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How one Korean church in LA ministers to the drug-addicted

Nanoom Christian Fellowship church in Westlake ministers to drug addicts, many of whom come from a Korean community that stigmatizes substance abuse.
Nanoom Christian Fellowship church in Westlake ministers to drug addicts, many of whom come from a Korean community that stigmatizes substance abuse.
Miranda Mazariegos for KPCC

On Sundays, Nanoom Christian Fellowship opens its gates to visitors, but those who call this church their home are not allowed to leave unsupervised.

Nanoom Christian Fellowship is a church that offers addicts free housing, food, counseling and fellowship in a drug-free environment. People from any ethnicity or religion are welcome, but it’s especially popular among Korean-Americans, who have some of the highest rates of addiction among Asian groups in the United States.

The church can host about 50 people at once, a small number given the demand for its services. As the only Korean-American church that operates as a free rehab center in the city, Nanoom has over 300 people on a waitlist.

A woman we'll call Hannah, who asked that her real name not be used to protect her privacy, has lived at the church for more than a year, but during that time, she’s jumped the gates more than once.

“[The church] is smack down in the middle of where people have already given their lives up to drugs. The pastor purposefully put this place right here, so we would have the temptation and be forced to face it,” she said, referring to the surrounding neighborhood of Westlake, which has long been associated with drug trafficking.

A church, not a rehab

Nanoom blends Christian beliefs with a traditional anti-drug program. Residents participate in Bible studies and attend prayer meetings, but they also need special permission to use cell phones and their incoming mail is pre-screened. Drug tests are carried out randomly about once a month, yet if anyone is caught with contraband, their punishment is loss of privileges, not expulsion.

Pastor Young Han, founder of Nanoom, developed the program based on his own experience. A former cocaine addict, he went through numerous Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings and rehab centers and even jail, all of which he said were useless in treating his addiction.

In fact, he said, he went to several different rehab centers because many wouldn’t take him back when he relapsed. That’s why he believes that unconditional support is crucial and accepts anyone who returns, no matter how many times they attempt to leave.

“Many people don’t understand. They tell me, ‘Pastor, why do you let them come back? Why don’t you kick them out?’” Han said. “But if I kick them out, where will they go? This is their church.”

Han calls residents “inmates,” and he keeps them busy with church-like activities. With her days jam-packed with worship, prayer and Bible studies, Hannah said free time is sparse, but she likes it that way. Too much freedom can be dangerously tempting.

“Having free time can be boring, and if you’re focused on what you want to get, like a drug, or thinking about leaving or something, you’re just stressing out,” said Geung Jung, a minister at Nanoom.

Jung speaks from experience. Like all other staff members, he is a former addict and alumnus of the church’s drug abuse program. He spent 11 months as an inmate before he was hired full time in 2005. Since then, he’s been a leader and role model at Nanoom, using his own experience to guide others in their path to sobriety.

“I was lost in my life and I was living in the street and involved in crime, but I found hope in this service and program,” he said, “I found that I could be the one to help others. This ministry, this place, it inspired me. I’m a role model.”

Paulina Hong, development director at the Asian American Drug Abuse Program, believes that having counselors who are familiar with the inmates’ cultural background plays a big role in whether a treatment program is successful or not.

“Substance abuse treatment delves into big issues, issues that pertain to how you were raised and how you grew up. A lot of those things are informed by the culture that we grow up in, so having counselors and professors that are familiar with cultural background is very important,” she said.

After 20 years at Nanoom, Han has witnessed how big of a role cultural upbringing plays in addiction. Korean immigrants come from a country where 97 percent of the people attain secondary education. The pressure to get into college is so common, it’s been referred to as a “fever.” In the U.S., too, Korean parents can put more pressure on their kids than do average American families.

According to Han, this battle between traditional Korean culture and the more liberal, American society is what drives many to seek drugs.

Torn identities

Hannah was introduced to drugs in high school, where she wanted to fit in with the popular crowd. She imagined a life like she saw on “Gossip Girl,” a TV show about glamorous high school students experimenting with sex, drugs and alcohol. But having been raised by two Korean immigrants, Hannah always felt pressured to fit into what she calls the “Asian standard.”

“There’s a lot of pressure to be perfect in Asian communities,” she said. “Every time I did drugs, I felt like I was backstabbing my parents; it’s just very deeply embedded in the culture. I felt like I was failing the whole family.”

While in college, Hannah said she went on a downward spiral that had her abusing Ecstasy and Xanax alone in her bedroom. When she graduated, she promised herself she would stop doing drugs, but her 9 to 5 warehouse job was so stressful, she sought an escape by getting high.  

Her parents were only vaguely aware of her drug problem. Hannah was too ashamed to share her distress and admit her failure to fit the “Asian standard.” Instead, she confided in her brother who, also born in America, understood her struggle and kept her secrets.

Hannah’s drug abuse was revealed when she overdosed on Xanax and nearly died, she said. The next day, her family took her to Nanoom, where she’s been since April 2017. They visit every Sunday, when the church opens its door to friends and families, offering worship services in Korean and English.

“[My brother] has been the most supportive. He just understands what it’s like to be more American,” she said. “But I’m blessed to have my parents visit me here every week. They’ve seen me in my lows and now they’re seeing me in my highs.”

Hannah is one of the few whose parents visit frequently. According to Han, only about 20 percent of inmates’ parents are involved with Nanoom. Many others are embarrassed by the situation.

“In the United States, there’s a lot more freedom [than in Korea],” he said. “Korean parents really need to be educated about American culture and about drugs.”

The stigma of addiction causes many to hide their struggles. In some Asian-American communities, seeking help for substance abuse is viewed as an admission of weakness.

“We have a lot of experience working with the Korean-American community,” said Hong, “and I know there’s a lot of stigma when it comes to substance abuse, because they value high achievement and kind of generally doing well in life. So it’s difficult to bring something like [addiction] up.”

Hannah said by surrendering herself to God and learning not to place so much pressure on herself, she has slowly regained strength, confidence and self-control, all vital in fighting off the temptation of drugs.

“Nanoom has given me a better sense of spiritual life,” she said. “I don’t have all the right answers, but I’m trying to be comfortable with the fact that I don’t need all these answers.”