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Christian therapy serves Koreans wary of the stigma of mental health treatment

Grace Chung, a licensed marriage and family therapist, conducts a private practice that includes prayer and guided Bible reading.
Grace Chung, a licensed marriage and family therapist, conducts a private practice that includes prayer and guided Bible reading.
Christopher Damien for KPCC

Grace Chung conducts her private marriage and family counseling practice in the living room of her apartment in Anaheim. Outside her door, cars race by as rush-hour traffic begins to build on the Interstate 5 just a block away.

Focused, serene, lightly leaning on the table that barely hides her wheelchair, she recalls her decision to become a licensed marriage and family therapist.

Chung was in her early 20s living in Busan, Korea. Her muscular dystrophy — a genetic condition causing progressive loss of muscle mass — required her to get assistance when walking. 

“A pastor I respected very much knew what I was going through,” she remembers. “He told me that if God wants, he can heal my muscular dystrophy overnight. But, he then asked me, ‘What if he wants to use you for his people?’”

Establishing her home office in Southern California years later, Chung found her former pastor’s words prescient.

Korean immigrants have long looked to their churches for basic social services when they arrive in the United States. And while mental health issues and family strife are stigmatized in the Korean-American community, Christian therapy is becoming an acceptable way of seeking the treatment that many may need.

Those who seek Christian therapy can take part in prayer and guided Bible reading. And those that provide the therapy see faith as the foundation of their clients’ health.

“We care about the church and we care about creating ways for people to grow in their emotional and relational maturity, that includes mental health,” says John Loppnow, an associate pastor at Young Nak Celebration Church.

But whether parishioners seek out mental health professionals often falls along generational lines.

“The older generation is very hesitant to seek therapy. It is seen as a weakness,” said John Kim, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles.

“There’s a giant generation gap between the American-born generation and the Korean-born generation,” Kim said of his clients. “In Korea, if you go and see a therapist, it is reported.”

Korea’s state-funded National Health Insurance Service keeps records of what services are provided to citizens — records that are available to employers. F-codes, the categorical tag for treatment of mental and behavioral disorders, might indicate that an employee is unstable. Rather than run the risk of being labeled as such, many forgo seeking treatment.

Some Koreans immigrate to America with the fear that treatment could endanger their job prospects. Their desire for anonymity has made the churches attractive as a provider of immigrant services.

Just as older Koreans are reluctant to seek therapy for mental illness, older clergy also may hesitate to send parishioners to services outside of the church. But even seasoned clergy are warming to the idea.

As lead pastor for Tapestry LA Church, Charles Choe offers counseling, scripture reading, and comfort for those in his congregation seeking help. 

While the church is only three years old, it has grown rapidly. Since only a few of its nine staff members are trained counselors, Choe keeps a list of professionals working outside the church who he recommends to congregants if they need more assistance.

“Counseling is a tool that we consider part of God’s common grace,” Choe says. “We see so many marriages struggling, a number of 'father wounds' that have not been dealt with in a healthy way. The male parental figure has a lot to say about the way we grow, the pain that we carry.”

Having been in the Korean-American church for 20 years, Choe says he has helped congregants heal spiritually from the trauma of rape, sex addiction, alcoholism, anxiety and depression. 

“I deal with this every day,” said Choe.

As younger congregants slowly open up about mental health issues, professional Christian counseling centers are emerging in Los Angeles to meet the demand. Asian American Christian Counseling Service in Alhambra is a non-denominational center while Sync Counseling Center offers faith-based Christian counseling resources.

But before referrals can be made in confidence, trust must be established between churches and professional counseling centers. Until then, a coalition of private practice counselors and the clergy who trust them is emerging from the greater Korean-American Christian community.

John and Sungshim Loppnow both have graduate degrees in marital and family therapy. They co-teach marriage skills classes at Young Nak, but Sungshim keeps a part-time private practice.

“Ninety percent are Christians,” she said of her clients. “I don’t have a website. It’s all word-of-mouth.”

Busy with his pastoral duties, Loppnow refers congregants in need to licensed therapists, like Sungshim.

“If I sense that they will benefit from therapy,” he said, “I’ll meet with them two or three times and then ask them if they’re open to it.”

Loppnow says it is critical to let congregants know that he will be there to support them through the process as a pastor.

“I tell them: I’ll travel with you,” he said. “I can pray with you any time.”

But the cultural stigma persists. Loppnow admits some who have received treatment left the church thinking their reputations had been damaged.

“We’re guessing it’s rare that they expose that mess to others; they’ve never done it before,” Loppnow said. “There’s discernment on how to give them space as they work through the process.”

As pastor and counselor, the Loppnows say they can serve as a model for how Christian therapy could be offered in other Korean-American churches. In their view, healing ministries, as they call them, can ultimately serve as an alternative to secular therapy.

“My hope and desire is that these healing ministries will be embedded in the church,” Sungshim Loppnow said. “Anxiety, marriage and family therapy, they don’t need to be treated outside.”

For immigrant families struggling with long work hours, language barriers, even the pressures of success that come with elite educations, professional treatment can be the safest and most effective way to get help, said Grace Chung. 

Since churches provide for immigrant services in so many other ways, it follows that mental health treatment might be provided in the church, too.

But until then, treatment sessions often occur in places like Chung’s living room — somewhere that feels comfortable and private.

While Chung admits her professional clinical training is what helps her best identify and treat her clients' illnesses, it is the Christian call to service that she believes unifies her faith and her professional practice.

“I am a secular therapist,” she said, “but it is my ministry.”

This story is one in an occasional series of reports by students taking part in a class of the USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion, headed by Diane Winston. Thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation, Annenberg students have covered global religion, culture and politics for the past several years. This spring, students reported and wrote on Southern California's Korean community and visited South Korea.