P. Joe is the Senior Pastor at Holy Gospel Church* and the academic chief officer at New Life School*. Joe immigrated to Koreatown in 1989, and having lived in Koreatown for over 30 years, Joe has both seen it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Koreatown is not only his home, but he received his spiritual calling within this community to pursue ministry and his passions of education, mentorship, and leadership.
Where is your hometown?
I was born in Seoul, Korea, but I moved to the United States in 1989. I was a 7th grader in junior high. I’ve always been living in California and always around Los Angeles. [Currently], I live in Glendale but I come to Koreatown every day, every weekend, and I stay here from 9am to 10pm.
Do you live or work in Koreatown?
I’m a school chief academic officer and also a senior pastor at Holy Gospel Church*. Before I became a senior pastor, I was an educational pastor at Jesus Christ Church*. Holy Gospel Church urgently needed a senior pastor because at the time, it was an extremely small church and nobody wanted to serve at a small community. I already knew the senior pastor at Holy Gospel Church and I understood their situation, so I accepted the offer to go to Holy Gospel Church and serve there. The congregation there elected me to be the senior pastor.
After that, we merged with I Love Jesus Church* and the senior pastor at I Love Jesus Church resigned.
[As for being a school chief academic officer], I’ve always been working jobs related to education. I was always interested in educating young people. I always liked to tutor kids or teach kids in a church setting. A lot of Koreans do 학원 (after-school prep), but I always had a vision to do something more formal than after-school. [I wanted to do something] that was accredited and I always wanted to give certificates and give degrees. In order to do this, the government needs to give you accreditation to make school more formal and upgraded.
I began to be involved with a lot of school businesses by doing a lot of conferences and seminars. Before New Life School*, I was the Chief Operation Officer at Big World School.* My primary job was to meet schools and apply for accreditation. In order for certificate schools to become a degree school that is affiliated with government agencies, you need to apply for accreditation. Through the connections that I met at my previous job, I worked with a group of people to establish New Life School. I’ve been doing this for more than 10 years and when I woke up, I’m here.
What are your thoughts on Koreatown?
Koreatown is really mesmerizing. For me, it’s like my hometown. I’m really glad that Koreatown is becoming a safer place. I remember when I was in high school and college, Koreatown used to be ghetto. [There was] a lot of gangster activity. The street was really dirty. There was crime everywhere. At one point, there used to be rats running around every corner of the city and there were a lot of gang fights. It was really dangerous to walk around with gangs like MS-13, the Bloods, and the Crips.
But now, I’m so glad it’s turning into a tourist attraction. There’s lots of eating places and fun places to go. Personally, I like 국밥 (Korean rice soup), 설렁탕 (ox bone soup), and Korean-style 돈까스 (pork cutlet). The amazing part about Koreatown is that food isn’t just exclusively Koreatown. You have other choices like Pho, Thai food, etc.
What [I don’t like about Koreatown] is the gentrification. The rent prices are too high and there is a lot of homelessness. I meet with a lot of international students because I work at a school and because I do a lot of ministry at church. [I come in contact with] a lot of young international students who attend college or even grad school, and they tell me how expensive it is to live in K-town. I think that’s a major problem.
How has Koreatown changed since you immigrated here?
In the early 1990s, there was no internet and there were no fun things to do, like nowadays. I don’t know if it’s the same nowadays, but back then, all the clubs and drinking places secretly let all these young kids in. They sold alcohol and they could play billiards after 4am.
It was common that a lot Korean youth, especially in Koreatown, had guns and were a part of gangs. They were protecting each other and they were doing gangster stuff together and trying to affiliate with other gangs, but when you really think about it, it’s actually a bunch of high school kids making a team with guns and drugs.
Back then, at schools like Los Angeles High School and Fairfax High School, the students used to carry around knives, guns, and weapons. It was also pretty common for people to do drugs in school and it was really really bad at the time.
There were a lot of drug sellers, gun sellers, and Fake ID sellers. You could easily walk down a street like Wilshire and Alvarado and pay $100 for a gun, or get a $50 fake ID. It was really easy to get access to all this illegal stuff at the time.
It was also more laid back. I remember when I was in high school, I ditched school like 40-50 times. And I didn’t get expelled. Even my brothers and my brother’s friends didn’t go to school for lots of days but they didn’t get expelled. After we graduated, they made the rules more strict.
Were you always involved in the church?
I came from a Christian family background. My grandmother was Christian. My grandfather was a martyred pastor. So even though my parents were Christians, they weren’t really fervent Christian because they were forced to go to church. So I was forced to go to my grandfather.
When I was in seventh grade, I began to raise my own voice. And I told my parents, I don’t want to go to church because I don’t believe in Christianity. The good thing is that my parents gave me a choice. So I didn’t go, but my grandmother always begged me to go.
I attended church a little bit in America. Sometimes I didn’t go, but from time to time I was forced to go. At the time, all my friends were attending church and then at the time, during the 1980s, 1990s, everybody attended church. If you’re Korean, you went to church. So I had many, many opportunities to go to church, to meet friends, and get involved with other Korean friends.
There were a lot of revivals and at one of my revivals that I attended, I questioned, “Is God real?” I prayed to God and told him, “If you are really real, please let me know. Otherwise, I don’t think I can attend church and I’ll probably close my heart.”
But at the revival, I felt the Holy Spirit and I experienced a supernatural, awakening moment and there was electricity going through my body. Ever since then, I was more open-hearted and I could believe. I joined a praise team called Sing* and there I began to learn more about God and participate in the church more.
Being a pastor was not your initial desire. What did you do prior to becoming a pastor?
I graduated high school and I went to College University*, where I received my degree in psychology. Initially, I was an Electronic Engineering major, but I didn’t like it because it was all about calculations. I was thinking, if I graduate with this engineering major, I would probably spend most of my life in a cubicle. So, I changed my major to psychology and I got my undergrad degree in psychology.
After that, I tried to become a psychiatrist. I used to work at Priority College’s* neuroscience department as a researcher. But I knew that I wasn’t meant to become a psychiatrist. I figured that all I wanted was fame, money, and the prestige that came with being a doctor. But I realized that you cannot really become a doctor with that kind of mentality. You really have a passion for treating patients and have compassion.
So, I started a wholesale and retail store in Downtown LA. I used to sell women’s handbags and accessories. And then in the middle of my business, I got called from God, which is why I quit my business and attended Duhigg Seminary School*.
How did you decide to become a pastor?
It was a supernatural kind of experience. My grandfather was a pastor, but he was martyred during the Korean War by communists. My uncles and my father didn’t want to continue his legacy because they knew that becoming a pastor was an extremely difficult job. As a pastor, you needed to live a life of poverty, sacrifice, and selflessness. I’ve heard from my uncles about how difficult their lives were. When my grandfather was martyred, my family had no money. They had to walk 10 miles to go to school or they didn’t grow up with decent meals. That’s why nobody wanted to become a pastor. Despite all of these, however, my grandmother always wanted her grandchildren to become a pastor and continue her husband’s legacy.
I always remembered [my grandfather] and I never wanted to become a pastor because I had that same kind of attitude. I wanted to be rich and famous and I wanted to live in a good house and drive a good car. I thought that maybe in the future, I could become a business owner and become a 장로님 (church elder) who was rich and could donate a lot to the church. I wanted to become somebody like that.
When I became a fervent Christian at the end of ninth grade, I had a dream, which I still remember vividly. A crazy fire came down from the sky and burned everything on the surface of the earth. I knew that it was an unusual dream and that it was probably a God-given dream.
I remember I went to a prayer mountain for a retreat with my church. When I was praying, there was a pastor who I didn’t know. I still don’t know who he is. He just walked up to me and said, “Did you have this kind of dream?” Then he described exactly what I dreamt about and I was like, “How did you know? I don’t even know you.”
He told me, “God gave you that dream. That means that one day God will use you. So get ready.” Before this incident, my name was Charles*. The pastor told me to change my name to P. Joe. That’s why I am P. Joe. All my high-school and junior-high friends know me as Charles. When I became a US citizen, I changed my name to Tommy because of the pastor I met at the prayer mountain.
I went on a short-term mission trip to Kenya in the summer of 2009. I realized that there were so many churches in Nairobi (the capital of Kenya), which is where the money is and where the decent living is. But there were no churches outside the capitol. There was no water, no hospitals, not anything. There were so many churches within the center of the city but then there were no pastors, no churches, no electricity, no order, outside of it.
I complained to God about the unfairness of the situation. “These people are called by you. They don’t obey you and they live comfortably at the capitol. There are so many potential believers outside of the capitol who don’t have anything. What’s going on?”
And then God spoke to me. “That’s you,” He said. “You want a comfortable life, just like the citizens in Nairobi do. You’ve been running away from my calling.”
That’s when my heart was convicted.
And so I came back. My grandmother passed away that year. Her last words towards me went something like this: “I’ve been always praying about you and I wish that you become a pastor and continue the legacy of your grandfather.” I told her that I was too unclean. That I loved secular stuff. That I wanted to be rich and I enjoy earthly life. But she said to me, “God can use anything and He can use you.” Her favorite gospel song was ‘Use Me’ by Ron Kenoley. The lyrics go like this: ‘Take my hands and my feet. Touch my heart and speak to me.’
I held that in my heart. When she passed away, I applied to Duhigg Seminary School. I thought to myself, if I get accepted, I would become a pastor. I started my journey to become a pastor extremely late. I was 30 or 31 years old. I didn’t do a good job on my application. I was a little bit off from the deadline. To be honest, I didn’t care about my faith statement or the reason why I wanted to go to college. I prayed to God, thinking that if they still accepted me, I’d become pastor. If not, I would just continue on with my life.
Amazingly enough, Duhigg Seminary School accepted me and at that moment I closed my business and went to seminary.
Korean Pastors are often regarded as the “therapists” of the community, as many church members come to you with a plethora of issues. Can you describe your role in Koreatown?
I used to do spiritual mentoring and spiritual counseling for a lot of Koreans in Koreatown. I could comfort a lot of youth and adults in a spiritual way, but they weren’t really getting out of their vicious cycles of abuse and addiction. Churches can do a lot of things spiritually, especially since it focuses on inner peace and also eternal life.
I helped most of these people through church. Word got around about my reputation and how I helped my youth ministry kids spiritually and mentally and encouraged them to come to church and believe Christ.
Their parents and their friends began to talk about me as the pastor who really cares and the people who heard the rumors came to me. I couldn’t help them all, but I did my best to help everyone. I was also sending lots of kids to good colleges and Korean parents were extremely interested in that.
I wanted to help people on both a physical and mental plane. I thought to myself, what can I do to bring restoration in the physical body and psychological restoration in families? For this reason being, I’ve been doing a lot of conferences and that’s why I was involved with KYCC, specifically their KISS program. Till the beginning of this year, I was the outreach officer at KYCC to help people at many different levels.
What experience in your life — as a pastor, a spiritual mentor, a teacher, etc — stood out to you the most?
This story is very interesting. There was a school principal that was physically abusing one of her students, who was an eighth grader at the time. The child’s mother could not report the woman to the authorities because they were illegal immigrants. They were threatened, but they couldn’t receive justice. The boy’s friend’s mother heard about me from another person and set an appointment to meet with me through church.
So I helped them. I listened to their problems and also gave them psychological and spiritual comfort. I was there for them in times of anxiety and panic.
But the work that I was doing was not fundamentally treating the issues of illegal immigrants involved in abuse. I truly believe in justice and I wanted to bring this after school principal to court.
I got help from another institution and KYCC to tackle this issue. I learned that if a person was involved in a situation of assault or abuse, they were more protected by the government. They had the opportunity to get a V Visa, which gives the victim to receive legal residency and protection until the problem gets resolved.
The mother and the son were able to receive a green card because they were involved with these kinds of issues. I didn’t know about those things because I’m not a legal expert and I’m not well-read with immigration laws. Because I was affiliated with a lot of different institutions, including KYCC, I was able to tackle the fundamental issue.
How have you been involved with KYCC?
I was connected with school counselors and one of the counselors I worked with was Esther Kim,* who was a school counselor at a high school in Koreatown. She used to be one of my Bible Study Group leads. She knew that I was very involved with doing conferences and counseling for youth. Esther, Eric Ji, Jesse*, and I were all interested in doing joint programs for the youth in Koreatown.
We gathered together and had a meeting. There I met Eric Ji and I learned about KYCC and I learned more specifically about the KISM program. At the time, KYCC needed somebody who could connect KYCC and KISM with local churches. That’s how I naturally got involved with the program.
*MOST NAMES AND IDENTIFYING DETAILS HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT THE PRIVACY OF INDIVIDUALS.