This May Daniel Kim graduates from Fuller Seminary in Pasadena Ca and will officially become a pastor after a brush with suicide, and despite his mother's warning, "don't ever go to church."
"Ten-hut. Troops, let's go. Left, right, left, right," commands the squad leader. This is not a military exercise. It's Friday night at Pasadena Presbyterian Church, and the troops are 6 to 12-year-olds in Daniel Kim's youth group.
Kim, stands 6 feet 4 inches tall, towering above the kids. He is smiling, as he alternately lifts his lanky legs, marching in unison with the children. "At ease," says his co-leader. Kim takes a seat in a tiny plastic chair alongside the 15 kids who giggle as they sit down in neat rows.
Friday Night youth group at Pasadena Presbyterian Church
Dr. Seuss books adorn the shelves, painted in orange, green and yellow. There are lots of comic books illustrating stories of the Bible. There is a flat-screen TV centered on a long wall, and Kim and the kids are gearing up to watch a video about having the courage to follow God.
"I want to make church a playground," says Kim, who is just months away from finishing a master's in divinity at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA. His journey to ministry has included a brush with suicide, a long-distance romance and the struggle to find himself. Now, he has one more hurdle to go. He must return to Korea and tell his mother he has become the one thing she objected to–a Christian.
Defying his mother was never the plan. For most of his life, Kim kept a promise he made to his mother, to never go to church. His mother, who still practices the ancient religion of Shamanism in Korea, knew that if her son ever became a Christian, he would not carry out traditional Shaman rituals and pray to their ancestors.
So, four years ago, when Kim came to the United States he had his mother's blessing. His plan was simple. "I was living in San Francisco, studying for the Graduate Management Admission Test, and my goal was to get into business school," says Kim.
But six months in, Kim's mother called. His father died unexpectedly. Kim arrived just in time for the funeral.
"They had the funeral service for my dad, but I did not know how my dad passed away," says Kim. The following day, a cousin told him his father had taken his own life.
Now, Kim reflects that his mother, in Shaman tradition, was trying to protect him by not revealing that his father died by suicide. "The Shamanistic practices are a lot about keeping a family healthy and safe," says Korean folklore and Korean popular religion expert, Timothy Tangherlini, at University of California at Berkeley. Kim's father was a Buddhist, and in both the Shaman and Buddhist religions, suicide is shameful, according to Tangherlini.
After the secret of his father's death was revealed, Kim says he lost his dreams, his hopes, everything. He went back to San Francisco, but he says he lived without purpose. "My life was like hell. One day, I tried to kill myself. It was 2 a.m. I went on top of the building. I thought, if I jump down I will be peaceful and happy," says Kim. He vividly recalls getting ready to jump. But, he says, he pictured his mother and he could not go through with it. "I realized, I did not want to die. When I saw my mom's face and my sister's face, it made me sad."
Daniel Kim is a candidate for his masters of divinity, in his last year at Fuller Seminary.
"Everything in Korea is about harmony. If there is disharmony you have a challenge. In Korea, there is a strong community prescription against suicide, because it disrupts social networks that support the community, " says Tangherlini.
As the child of a Shaman-practicing mother and Buddhist father, Kim says he was never introduced to the Bible, nor to any religion. That absence separated him from others, he says.
A deep need for community led him to a Korean church in San Francisco. "I really wanted to know who God is," says Kim. He went to a Bible study. He had so many questions that the pastor suggested that Kim go to seminary. Three years later, Kim took that advice.
A New Beginning
"Daniel's laugh is so infectious. He has the best laugh," says PJ Johnson, a classmate of Kim's at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA.
Johnson, who is African American, and Kim bonded as minorities in the predominantly white institution, Johnson says. "I approached Daniel to run with me for All Student Council co-president. "I knew I couldn't do it by myself and everyone loves Daniel," she says.
"Koreans are the largest group of international students at Fuller," according to Jenny Pak, a professor of psychology. Students are mostly training to become Evangelical Christian leaders.
PJ Johnson and Daniel Kim campaign photo for All Student Council co-presidents
Kim says he only agreed to run for office because he expected to lose. But given the large number of the international students with shared-concerns, the pair won. Together, they created music open mic nights, pizza parties and leveraged support for adjustments in fees for international students, according to Johnson.
"God revealed a plan step by step, little by little. God gave me the vision for my life's work. Korean culture is conservative and kids say church is boring. I want to make church fun. God wants you to be joyful, "says Kim.
Kim is youth pastor for Juha Kim, 12.
Fellow seminarian, Namwoon Kim (no relation) says that Kim adds to a positive environment at Fuller. "I met him when I invited him to one of the spiritual formation activities, back in 2015 when Daniel was visiting the campus prior to coming to Fuller," he says. He describes Kim as happy, gregarious and social.
Today, Kim speaks about his most important next step. He must go back to Korea to talk with his mother. "When my father passed away my mom got depressed, so I could not say that I am studying in seminary. I have to tell her face-to-face. I need to explain. Frankly speaking, she thinks I am studying English. In Korea, I will have time with my mom and explain who God is, what the Bible says and why she should believe," says Kim.
He is hopeful about his mother's response to his new life in the Christian faith. He says he has found his purpose at Fuller. He wants young people to enjoy church while learning about God, something that he did not have as a child.
Juha Kim, 12, (no relation) is in Kim's Friday night youth group. She loves to sing and enjoys the group. Her father, also at Fuller, is studying to become a pastor. "I don't have a lot of friends, because most of the families at Fuller go back to Korea after the parents graduate, "she says.
When Kim graduates in May, he says he will likely follow this trend. He sees himself going back to Seoul. He got engaged last fall and although his fiancé lives in San Diego, her home is also in Korea. "I will follow whatever God calls me to do," says Kim.