McCrabb: From a childhood in Korea to a pulpit in Hamilton

When Brian Choi and his family immigrated from Korea to live with his aunt in Dayton, he was 15 years old and had no idea what his future held.

Nearly 20 years later, Choi finds himself leading an aging United Methodist congregation in Hamilton — and if that isn’t challenging enough, he’s dealing with the coronavirus and its impact on his services. He has cancelled church services for at least three Sundays, and is working on platforms to deliver his weekly message.

“We have to figure out how to move forward and create different ways to come together,” he said.

He informed the congregation to transition to “house church mode” and he will provide them materials to conduct services at home with their family. That includes links to worship music, a sermon video, and discussion/reflection questions, he said.

Choi’s appointment six months ago as pastor of Park Avenue United Methodist Church concluded a journey that began in Korea with stops in Dayton, Fairborn, a small town in Kentucky, Cincinnati, Mason and finally Hamilton, 6,722 miles from his birthplace.

“It’s surreal,” Choi said of landing his first pastor job in some placed called Butler County.

He graduated from Fairborn High School in 2004, earned a physics degree from Wright State University in 2011 and his Master of Divinity degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, last year. While studying at Asbury, Brian and his wife, Julie, had two children: Brighton and Johanna, then their youngest child, Havilah, was born 23 months ago in Mason.

He served as youth pastor at Korean Madisonville Methodist Church in Cincinnati, then was contacted by the District Superintendent about a possible appointment in Hamilton. These appointments are decided twice a year, in the summer and winter. During the interview process, the superintendent and the pastoral candidate determine whether it will be a good marriage.

It’s like a dating service for church leadership.

“Both sides have to match,” Choi said. “It’s been a good match. I was a little anxious leading the whole church, but everyone has been very generous and welcoming. We are so loved.”

Choi said Park Avenue, founded in century ago, has “a long history and legacy” and it’s his responsibility to grow the congregation and help the next generation find a church home.

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For the 34-year-old Choi, the biggest hurdle was clearing part of the traditional Korean culture. He said Koreans are taught at an early age to respect their elders and to follow their advice. There are two services at Park Avenue, traditional and contemporary, and combined attendance in about 70. The majority of the congregation is old enough to be his parents or grandparents.

“I have to remind myself that I’m young, but I’m in a leadership position,” he said. “I’m their shepherd and I have to take care of the flock. Have to love and guide them spiritually. It’s an honor and a privilege to stand before people and God.”

He looks forward when the coronavirus has run its course and the pastor can return to his spiritual home, the pulpit.

“I try to be mindful of peoples’ needs and what God wants to say,” he said. “When I’m up there I get a sense of God’s presence and grace. He’s using my voice to deliver this news.”

That’s a large ambition for a kid from Korea.

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