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Noah Kim, international student ministry pastor at Sunnybank Uniting Church in Brisbane. Photo by David Busch.
Noah Kim, international student ministry pastor at Sunnybank Uniting Church in Brisbane. Photo: David Busch

Mission: conquer culture shock

International student pastor Noah Kim talks to Dianne Jensen about his call to ministry in the Uniting Church.

Noah Kim knows first-hand that the call to God’s service can take you far from home and well outside your comfort zone. The South Korean-born Christian received the nudge from his pastor to attend Bible college in Australia eight years ago—and has used his experiences to support other international students struggling with isolation and culture shock.

Now 26 years old, Noah is international student ministry pastor at Sunnybank Uniting Church in Brisbane and project officer at the Brisbane South International Students Support Partnership. He is also a chaplaincy intern at Griffith University and founded and leads Students Together Brisbane, a social outreach of Sunnybank Uniting Church.

It’s a minefield out there

Noah ventured to Brisbane with only basic English skills. The hurdles he faced set him on the path to helping others navigate the cultural minefield and interact with local Aussies. After working with international students for the past three years he understands just how confusing and intimidating Australian society can be—and how easy it is to fall foul of social mores and encounter rejection or even exploitation.

“When I first came I could not speak English properly, and also I went through some cultural difficulties and I felt really isolated. I had a deep longing for being connected to community,” says Noah. “Because I grew up in an Asian country, for me to come and live in western society was quite a different experience, even with simple things like food or weather or communication—how to interact with other people.

“The education style was quite different as well, and in my first year at Bible College I struggled to engage in the class.”

Noah found an immediate welcome at Sunnybank Uniting Church, a multicultural congregation which reflects the diversity of Brisbane’s southern suburbs, particularly around Griffith University. An estimated 8000 international students from 100 countries live in the region, with more than 2000 others on short-term travel and working holidays.

The congregation sponsored him to stay on in Australia to undertake ministry as international student pastor.

“I have been in the role for three years now, and when I first started, to be honest, I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do but my senior pastor felt I had got a calling in my life,” says Noah. “So I thought, God has something for me to do in this particular community and particular time. I started reflecting on my experiences—the big pain that I had from being an international student and all the experiences that I went through sort of shaped my heart attitude towards people from overseas and the community.”

Creating safe spaces

Noah’s ministry resulted in a $10 000 research grant from the Brisbane City Council to set up Students Together Brisbane. He was joined by Sunnybank church members Katrina Tseng and Wilfred Nguyen, from Taiwanese and Vietnamese backgrounds respectively, who shared the vision of creating a safe and welcoming space for young people.

“The program has grown and it has 15 to 20 regular attenders, but so far we have had 80 to 90 students through our program. Because many international young adults travel a lot, we found the group is challenged to grow numerically. However, we can see that the influence that we are having in the wider community is growing fast.

“We made this Facebook page and that now has 200 subscribers across the world. So far we have held 50 to 60 events and activities that include day trips, free English conversation classes, cultural festivals. We also invite people from community to run special workshops that might help international young people, such as cooking classes, self-defence classes, things like that.”

The Students Together Brisbane team, together with Roberto Chata and Rev Andrew Ross, undertook an online survey to identify the key issues faced by international students, presenting the results at a community forum in February this year.

“Social isolation is a big issue and [students] long for connection with the community, but they don’t know how to do it,” says Noah. “Also there is exploitation at workplaces and fewer opportunities for international students to get employed or gain internship opportunities, [plus] safety issues as well as financial difficulties. But the main issue is they feel less connected to the wider community and they look for opportunities to meet people from local communities.”

He is currently funded for several hours a week by Brisbane City Council to do a small project with their youth development team, based on the experience that he gained from his role as project officer at the Brisbane South International Students Support Partnership.

A faith worth sharing

Noah’s passion for outreach is rooted in the evangelistic dynamic at the heart of the Presbyterian Church of Korea, his church of origin. After the United States, South Korea is responsible for the second largest number of missionaries in the world, a testimony to the impact of the first American missionaries who planted the Protestant church in Korea in the nineteenth century.

“The missionaries taught people the importance of going to other countries and spreading the gospel, sharing the gospel with others, and even today that part is a really important heritage of the Korean church,” says Noah. “We have huge emphasis on evangelism, sharing faith and making Jesus known to others … in Australia I discovered that people would not impose their religious views and political views on others because they respect one another’s different beliefs. In this context I learnt evangelism should be more than sharing of the words but showing through lifestyle.”

Although his home congregation in Sunnybank embraces a multicultural model of ministry, celebrating the diverse cultural traditions of those who worship there, Noah understands the value of fostering migrant communities of faith.

“I am doing supply ministry (25 per cent) in Gold Coast Korean church at the moment. I see first generation migrants, they often are not really able to communicate in English and they struggle to be in English service. Also, I understand it is hard for them to mix with new culture even in church settings. In migrant communities of faith it is amazing to see that their worship manifests their beautiful traditions and heritages. But some churches like Sunnybank Uniting Church are specifically called to demonstrate an aspect of the gospel; that regardless of race and cultural differences we are one in Christ and worship God in unity.”

Path to ministry

The young Uniting Church member is now a permanent resident of Australia, and is eagerly anticipating making his citizenship pledge in the next few months.

Noah is currently undertaking a Period of Discernment to explore God’s call upon his life.

“As I have been working with people from different backgrounds and people from the community in general I have grown to sense that God may be calling me into congregational ministry,” says Noah. “I have the intention to be a candidate for specific ministry role in the Uniting Church in Australia, yet what will lead my life is God’s intention not mine.”

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