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Three church leaders share common history

5/5/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: This report may be used as a sidebar to UMNS story #260. A photograph is available.

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

HONOLULU (UMNS) - Jo Ann Yoon Fukumoto, Kathleen A. Thomas-Sano and Colleen Kyung Seen Chun are three strong United Methodist women with a common history.

They are descendants of the first Korean immigrants to Hawaii. Their grandmothers were "picture brides" - women who sailed from Korea to Hawaii to marry Korean immigrants.

Fukumoto serves as co-chairperson of the California-Pacific Annual Conference Committee. Thomas-Sano is a staff executive at the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, Washington. Chun is the first ordained woman of Asian descent in the United Methodist Church and pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Pearl City, Hawaii.

When they get together, there is a lot of laughter and shared memories.

"My family ate steak with rice and kimchee," Chun says. "And as a teenager, yes, I wore scotch tape on my eyelids so that my eyes would look, as we called it, 'double.' After all, our goal was to look like Shelley Fabrey … you know, the daughter in the 'Donna Reed' show. In the back of my mind, I knew I was Korean … genetics run very deep, but my identity was a hodge-podge uniquely reflective of Hawaii."

Thomas-Sano's father is Irish-Welsh and her mother is Korean. Her maternal grandmother was a picture-bride and instilled Korean pride in a young Kathleen.

"My grandmother used to spend six months with us, and she shared a bedroom with me," Thomas-Sano recalls. "I probably looked least Korean of all the grandchildren, and she used to tell me that I should be proud to be Korean. In her broken English and Korean, she would try to explain to me my history."

Thomas-Sano says she really didn't experience racism until she went to the United States.

"I identify more with Asian Americans; I was not raised in the white world," she says. She is the first Korean-American elected staff in any of the agencies of the church.

Fukumoto's grandmother was an 18-year-old bride who married a 38-year-old stranger when she arrived in Hawaii.

"My grandmother told me the story of her mother taking her to the boat to come to Hawaii," she says. "She gave my grandmother a picture of her future husband and said 'Don't look at it until you are far away and can't see me or see the land.'"

When her grandmother looked at the picture of a balding, older man who was to become her husband, she cried and cried, Fukumoto says.

"Quite a few of the young women jumped ship or killed themselves after they got here. My grandmother weathered the storm on the boat and on land. She had six children, and they were all Methodist."

Chun tells the story of learning about her heritage when she was a first-grader at Kaiulani Elementary School.

"One of my classmates asked me what I was. I must have been ahead of the times because I thought she was having some gender confusion about me, so I stated emphatically that I was a girl."

That answer was not what her friend wanted. She was asking if Chun was Japanese or Chinese.

Not really knowing, Chun answered "both." The answer seemed to satisfy her playmate and they played for the rest of the day.

When her mother got home that night, she asked her, "What am I?" Her mother told her she was Korean.

"The next day I told my new friend, 'I'm not Japanese and I'm not Chinese. I'm Korean.'
She looked at me as if I had a contemptible disease, and said, 'I should have known. Koreans are all liars.'

"From that day, feelings about my ethnicity have been clouded with ignorance and embarrassment," she says.

Both her grandmothers were picture-brides from Korea. Her paternal grandfather was a laborer in the sugar cane fields on the Big Island. Her maternal grandfather worked for the city of Honolulu. She recalled how her paternal grandmother worked in the cane fields, accompanied by her young children who were either carried on her back or tethered to her with a rope.

"This rich heritage of courage and faith should be something to celebrate," she said. "Words from a silly 6-year-old should not diminish that pride."

Chun preached at one of the worship services during the April 24-27 United Methodist Centennial Celebration for Korean American Mission in America.

"God has made so many things possible for me," she said. "I am chagrined to know that I am the first Korean-American woman ordained in the United Methodist Church in America. I know I have been the first woman appointed to many churches. I was the first clergy appointed for the English-language ministries of Christ United Methodist Church. I'm sure I was the first Korean-American woman appointed to an inner-city black church. And I am the first single clergywoman in our conference to adopt three children all at once.

"When I look at the story of my life, I know that I witness the sheer possibilities that are given by God," she says. "Indeed, everything is possible with God."

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*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer.

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