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Called to Organize — Alum NaYoung Ha

The newest McCormick t-shirt bears the slogan, “Don’t just read about it, be about it.” The seminary takes great pride in training and guiding faith leaders who do just that – step outside of the academy and take ministry to the streets, to government, to organizations, and to the people. Rev. NaYoung Ha (MDiv ‘04) discerned her call to community organizing and immigration reform advocacy while at McCormick, and is now a prominent figure in Chicago’s thriving advocacy community

Like many seminarians, NaYoung Ha entered McCormick with a very different idea of where theological education would take her, namely parish ministry. “I thought that being a pastor would be the best way to follow God’s call on my life,” Nayoung says. I wanted to challenge and support the Korean American Christian community, to guide them in true discipleship in this world, which means advocating for social justice. I thought that being a pastor of a church was the most logical career path for this work.” But after working for Korean American congregations doing children and family ministry for several years, NaYoung felt that God was calling her to a different ministry path. She was increasingly unsettled by the tendency of her congregation to focus inward, emphasizing individual spiritual development over community outreach and advocacy. This imbalance of mission and community service frustrated her, as did the patterns of different congregations to buy into the “model minority” myth that has stereotyped the Asian-American community. Increasingly, NaYoung felt pulled to an alternative kind of ministry, one that focused more on advocacy and outreach.

Immigration reform became the issue that NaYoung felt most passionate about, and the issue that she felt had the greatest relevance for the Korean congregations she served. “We have a lot of immigrants, documented and undocumented, in our congregations,” she says. “Although many of our churches have working partnerships with social service providers, they don’t often work with civic engagement organizations or political campaigns.” NaYoung felt that political engagement with immigration reform initiatives was an obvious way to involve Korean American congregations in social justice advocacy work, a view that the Korean American Resource Cultural Center (KRCC) also shared. Their partnership was inevitable. “KRCC wanted someone who could bridge the divide between Korean congregation’s sense of mission and political advocacy,” said NaYoung. “The church is the center of social life for Korean-American communities, so it’s very important that immigration reform campaigns tap into our congregations in order to educate and empower our community.”

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KRCC youth protesting Gov. Rauner’s proposed budget cuts

NaYoung joined the Korean American Resource Cultural Center as a congregational organizer, building bridges between Korean-American congregations and other marginalized communities. The KRCC is the leading organization for Asian- and Arab-American populations Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) registration initiatives. The organization works with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) to provide services for undocumented youth and their families.

Over the past year, NaYoung has helped organize voter registration and education events at several Korean congregations so that church members know the different issues on the ballot. She has helped KCRR develop and implement DACA outreach initiatives with Korean congregations, and provide services to DACA-eligible youth in the Korean-American Christian community. She sits in prayer meetings with Korean pastors, develops educational curriculum for faith communities around immigration reform and the DACA program, and has helped KRCC immigrant youth produce a documentary about their experiences as undocumented immigrants. NaYoung’s work has paid off, many Korean-American congregations are now involved in DACA advocacy and services, creating scholarships for applicants (it costs $465 to apply for DACA status), and supporting recipients of DACA status in finding jobs and applying to colleges.

In the summer of 2015, NaYoung was ordained by the Presbytery of Chicago to continue her ministry in community organizing with congregations, affirming her call to serve God and the people through social justice advocacy. “I’ve always felt called to serve the underprivileged, to empower people to find and use their voice, and to proclaim God’s Word to the world,” says NaYoung. She, like many McCormick alumni, has found that the definition and call to ministry is much broader than the Sunday morning pulpit.

977250_518078711582638_1623798307_oRev. NaYoung Ha currently serves as the organizing director for the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center in Chicago, overseeing KRCC’s Immigrant Rights and Civic Engagement programs. She is also a PhD student at the Lutheran School of the Theology in Chicago, focusing on post-colonial feminist theology. You can read more about a trip she organized with seminary students to Ferguson in 2014 here.