growth, evolution and the need to invest in the surrounding communities.
In 2018, following the resignation of the Unity Church’s pastor, Hakbae, who at the time served in Anniston, Alabama, was invited to guest speak at a three-day-long revival service.
“At that time in April 2018, he (an interim pastor) led me to downtown Flint and we drove northbound and as you know, that is ruined, that area is was ruined. At the time, I was shocked. Even though I research the area of Flint and their water problems, the education going down, the crime ratings increase. And so I had heard it already but I thought it was like a movie set, it was very disaster.
Hakbae was touched by what he saw during his time in Flint. He said around that time he had a dream of helping rebuild the city and of becoming part of the community.
Back on the pulpit, Hakbae continued with his sermon where he acknowledged his vision for the future of the church and its relationship with Flint. He told the church congregants that they and their friends and family before them had put in the time necessary for the church to establish itself and that now, it was time to “plant a new seed and to love and serve in a new place.”
It won’t be easy, Hakbae said. The Asian population in Michigan is small as it is, making up about 3.4% of the state’s entire populace. The numbers only get smaller as according to the U.S Census Bureau, Genesee county is approximately 1% Asian. Koreans counted as a subset of this demographic make up just a fraction of that one percent.
Many of the church’s congregants as well as members of the already minuscule Korean community in the area are not fluent English-speakers. Though some have owned businesses in the city for years, they don’t live inside Flint itself.
Jihyeon, a recent Grand Blanc High School graduate, said that in her experience, she found Flint and its surrounding areas to be welcoming to Koreans but that the lack of a Korean population makes it hard to celebrate or experience the culture.
“Compared to urban places where there are K-Towns and a developed sense of culture and community, Flint is harder to live in. Flint doesn’t have that many Korean people living here so it has not really grown to be that accommodating,” Jihyeon said.
She went on to say that the Unity Church for her, was the one place besides her home where she could experience Korean culture.
“Our mindset sometimes, it is wrong,” said Hakbae in reference to the obstacles faced by Koreans living in the Flint area. “We say we cannot join the mainstream and we cannot do anything about it.… I think that is why we have not involved within the community,” Hakbae said.
Recently though, Hakbae said there has been a shift in the way Koreans in the Flint area view the city. The best way he could explain it is that there was a collective “calling from God.”
“We have received a calling to love and serve this community and to help rebuild. We want to deeply engage with the Clio community but also Flint. We have small budget, small number of people and as the city has shrunken so have we but now, we have hit a bottom and we are rising.… Flint is rising too and we want to help.”