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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Rev. Matthew & Grace Ahn, MSW. Pioneering Korean American Community Organizers, Clergy, Social Worker, Publisher, Inventor.

Rev. Matthew Ahn and his wife Grace.

I met the Ahn's at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Hollywood CA my first month in California.  It was 1983, and I was very green to life in Los Angeles.  The Ahn's had come to Los Angeles, by way of Chicago.  In the 1960s, Matthew was a priest in Korea who ran an orphanage and was involved in labor union organizing and other "justice" movements in South Korea.  Grace was a graduate of Younsei University, one of the first women in the country to complete a university education.  Shortly after their first child, daughter Ellen was born, they were "informed" that they had gotten on the wrong side of then president Park, Chung Hee (in Korean, the surname is always placed first).  Park was basically a dictator, who was determined to elevate Korea economically at all costs.  In order to do that, any dissidence was forbidden, particularly regarding any pending labor issues.  Matthew was quietly informed that he needed to get out of Korea soon, or he might "vanish" as many other dissidents were vanishing.

So he and Grace came to Chicago, to begin a ministry there for newly arriving Koreans.  About that time, immigration from Korea to the United States was opened up as a "safety valve" so that dissident Koreans could leave and come to the United States.   Because many Koreans are Episcopalians, the church in Chicago wanted to have a Korean priest to serve their needs.  In Chicago, Grace began learning English, and their second child, son Kay was born.  

The intelligence of both of the Ahn's is overwhelming.  At one point, as Grace was learning English, and feeling very uncomfortable with English conversations, an American church goer where they were noticed she had gotten her first pair of glasses.  Her response was "Oh yes, my opthalmic condition has deteriorated."

Soon after, the Ahn's came to Los Angeles, at the request of then Bishop Rusak, and began serving the burgeoning Korean community in Southern California.  Grace enrolled at the University of Southern California School of Social Work, and graduated with an MSW.  Los Angeles county was hiring bi-lingual social workers.  Grace told me that although the salary was tempting, they had two small children, and she and Matthew decided that being home with them was more important than the money.  So they started Korean Community Services, a small non-profit, that focused on immigrant settlement issues.   Those issues included learning English, INS paperwork, school enrollments, dealing with landlords, dealing with government agencies (DMV, IRS, etc.).  The agency created and published a magazine, in Korean, "New Life" for over a decade, to help inform residents of the various issues related to living in the United States.  

All of this was going on, out of a couple of small offices in the basement of St. Stephen's.  The Korean Mission church was named St. Nicholas, and most Sundays, services were held after the English services at 10AM.  

But on Christmas Eve of 1983, both congregations celebrated together.  The service was in both languages, and Matthew preached the sermon, first in English, and then in Korean.  I met Ellen and Kay (who was a very precocious 13 year old, sort of punk rocker).  

I remembered that my X sister in law had come from Korea, but we were never close.  Grace and I both ran first offender DUI rehabilitation programs and would occasionally meet at provider meetings.  I moved to another church, Trinity Episcopal Church, and shortly after, Korean Community Services moved it's offices to Trinity as well.  

A few years later, the Ahn's got a contract to operate a DUI program in northern Orange County.  I had started a job with UCLA's Drug Abuse Research Center, and they hired a Program Director.  Both my situation at UCLA and the program director did not work out.  A mutual friend suggested to both of us that we should get me into that situation, and in 1992, I began my five year commute of 70 miles round trip, five days a week, from West Hollywood to Fullerton.

It was in this daily association with Matthew and Grace that a deep and lasting friendship formed.  The first thing I learned was that Koreans have an ancient culture that carries some profoundly important perspectives on human life.  The importance of birth order in families, the importance of multi-generational issues in both families and cultures, the importance of respecting nature and the earth, all are essential elements of a very proud people who waste nothing, because all things (and people) have inherent value because they are part of God's creation.

One of my favorite "Grace Quotes" uttered one night after writing checks to pay off a stack of bills, "Ahhhh, money like water!!"  Another, in reference to all persons who immigrate to America, "Anyone who has anything in the old country never leaves.  The only people who leave to come to America are the ones who have nothing, but a knife or a gun at their back."

Matthew and I worked together to grow the agency.  We moved the agency into more flexible quarters, that cost less.  When he and Grace came back from negotiating the deal with the Greek/American owners of the building, they said, "Easier to deal with fellow immigrants.  They understand what it is to be hungry."

We added a Drug Diversion program, expanded the DUI program, and took up "Jail Mail" marketing to expand our visibility.  Matthew turned 60, and in traditional Korean manner, we held a "Hwang Gop" (which I think translate to "Second Life" or "New Life") to mark his transition from working, raising his family, serving his community, and now encourages the honoree to become a bit more selfish and cherish his or her time left at life.

About that time, son Kay came home for Christmas from his "Teach America" assignment in Houston.  He purchased a "blazing fast" 33.6 modem for our recently purchased "Mac" and Matthew spent the entire weekend surfing the internet.  His earlier computer, a DOS model that printed in English and Korean, but had no graphics, the Mac and the Internet was an entire new world to be explored.   When I came to work on Monday, he was sitting, transfixed, having found and printed over 200 pages of information from both Korea and the United States.  He looked at me and said, "This internets, this is the future.  I want to live in the future so I must learn."

And in that one statement, Matthew not only embodied what I so respect about him and Grace, but Korean people in general.  No matter what, they embrace and celebrate change, and equip themselves to thrive in a changing world.  While retaining traditions that are thousands of years old, they adapt, with enthusiasm, to change.  

A year later, they bought a "Class C" RV and took up traveling and camping.  They also took up golf.  They took their RV back and forth from Orange County to the Kenai peninsula in Alaska every year until they wore it out at over 150,000 miles.  Matthew still loves fishing, and they still go most summers for some time in the majestic landscape that is Alaska.

Matthew not only went on to learn the internet, but in the process, he realized that the typewriter/computer keyboard that was commonly used in the two Koreas (north and south) is not very intuitive to actual Koreans.  So, he started working with his computer, and his keyboard, and has developed a new keyboard (placement of letters) that is much more intuitive to Korean language.  

What I also learned from Matthew and Grace is that the written Korean language is NOT thousands of pictures (like Chinese and Japanese), but a phonetic alphabet, similar to "western" language.  The consonants are on top, vowels on the bottom.  All words are single syllable.

It is much easier to utilize with a computer.   I also learned that Koreans assert that the Korean peninsula is the cradle of northern Asian civilization and culture (in the same way that Greece was for the Mediterranean cultures of Rome and Turkey).  One of the reasons i believe them in addition to their marvelous alphabet is that the origins of the Japanese royal family are officially veiled, because the Japanese royal family is Korean.

Grace and Matthew are now in their 70s.  They are the last generation who actually lived through the horrors of the occupation and war.  But they still keep busy, they are still a vital force in the lives of their community.

Now, daughter Ellen and son Kay run the agency.  It has become a large agency in Orange County, where it offers virtually every kind of offender rehabilitation program that the county courts require, in about 7 locations.  Also, as a part of it's "roots", the agency operates a mental health and health care clinic for Korean families.  It also offers training programs for Korean professionals to come to the United States and learn the latest issues in mental health and pastoral care.  

Recently I recorded Grace's presentation regarding the history of the Korean people (since the mid 1800s) as it relates to multi-generational trauma from the Japanese colonization/occupation and the Korean war and reconstruction period after the war.  .

I am honored to serve as the Clinical Director of the mental health program, Bokji, which loosely translates "village."   Moreover, I am honored to be an adopted member of such a dynamic group of people who serve others in the building of strong and successful lives.  Korean culture has many similarities to Southern Culture, including loyalty and respect for the value of deep friendships.

Every time I look at the new products coming out of Korea, Samsung electronics and appliances, Hyundai's and Kia's, my eyes get a little bit damp, because I have such a strong sense of all the struggle and yearning that those products represent.  And who can resist "Gangnam Style?"  .

Ellen and her husband are featured in this large family photo, taken years ago by the Orange County Register.  Their son in the front is now 17.  Kay on the left, got married and has three children.  A photo of Kay and Liz, with some employees (two of whom I hired) at their wedding reception is below.  Some photos of Bokji and the training programs are also below, as are links to the agency web sites.

And a favorite photo of mine in closing,

"I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, 

rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions."
     - Letter from Zora Neale Hurston to Countee Cullen
Zora Neale Hurston

Edward Garren, MA, LMFT

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