Alice Lee came to the Christian faith through Covenant Fellowship Church, located near her college campus at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign (UIUC). Covenant Fellowship Church (CFC) is a majority Asian American non-denominational church with a strong influence both on campus and nationally. According to DJ Chuang, author of MultiAsian.Church, “CFC was one of the pioneers in college churches, meaning they’d influence a new generation of collegians every four years or so, and CFC was intentional in training up pastors.”
Alice quickly became a devoted disciple and regular volunteer, taking part in Bible studies and mission trips during her undergraduate years. Discipled personally by senior pastor Min Chung, Alice considered him her “spiritual father,” a parental figure who showed a type of care that was culturally uncommon among most immigrant parents. Alice increasingly spent her free time at CFC, prioritizing church over other campus and social gatherings.
Was she not Christian enough or not Korean enough?
As devoted and involved as Alice was, however, she didn’t seem to fit in. The spiritual practices of CFC did not come organically to her like they did to her peers. It was not in her nature to get up early every morning to pray at church, forgo family gatherings to go on mission trips abroad, or wear long floral-patterned dresses like the other women. She did not recognize when she insulted leaders or said the wrong thing, and she wondered if it was because she was not spiritually in tune with Jesus. She also wondered if her outsider status had more to do with her being Chinese rather than Korean. Was she not Christian enough or not Korean enough?
Alice stayed at UIUC for a decade following graduation, earning a Master’s and eventually a Ph.D. in education. In school, she studied liberation and freedom through Black feminist thought, and she was passionate about educational justice. At the time, it did not occur to her to draw connections between her studies and Jesus’ care for the vulnerable.
Alice belonged to two worlds, one where she was trying to fit in through CFC’s rigorous methods of ritual and service to the church, and another grounded in radical inclusivity and justice. Through her studies, she eventually gained insight that the discipleship and leadership structures of the church gave Pastor Min an immense amount of power and potential to abuse that power. She hoped her “spiritual father” would take great care and responsibility not to cause harm.
As she spent more time at the church, however, Alice noticed moments where Pastor Min drew people into blind loyalty and obedience. Alice stated, “When he has you, he owns you,” as if to say that although she considered herself a strong independent woman, she depended solely on Pastor Min for all spiritual matters and direction. He and the leadership dictated whom people should date or marry. Women were told what to wear and to stay silent. Church members spent an enormous amount of time in service and obedience to Pastor Min with the hope of sanctification.
Alice noticed moments where Pastor Min drew people into blind loyalty and obedience.
Alice’s uneasiness continued to grow during her doctoral studies as she witnessed more of her peers give up important priorities, some even dropping out of college, to follow Pastor Min. She realized that people were experiencing more harm than holiness, and she eventually left the church. Then, in 2018, a woman publicly exposed an incident of sexual abuse by Pastor Min, followed by others coming forward with stories of spiritual abuse.
Pastor Min Chung admitted some guilt but faced few consequences. Although banned from preaching at CFC by the Korean Central Presbytery in which he was ordained, he accepted invitations to preach at other churches. The church leadership rebranded the banishment as a sabbatical. After a year, Pastor Min would return to ministry unscathed and “forgiven,” leaving the survivors to fade into oblivion.
People were experiencing more harm than holiness.
Earlier this year, some CFC members took matters into their own hands, creating the Instagram account @letters_from_rahab to publicize the allegations and accounts of abuse embedded in CFC’s culture. The stories are heartbreaking to read, and many come with trigger warnings. The account received very little traction at first, but that was before the collective reached out to Alice for help.
Alice was surprised to receive a call from @letters_from_rahab, the same group of people who made her feel spiritually inept during her years at CFC. But maybe Alice’s outsider status and her studies made her an appropriate aide for such a time as this.
With Alice’s help, @letters_from_rahab jumped from 38 followers to over 1,000 within a week. She advised the group to follow up survivor stories with demands for accountability and action. She created a detailed timeline of events and named each leader involved. If the group drafted a clear public statement and secured at least 500 signatures, Alice told them, they could present it publicly at church and the Presbytery.
What Alice didn’t expect was the blowback—not from Pastor Min or CFC, but from the @Letters_From_Rahab group themselves. Exposing the misdeeds of their former pastor online was already a radical departure from their cultural norms, and making demands to upend the entire culture of CFC seemed excessive. The Rahab group dismissed Alice’s advice, a painful reminder that she was still an outsider. Alice said, with exasperation, “They don’t want change. They just want another man like [Pastor Min] to lead them.”
In Romans 12, Paul instructs Christians to be “patient in affliction.” Alice’s past affliction at CFC now included the rejection of her advice by the Rahab group, and the Rahab group’s accusations remain unaddressed by the church. Making sense of a spirituality and church culture that causes harm is complicated and layered, opening past wounds and inflicting new ones if not done with great care. How can Christians offer each other nuanced care and solidarity to truly heal after abuse?
Making sense of a spirituality and church culture that causes harm is complicated and layered.
Alice decided to move in a different direction from @Letters_From_Rahab, focusing on her own healing apart from CFC and the Rahab group, and contributing to justice through her academic pursuits. @Letters_From_Rahab continues to tell survivor stories, but over time, the stories are evolving to implicate the systems at CFC upholding the abuse. Resources to therapist contact lists and other reading materials are linked through the account, and the number of followers grows daily. This past summer, Chicago’s NPR affiliate WBEZ reported on the church, exposing Pastor Min and Covenant Fellowship Church on a national level. Alice’s gifts and advice are finally taking root.
Much remains unresolved about the future of Pastor Min and CFC. Perhaps there is some hope as people continue to follow Alice’s lead to expose stories, take appropriate action, and develop systems to protect the vulnerable. Alice’s generative pursuits allow her to heal and move forward. And, by being “patient in affliction,” however complex and messy, Christians can pursue the often slow work of justice.
Angie Hong is one of five 2021-22 Emerging Writers. Look for more work by Angie on our pages during this year.