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Harlem Woman Becomes Episcopal Church's First Female Korean-American Priest

By Jeff Mays | October 3, 2012 9:12am

HARLEM — When she first started attending All Angels', an Episcopal church on the Upper West Side with her husband a decade ago, Christine Lee, who grew up in an Asian-American church, wasn't particularly fond of worshiping there.

"I just didn't feel like I fit in at All Angels'. It was too different, the liturgy, the worship style. Going from an Asian-American church to a church where there were only about five Asians, I had such a hard time connecting to anything or anyone," said Lee, 40, who has lived in Harlem for nine years.

But over time, Lee, the daughter of a reverend, connected with the congregants at the 5 p.m. service, which includes people who are homeless and others from diverse ethnic, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

"Everywhere else in the city, even in a diverse city like New York, people are separated from
each other by race and class," said Lee, who had graduated from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill. years earlier.

Soon, she found herself moving towards a career in ministry, spending the summer as the interim minister at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in West Harlem. And on Saturday, Lee, who was born in Indianapolis, was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church, making her the first Korean-American woman ordained in the church, according to officials.

Nicholas Richardson, director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of New York, said the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church does not keep ethnicity data of those ordained as priests but believes Lee is the first Korean-American woman to be ordained.

"It's not something we would normally check or be strongly concerned about," said Richardson. "But we definitely believe it to be accurate."

The Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara of the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries for The Episcopal Church Center also said his group also believes Lee is the first Korean-American woman to be ordained in the Episcopal Church.

"It is a breakthrough," said Vergara.

According to the Episcopal News Service, Rev. Dr. Fran Toy was ordained as the first Asian-American woman priest in in the San Francisco-based Diocese of California in 1985. Toy is Chinese-American, according to reports.

Lee, who is married to Jimmy Lee, executive director of Restore NYC, a group dedicated to ending sex trafficking, said she was taken aback by the honor.

"I was a little surprised but I guess I shouldn't be because there aren't a ton of Koreans in the Episcopal church. But it's always surprising to be the first of anything," she said.

Lee wasn't even aware of the honor she was about to achieve until she became friendly with Jae Chung, a Korean-American student at General Theological Seminary where she took a year of Anglican Studies to prepare for ordination, and his friend Young Yoon, a youth minister.

They told her that another woman, Christine Pae, who is being ordained in December in the Diocese of Newark, had been the subject of an article naming her as the first Korean-American woman set to be ordained.

Still not believing it was true, Lee set out to verify it for herself. The Recorder of Ordinations for the church doesn't keep demographic information and would require a vote from the governing body to start doing so.

But both the church's Office of Asian American Ministry and Office of Transitional Ministry told Lee they believed she was the first.

"I would have thought it would have been recorded in this day and age," said Lee. "Going forward this would be a good piece of information to have if we want to be a diverse church and raise up diverse leadership."

Lee was ordained Saturday at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine with six other women.

Over 70 percent of people in America who identify themselves as being of Korean heritage also identify themselves as Christians. The fact that two Korean-American women are being ordained so closely together could serve as an important example.

"In some instances, Korean Christians have been largely conservative, so this is a good thing," said Vergara. "It is a progression from our perspective."

Rev. Milind Sojwal, the rector of All Angels' where Lee will serve as a curate called her ordination an "outstanding opportunity to reach out into the Korean community."

Chung and Yoon said the ordinations of both Pae and Lee could affect Korean churches in other denominations.

"Most Korean churches in the States do not have or allow women leadership in their congregation. These new steps into priesthood are significant indications of leadership shifts in Korean-American communities," said Chung.

"The Episcopal Church is not well known among Korean-Americans. She can be a pioneer so that in the next generation there will be more women willing to be priests," said Yoon.

Now Lee would like the governing body to vote to record demographic information about its new priests.

The experience of having Korean-American women come up to her and say they've never seen another Korean-American woman in the pulpit has been a powerful one.

"When you are in the minority in the church it can be challenging, you can feel like an outsider," said Lee. "I'm hoping with fresh voices there would be a thinking outside of the box of what is and can be."