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    Saturday, November 26, 2022

    From Korea to Egypt to Vermont, pastor lands at Gales Ferry church

    Pastor Yunki Kim poses with portraits of former pastors of the United Methodist Church of Gales Ferry Friday, September 30, 2022. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Pastor Yunki Kim of the United Methodist Church of Gales Ferry Friday, September 30, 2022. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Ledyard ― Through his childhood and into young adulthood, Yunki Kim identified how society labeled him: He was a Korean immigrant living in Egypt, the pastor’s kid, the one going to a nice college. But that changed when he was doing the two years of military service mandated in Korea and he was assigned to assist the chaplain, counseling soldiers.

    “That’s when I really got to hear the diverse stories of where these folks were coming from, so that was a life-changing experience for me,” Kim said.

    But it would hardly be the last time that Kim reflected and reassessed. Going to the Boston University School of Theology gave him “theological direction of who I’m going to be as a pastor,” which was as someone who is more progressive and “yearning for a more inclusive way of being a church.”

    It’s a mindset that Kim, 39, has brought with him to his new role as pastor at the United Methodist Church of Gales Ferry. He started July 1 and lives in the parsonage with his wife, Hyoeun Song, and kids Noah and Zoey, 9 and 5. Dan Reilly, lay leader of the United Methodist Church of Gales Ferry, said this is the first time since the 1970s that the parsonage has had elementary-aged children.

    “He jumped right in and he’s providing a great new vision for us on a lot of things,” Reilly said, adding that Kim is singing with the choir and Song is ringing handbells. He said Kim is relatable, has good personal stories, and is easy to listen to.

    “It’s nice to have someone with a diverse set of tools, and a diverse background, to lead the congregation in a way that makes sense to him and to us,” organist Jake Troy said, adding that Kim “has quickly adapted himself to our love of music, and making sure that he is using that to his advantage when reaching out to the congregation and the wider community.”

    Kim said there are about 75 people in attendance on Sundays and 15 tuning in online, and Sunday school just started back up for children and adults. He praised the strong music ministry at the church.

    His sermons have been more introductory so far, with the message that “the blessing that we have is we have each other, and we’re going to do it together.”

    He’s still learning about Gales Ferry and Ledyard ― and about the community in relationship to Norwich, Groton and New London ― to know what kind of ministries to offer.

    Kim, who is the first nonwhite pastor of the church, also said he’s interested in learning about the land on which the church sits, about the Native American history.

    His vision for the church is to help everyone experience peace and love regardless of their background, immigration status, gender identity, age, or political views. But on a global level, there’s division within the United Methodist Church over LGBTQ rights.

    In 1972, the General Conference ― a body of representatives that meets every four years ― voted to add the language that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” According to the UMC website, pastors can’t conduct same-sex wedding ceremonies.

    Kim said he hopes the language is changed or removed altogether at the next General Conference in 2024. His dream is for a church where both progressive and traditionalist voices can have space.

    Finding his identity and path to ministry

    Kim was born in Korea but moved to Egypt at age 6, for his father’s work in Cairo as a Methodist church missionary. In a country that is 90% Muslim and about 10% Christians, with most Christians belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church, he was a minority in multiple ways.

    Kim’s parents now live in Korea, while his younger brother lives in Toronto.

    He recalled realizing in middle school that he wanted to do something to build peace among different religions, which became his initial calling into ministry. His “second nudge” about going into ministry came while doing his military service, which Kim completed partway through his studies at Yonsei University in Korea.

    When the Korean church was all Kim knew, he didn’t necessarily think of it as being traditionalist and patriarchal, but that perspective shifted when he was at BU.

    “You just wonder why,” he said. “Why is the church so exclusive, in terms of who gets to serve, who gets to enter, who gets to taste the love of God, and experience the love of God?”

    After seminary, Kim’s first appointment was as associate pastor in Malden, Mass., working with children and youth. His first “solo gig” was at a United Methodist Church in Montpelier, Vermont, where he spent eight years.

    In the United Methodist Church, it’s not the congregation that hires a new pastor, but rather the bishop that appoints one.

    Dan Reilly said in February 2021, the United Methodist Church of Gales Ferry learned that Pastor Tom Bentum was going to be reassigned to a new church and they would get a pastor last July. But he said that pastor had some personal issues with his family and ended up not coming.

    “In trying to come out of the pandemic and reestablish things and bring people back to church that weren’t going before, it was a rough time for us to not have a permanent pastoral appointment,” Reilly said. But the church was fortunate to have a retired pastor in the congregation, and so Frank Denton served as interim pastor until Kim’s appointment started July 1.

    Rev. Gale Williamson was pastor at the church for 20 years, from 1969 to 1989, but Reilly said it’s more common for a pastor to be a church for 5 to 8 years. Kim doesn’t know how long he’ll be here.

    “I’m kind of looking forward to what God has in me, in this journey, in this Gales Ferry community, beyond the congregation,” he said. The “most important thing for me is I’m here, I’m present and I want to be present in people’s lives.”

    e.moser@theday.com

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