By Sharon Mager, BCM/D Correspondent
COLUMBIA, Md.—A Buddhist woman from South Korea, moved to a small town in Peoria, Ill., where a community of Koreans regularly gathered to enjoy each others’ fellowship. A traveling pastor sat down next to her. He looked around at this ethnic gathering, turned to the woman and said, “I think there needs to be a Korean Christian church here.”
“I agree,” she replied. That woman, Sarah Choi, as a Buddhist, helped the Korean Pastor plant a Christian church. In the process, she made a profession of faith in Jesus. The church, Korean Presbyterian Church of Peoria, still stands today. It’s where Maryland church planter and author Joseph Choi first learned about Jesus.
Choi laughs when he thinks back about his mother’s decision. In response to her agreement to help plant a Christian church, Sarah said, “I don’t know why I said that. I felt convicted. I needed to plant this Christian church.”
“I have my mother’s blood in me,” said Choi, who planted New Beginnings Community Church, a second generation Asian American congregation that meets at Burtonsville Baptist Church.
Choi had a life changing encounter with God while at a church retreat in Colorado with a friend. It was Choi’s first experience with Korean prayers. Over 100 people were praying aloud. Choi was at first intimidated. He was used to his American friends who prayed silently. But then he began to pour his heart out to God.
“I grew up without a father, so there was always something missing in my heart. I told God about my emptiness, how I was searching for a male role model, and I asked God if He would be my male role model.”
Afterwards, Choi asked his friend what had happened. “You accepted Christ,” his friend answered.
“So, at age 17, I began my journey,” Choi said.
Choi and his family came to the United States in 1975. He grew up in a family that was masterful in martial arts. Three brothers won national martial arts championships in Korea and in the United States.
It was a natural for him to open a martial arts studio in Colorado. “I had no choice,” he said with an easy laugh. He prayerfully made a ten-year commitment to God to work with the studio. It was during that time that God called him to go to seminary.
“I said, ‘No, not me! I’m a martial arts instructor! I’m expanding my business,’ but the conviction was strong. I talked with my wife, Jackie, and said, ‘Honey, I think God wants me to go to seminary. She was puzzled and said, ‘God didn’t call me to be a pastor’s wife…’”
Choi assured Jackie that he would only go to seminary if God confirmed the decision through her. “A week later, she said, ‘God wants you to go.’”
Joseph Choi began attending Golden Gate Seminary in Denver. He also began ministering as an English ministry pastor for a Korean Church, and he was managing the studio at the same time. The ten-year commitment was coming to an end, and Choi needed to make a decision.
“I had one foot in ministry and one foot in the business world,” he said. “I prayed, ‘Lord, give me a clear vision. Do you want me to continue with the business and be an English ministry pastor or do you want me to commit to full time ministry?” Choi’s choice came in an unexpected manner.
In 2006, Choi discovered that one of his staff members suffered from a gambling addiction and had embezzled around $100,000.
“I lost it. It was midnight, and I was in a church parking lot and I was just crying for two hours. I said, ‘Lord, how can you do this to me? How as a father, do I look at my children and say, ‘Sorry, we have no food for you today?’ I was yelling at God. During that time, He was saying to me, ‘Are you willing to trust me?’ Even if you lose your identity, will you hold on to my identity of who you are in Christ?’
“I preached about trusting, and now I had to live it. Either I had to believe there is a true and living God, and He will literally provide for our family every step of the way, or I had to take this mess and try to take care of it myself.
“God was speaking to my heart. I said, ‘Okay Lord, I give up. I will trust you literally and completely.’”
The next step was telling Jackie. Choi wasn’t sure how she would react.
“She said, ‘You know what, Honey? Even if all five of us have to be in a small apartment, I’m here for you, and I want to support you.’”
God began providing funds in a variety of miraculous ways. The family continued to give to the church, and they received checks for double the amounts they gave. At a prayer conference, the Chois met an older couple. While Choi and the gentlemen shook hands, Choi felt paper. The older man slipped a check for a large amount of money to Choi. Choi at first told the man he couldn’t take the money, the older couple didn’t even know the Choi family, but the man replied, “If you don’t take this money we will be in disobedience to the Holy Spirit.”
“I thought, ‘How does he know our situation?’” Choi said.
“We lost our business, we had no money for the mortgage payment, we lost our house, and we had nowhere to go.”
Three hours before they were ready to move out of their home, a friend of Jackie’s called and offered the Chois an opportunity to stay in a house in Maryland. “We stuffed everything in the car and drove off. We trusted God.”
The couple began attending a large multicultural church. Though the church had 2,500 members, Jackie, who grew up in Maryland, recognized someone she knew the first week they were there. The couples met and through discussion, Choi was told that this church was looking for an Asian pastor.
God brought it all together quickly. Choi was hired as a minister in September of 2007.
Then in 2010, a first generation Korean pastor approached Choi and told him about a vision for a next generation Asian American church. Choi responded. “Until God clearly shows me the vision, this partnership will not work. Two pastors with two different visions and ministry philosophy will not work, even with the right intentions,” Choi stated. During this time, Choi met with the small group of mostly first generation Koreans and preached in Korean and prayed to seek God’s direction.
“I was very surprised that they understood my Korean message. I came at a young age and lived in Caucasian dominated areas, so I had lost much of my Korean language. The fact that they could understand and even be moved by my Korean message was a surprise for me,“ Choi commented. He prayed, telling God, since Choi was new to Maryland, if God wanted him to start a church, He was going to have to provide the people for this church plant.
God brought two intercessors. Choi did not take a salary as the planter, leaving funds for a youth director. God provided a youth director. A friend called and said they had a children’s director, and even the funding for that person. A praise team came to the church. God provided all of the needs. The church has grown to about 25 people in a short period.
Choi then asked God, how he was going to survive and God said, “Go write a book.” Choi said once again, God provided all his needs. With no money, and no idea how to write a book, God directed Choi to an author who had written some books. This author helped Choi start the first book. He then needed an editor. God brought an editor, now a publishing company partner, who helped co-author the first book “New Beginning: I’ve accepted Christ – now what?” and edited the second book “Hiring An English Ministry Pastor & Beyond in an Asian American Church Context.” Currently, JnJ Publishing is working on their third book, “Real People, Real Suffering, Real Victory.” God truly took part by bringing in a cover designer, who volunteered her services. Choi later paid her from book sales.
“I’m starting to see that there’s a reason why God brought me to Maryland,” Choi said.
He is continuing to minister at the multicultural church till the end of June 2012. Choi said he does not know where the financial support will come from, but he knows God is leading him and has been opening the doors where he wants Choi to follow. He’s walking on faith and prayer.