When Rev. Young-Mee Park moved to Oak Park last Monday, she brought 16 boxes of books with her.
Her Bibles and academic works now pepper the shelves at First United Methodist Church of Oak Park. Park hopes the wisdom in these books (which are in Chinese, Greek, German, Latin, French, English and her native language, Korean), along with her own experiences and stories, will inspire her parish.
The first woman and the first non-Caucasian minister to appear on the pulpit of First United Methodist, 324 N. Oak Park Ave., Park has come to Oak Park all the way from Taejon, Korea. Her appointment, which officially takes place on Sunday, July 10, is part of the church’s plan to revitalize and renew the parish.
“It’s a big change, maybe a shock, but I didn’t hear about anybody having a heart attack,” Park said.
A former linguist, Park is a scholar by nature. When she prepares for a sermon, she reads the Bible passages about a month beforehand, researches the verses and rewrites several drafts of the sermon until it lives up to her standards. “I sleep with it, I live with it, I research it,” Park said. “It is not an easy job, finding renewing and refreshing words for my community.”
Community service, which can be as tangible as tsunami relief money or as simple as listening, is also at the top of Park’s priority list for her new parish. “It is my hope that this church will serve not only its people in this community but throughout the world,” Park said.
“She isn’t ashamed of the Gospel, the power of God and salvation,” said Bernie Fillmore, a church member.
“I think she’s great,” said Judy Eckberg, another parishioner. “She’s got a wonderful one-to-one rapport. We were looking for someone to put a new spark in our congregation.”
Park’s appointment makes the Oak Park and River Forest district one of the most diverse Methodist districts in the state, according to Marti Scott, the district superintendent of the North and Northwest side of Chicago. Now, four out of five of the Methodist ministers in the area are women.
The district created a profile of the church, talked with the minister candidates and matched the church with the candidate, Scott said. “Rev. Park is just a stellar human being and we’re just looking forward to what she’ll bring to First United Methodist Church in Oak Park,” she said.
A journey of faith
Park has come a long way. Being a pastor in Oak Park is her second life?#34;she spent seven years in university and 10 years as a linguistics teacher in Korea before she turned to religion.
Because she is a woman, she would not have been ordained had she stayed in Korea, Park said. “[Korea] is a very paternal society and culture,” said Park. “I think my parents never told me there were things I couldn’t do because I was a girl.”
Park wasn’t always dedicated to religion. As a little girl, church was a “habit,” although her mother was fiercely religious. “God was just some abstract being high in the sky,” Park said.
Her views changed as she moved into adolescence. As she watched her mother struggle with advanced tuberculosis and saw her father fight a stroke and paralysis, Park prayed for proof of God’s existence. Eventually God answered her prayers and came into her life, through a “mysterious experience” Park still cannot explain.
As she moved into adulthood, she still couldn’t quiet her questions about God. She didn’t understand why God allowed injustice and discrimination in the world. She wondered why some people must live on minimum wage, why the man gets the job when a man and a woman with equal qualifications apply, why the government could not care for its people.
Finally, Park decided to answer her questions. She found her way to Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern University in 2000?#34;moving continents in the process.
When Park first entered the seminary, she wasn’t planning to become a minister. But she quickly changed her mind. “As I struggled with those questions I had this tremendous sense of freedom,” Park said. “I found the beauty and power of the language we use when we talk about God and I just wanted to share that.”
She concluded that God was also frustrated at injustice and discrimination. “I found out that God was not just a miracle worker,” she said. “God works miracles through you.”
And now that she is a pastor, she is in a position to work some of her own miracles, as she found at her first parish in Dixon, Ill. “I experience a tremendous sense of joy and peace being a pastor,” Park says. “I think that is the proof that you are called to be a minister.”
Pursuing ministry hasn’t been easy for Park. Her job means that her family is scattered across two countries. Her husband, Sang-Hyeon Yoo, only lives in America for two months of the year, because of his job as a scholar at a university in Seoul, while Park lives in Oak Park with her two sons, Ihwan, 15, and Eunhwan, 12.
Oak Park and River Forest have quite a diverse group of Methodist ministers. With the addition of Young-Mee Park, women are in the clear four-out-of-five majority among area Methodist churches. Park’s diverse colleagues include Kathy Reeves, who is African American and legally blind, and Romir Esquerra, who is Filipino.
More female pastors are being ordained, said Marti Scott, the district superintendent for the Methodist churches in north and northwest Chicago. Over half of the women in the seminary are now women, and the proportion of female ministers in churches is approaching 50-50, Scott said.
“We weren’t trying to put women in Oak Park,” she said. “It just turned out that in each of those situations the best qualified person available was a woman.”
The situation in Oak Park and River Forest fits the United Methodist Church’s motto of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors,” said Scott.
But being a woman or being another race means running up against extra obstacles, according to area ministers.
When Kathy Reeves arrived at Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church, 405 S. Euclid Ave., some people had difficulty with having an African-American woman pastor, she said. Some even left the parish.
“It’s a false perception that many inclusive communities have that they have arrived,” said Reeves. “We’ve never arrived. There are always opportunities to access other cultures.”
Now, it’s more subtle, she said. She has had people come up to her and say they prefer male pastors. “Sometimes I wish they would be a little more open,” she said. Char Hoffman, minister of River Forest United Methodist, 7970 Lake St., says that although the Oak Park and River Forest area has been very accepting of her and she enjoys working with the other female pastors in her church cluster, being a female pastor is not always easy. But she has figured out the perfect comeback for the inevitable, “I don’t believe in lady pastors.”
Her response? “Well, I don’t believe in lady pastors either. I believe in Jesus Christ.”