Resources

Religion

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Koreans/Young-Sik Yoo

The vast majority of Korean immigrants to Canada have been Christians because that faith has been second to Buddhism as Korea’s dominant religion. Statistics from 1993 show that among Toronto’s Koreans, 66 percent are Protestant (largely United Church and Presbyterian), 16 percent Roman Catholic, and 4 percent Buddhist, while 14 percent professed no religion. The stress of adapting to a new society appears to have made some new immigrants into churchgoers. Whether or not they had been Christians in Korea, they usually became members of congregations upon their arrival in Canada. Not only could they find comfort among people who spoke the same language, but they were also able to make vital connections, since the churches functioned as information centres. No data are available to explain why so few members of the majority religion of the homeland, Buddhism, remain adherents in the new country, but the phenomenon appears to illustrate the rapid acculturation of Korean immigrants in general.

The first Korean church in Canada was established in 1965 in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church on Jeanne-Mance Street in Montreal, when the Reverend Isim Ro preached a sermon to a congregation of twenty-three members. Two years later, the community in Toronto founded its own church in St Luke’s United Church on Sherbourne Street. About sixty Koreans attended the inaugural service. Roman Catholics observed their first Mass at the Catholic Information Centre in Toronto in 1968. Surveys conducted in 1975 reveal much about the development of religious institutions in the Korean community in Canada. By that year thirteen Protestant churches and one Roman Catholic institution had been established in Toronto to serve a community of some 8,560. Since then the number of Protestant churches has mushroomed. As of 1995, the 40,000 Koreans in the Toronto area supported about 150 Protestant (largely Presbyterian) and two Roman Catholic churches, as well as four Buddhist temples and thirteen other religious organizations, such as kidowon (prayer houses).

In Montreal in 1975 there was one Korean Presbyterian church to serve the province’s 602 immigrants. Eighteen years later, the number of churches had increased to nine, one of which was Roman Catholic. In Vancouver three Protestant churches and one Roman Catholic institution ministered to 1,592 Korean residents in 1975; by the early 1990s there were thirty-four Protestant (primarily Presbyterian) churches, one Roman Catholic place of worship, and a Buddhist temple. By that time there were over two hundred Korean ministers in the Toronto area alone, many of them unemployed. As a result, there has been strong competition among ministers and members of individual congregations to attract new members. Recent immigrants are particularly sought after.

Korean Christians take their faith and their stewardship responsibilities seriously. Those who immigrated to Canada have found themselves relegated to a minority status with no real standing in Canadian society, an experience that has been highly traumatic for many who belonged to the upper classes in the homeland. Recognition of class status has been obtainable only within the structure of their own churches. As a result, an undercurrent of class difference among congregation members has exerted a powerful influence over both the church and the lives of the people themselves. Moreover, maintaining the younger generation’s involvement in church affairs has been crucial, since the churches are practically the only places where traditional Korean values and those of the new Canadian society can coexist under one roof.

While churches provide guidance for newcomers, they also tend to promote ethnic homogeneity, thus isolating the Korean community from the larger society. The ritual activities of the religious institutions – Protestant and Catholic churches and Buddhist temples – are characterized by the lifestyle of the homeland and the use of the Korean language, thus creating a cultural ghetto for their members. The attitude of ministers towards adopting the culture of the host country and serving second-generation Korean Canadians has also created problems. Many of these individuals were educated in Korea a number of years ago, and some may not have received any formal theological training.