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Korean congregation serves Hispanic/Latino 'street angels'

Dec. 13, 2006

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A UMNS photo by James Melchiorre

The Street Angels program provides dinner to about 30 Hispanic day laborers in Englewood, N.J.

By James Melchiorre*

ENGLEWOOD, N.J. (UMNS) ? Steve Chung would drive past the day laborers lined up on the streets of Palisades Park, N.J., each day, a Bible verse from the Gospel of Matthew constantly on his mind.

"Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me," is how Chung recalls the words.

"That Bible verse kept pounding my heart."

An immigrant from Korea, Chung felt a kinship with the Latino immigrant workers.

"I didn't know what to do," he admits, "so I keep praying for 100 days. And when I prayed, God gave me the idea that they're all angels."

Soon afterward, Street Angels was born.

Chung coordinates the program at the Korean Community Church of New Jersey, a United Methodist congregation in Englewood, just across the Hudson River from New York City.

Every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evening, two church vans roll through the streets of Englewood and Palisades Park, picking up anywhere from 15 to 30 day laborers, predominantly men. Most range in age from 25 to 35 years old, and 80 percent are natives of Guatemala.

Back at the church, the guests enjoy a hot meal prepared by congregation members. Next, Luz Cadavid, a native of Colombia who has worked for years in New Jersey as a barber, leads a Bible study in Spanish. Then, the students move into classrooms for practical job-training in air-conditioner repair, electronics, construction, refrigeration or computers.

"We can understand better other immigrants because we are immigrants," Chung says, laughing. "They need English, when employers try to hire them, and also some basic skills, such as construction and painting and stuff."

Julio Trinidad, a social worker studying for the ministry, teaches the English class. His students include Porfirio Hernandez. Except for his fellow day laborers and the people he meets at the church, Hernandez is alone in the United States, his family in Guatemala.

Speaking through a translator, Hernandez says he often invites friends and fellow workers to come to the Street Angels program.

"In the first place, we can learn the language we need in this country," Hernandez says. "Some of my friends, they find jobs in this program, it helps to find jobs for them."

Hernandez also appreciates the Bible study. "Bible study is good for everybody," he says, "because not just from bread can men live."

Hernandez will graduate from Street Angels on the Thursday before Christmas, a member of the second graduating class since the program began. A piano player, Hernandez will play music for the ceremony.

Following God's law

The Street Angels program, which requires the work of about 50 volunteers from the 1,200-member congregation, is a sanctuary for immigrants living a precarious existence.

Virtually all the students in the class are in the United States illegally, without work permits. One student was arrested and deported to Guatemala in mid-November during a five-day sweep by immigration agents in New Jersey.

Palisades Park Police Chief Michael Vietri says immigration law is enforced by federal authorities, not local police.

Vietri blames the federal government, not the immigrants themselves, for his community's burgeoning population of undocumented workers. "They're trying to make a better life for themselves," he says of the laborers.

And he has no problem with the Street Angels program. "You've got to help mankind," Vietri says. "Regardless of what your opinion is, they're still human beings."

Chung fears the recent crackdown could scare students away from a program that is helping them improve their lives. He acknowledges that the undocumented workers in Street Angels are breaking the law, but that does not affect his sense of obligation to them.

"What we do is based on the law of God," he says. "I think the law of God is much, much higher than the law of the world."

A melting pot

The model of Steve Chung and the Korean Community Church is typical in New Jersey, according to David Malloy, communications coordinator of The United Methodist Church's Greater New Jersey Annual (regional) Conference.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by James Melchiorre

Kyung Hwan Park (left) teaches a computer class at the Street Angels program.
"New Jersey is such a rich melting pot that there's always an opportunity for cultural cooperation," Malloy says.

The Greater New Jersey Conference includes 600 congregations across the state, and in two counties in New York and one in Pennsylvania.

Along the Atlantic coast in Monmouth County, Malloy said, a Korean pastor is learning Spanish so he can recruit new members from the growing Latino population of communities such as Asbury Park, Bradley Beach, and Eatontown.

"Here is a person where English is his second language who is reaching out in a third language," Malloy says. He adds: "United Methodists in New Jersey follow the Bible verse of welcoming a stranger."

Back in Palisades Park, where Chung was first moved by the sight of day laborers waiting along the road, 36 percent of the people identify themselves as Korean and more than 15 percent of the population is Latino.

"Korean town has a lot of Hispanic population," Chung says. "We know each other. Sometimes we hire them, they hire us. There's a lot of Hispanic-Korean population living together."

And over the years, both groups experienced the resentment of longtime residents.

Still, there are significant differences in the status of Koreans and Latinos here. Many Koreans emigrated more than a decade ago, with college educations and high-technology jobs, and now form an influential minority. Chung himself arrived in the United States in the early 1990s as an employee of Samsung. Five years later, he started his own business.

By contrast, politically and economically, Latinos are struggling.

Despite these differences, members of the Korean Community Church of New Jersey feel empathy, according to their pastor, and that led to the Street Angels program, as well as a weekly Sunday worship service in Spanish.

"Until you have a certain experience about somebody else's experience, you really do not have a heart," says Rev. Koo Yung Na. "We are immigrants, as Korean-Americans; we know what the feelings of Hispanic-Americans are. We have some ?connect' where the compassion is coming out, and I think that was the key."

*Melchiorre is a freelance producer based in New York City.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or

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