Domestic violence in Asian immigrant communities is a persistent problem, studies show, and research suggests it looms especially large for Korean immigrant women.
Now an advocacy group in Southern California is working to educate Korean pastors about domestic abuse in an effort that challenges both cultural norms and the traditional practices of church leaders.
Cultural taboos, a patriarchal culture, immigration and acculturation pressures, language isolation and alcohol can all play a role in domestic violence in the Korean community, according to Connie Chung Joe, executive director of Korean American Family Services. The agency, known as KFAM, works with both Korean victims and batterers to reduce domestic abuse.
"Men who are traditionally the breadwinners and considered the leaders in their family, they come to the U.S. and their wives are able to acculturate better, learn English faster and maybe they can get a job better," she said. "And a lot of the men really have trouble with this."
According to one survey out of Chicago, about 60 percent of Korean immigrant women reported experiencing an episode of domestic violence.
In the last two years, KFAM has been recruiting pastors as partners in addressing domestic violence within the Korean community. Last month, it held its first two-day retreat for faith leaders dedicated to domestic violence.
Pastors are critical in the effort to reduce domestic abuse, Chung Joe said. Korean immigrants attend church at higher rates than many other ethnic groups. Some estimates place the rate of church worship among Korean immigrants at around 70 to 80 percent, and pastors are often the first point of contact for victims.
"Chances are most victims will go to their pastor or somebody in their church far sooner than they will go to a shelter or a community-based organization when they start having problems with their spouse or partner," Chung Joe said.
KFAM's counselors often hear about how victims tried to talk to faith leaders, with little response or help.
Thirty-one-year-old Ahyun, who asked she be identified only by her first name, is one of those survivors. She spoke through an interpreter, while her 3-year-old daughter Joanna played with Ahyun's cell phone nearby at the offices of KFAM.
Joanna was just two weeks old when Ahyun's partner who had been abusive became violent again. She called her immigration attorney and asked her to call the police.
"He punched a hole in the wall and gestured to try to hit me. At this time my daughter was sleeping in her crib," Ahyun recalled. "He picked up a chair and motioned to throw it. I don't think he meant to hit me with the chair but because the crib was next to me, I was very afraid."
Ahyun’s next call for help was to a deaconess at her church, but the woman's reaction was not what Ahyun expected.
"When she came to my house, she was very angry. She blamed me for calling the police. She believed that I should have endured it," Ahyun said. "She believed I shouldn’t have called the police and it was a very bad thing that I did."
Chung Jo said pastors haven’t been equipped to deal with domestic violence. KFAM conducted a survey of 120 faith leaders as it prepared for its outreach initiative and found that 100 percent said they pray with victims. Only 10 percent said they would connect a victim with a professional counselor or call the police.
Chung Joe said educating pastors is key in reaching victims in a sensitive and helpful way.
Several days after Ayun's deaconess scolded her for calling the police to report her abuser, she attended church. The pastor mentioned her situation as an example of what not to do.
"He didn't mention my name, but everyone knew it was about me," she said. "He just preached straightforward that that’s a very bad thing, for a wife to call the police on her husband."
Although Ahyun and her partner were not married, she was nevertheless horrified.
"I was very confused from the church leaders’ reaction. I was questioning my faith, I was questioning God, I was questioning if I was a good enough Christian," she said. "I just had to leave, I couldn’t stay at that church anymore."
Samuel Surh, pastor of Hebron Church in Irvine, said a common cultural belief keeps many domestic violence victims from coming forward at all.
"No matter what happens in the family, (they) tend to be hush-hush and they got to remain in the family," he said.
Surh said when women who were abused came to him in the past, he didn’t know what to do beyond praying with them. That changed after he joined KFAM's project to educate men and boys about domestic violence.
"Unless someone help you, it’s almost impossible to break the chain of domestic violence," he said. "That really gave me an eye-opening moment in my ministry."
Surh now teaches other pastors and congregations about domestic violence.
At KFAM's recent retreat, funded by the Blue Shield Foundation, about a dozen faith leaders learned about the psychology of abuse, community resources to help families and legal options available for victims.
The choices for victims who may not want a divorce include legal separation, restraining orders, child custody and child support. There are also confidential immigration options for victims, said Joann Lee, directing attorney for Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles who taught the retreat's legal session.
A major part of the discussion at the retreat dealt with finding a common ground in helping families. Without that approach, a perception can develop that the agency wants to break up families while pastors try to keep them together, Chung Joe said.
"One of the things we talk about is domestic violence doesn’t usually get better on its own. Actually, it gets worse and worse," she said.
Chung Joe said KFAM works with victims in various situations, from those in shelters to those who are still living with their batterers because they don’t want to leave.
Bay Area Presbyterian Pastor Ann ReMenzi, who has been teaching pastors in Northern California about domestic violence for decades, led the recent retreat. She said Los Angeles is important in the fight against domestic violence because so many Koreans make their homes here; about 62 percent of them are foreign-born, according to KFAM.
“They want to be seen as strong, independent people,” ReMenzi said about Korean immigrants. “The problems just stay inside of the home and, when it erupts, it seems to be more violent. The church’s role is to promote loving and healthy relationships and community.”
At KFAM's offices survivor Ahyun said her former partner visits with their daughter once a week and Ahyun is considering reunification.
He has been in counseling through KFAM for three years.
"If he continues to make efforts, and changing his behaviors or ways or thoughts, I would consider marrying him in the future," Ahyun said through the interpreter.
Ahyun said she and Joanna attend another church now, but no one there knows their story, including their pastor.