Bethany United

The newly formed Bethany Korean United Methodist congregation. (Submitted photo / July 2, 2013)

Members of the newly formed Bethany Korean United Methodist congregation, the first of its denomination in Howard County, gather weekdays at 5 a.m. for a dawn prayer service and on Sundays at 11:30 a.m. to worship.

For a group that held its first service a little more than a month ago, the small church has quickly found its rhythm.

Arrangements for the 20-member Korean-language church to meet in the historic chapel on the campus of Bethany United Methodist Church came together just as quickly, said the Rev. David W. Simpson, senior pastor of the 1,300-member host church, which is located on Bethany Lane in Ellicott City.

"Different forces came together in a vibrant reflection of God's love," said Simpson, who serves as adviser to Bethany's new mission. A Korean group recently had approached Bethany United Methodist about its desire to form a Korean United Methodist church just as Bethany was focusing intently on how to best serve Korean residents' needs, he said.

That meeting of the minds "got the ball rolling," said Simpson, and everyone involved "moved very fast" to bring the new association about, launching the church on May 26.

"Methodism is the second largest Protestant denomination in Korea, just behind Presbyterianism," he said. "We felt we (as a large Methodist church) had not been doing well" by the Korean population concentrated in Ellicott City. The Korean mission rectifies that gap in services, he added.

Serving the new congregation are the Rev. Jonathan Cho, a retired pastor working as a consultant, and the Rev. Dae Sung Park, who was appointed in April by the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. Plans call for Cho, who is 79, to bow out eventually to allow Park, 35, to lead as sole pastor.

"I am so excited and so blessed" to be serving the Korean UM church, said Park, who was born in Korea and came to the United States in 2006.

Simpson said that Bethany knew "we needed to do something" on behalf of Korean residents as far back as 2007, when he submitted a report to church superintendents. Statistics generated by the Baltimore-Washington Conference, which is similar to a diocese, show that 70 percent of the residents in Bethany's 5-mile primary service area are Asian. Of those residents, the majority are first- or second-generation Korean-Americans who mostly are bilingual, Simpson said.

There are other Korean language churches in Howard County, such as Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church on St. John's Lane in Ellicott City, but no other Korean United Methodist churches, he explained.

"We are not naive enough to think everyone (at Bethany) would think this is a good idea, but I have been very pleased at the widespread support," said Simpson, who is 62 and resides in Mount Airy with his wife, Sylvia. "Our congregation's general response has been very healthy and very open.

"We are working to overcome built-in chasms" so the two churches can come together, Simpson said. "Language is a natural barrier, as is worshiping at different times."

Bethany United Methodist, which also has two associate pastors, holds Sunday services at 8 a.m., 8:55 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Bethany Korean meets at 11:30 a.m. in order to use the shared parking lot efficiently, and also holds a Bible study at 8 p.m. Sundays.

"It would be easy to be out of sight, out of mind," Simpson said. "You really have to work at it."

A combined staff retreat to plan for 2014 was held for three days in early June, and a multi-year plan will take shape this summer, he said.

Said Park: "I know, and our church knows, what Koreans need. Bethany is a big church and it can help provide those things.

"So many Koreans come to live in Howard County because the parents' top priority is education," he said. "Howard County is so popular in Korea that it's in the top five" of desired places for families to relocate to in America, he added.

Of the 52,000 students enrolled in county public schools, more than 9,000 are Asian, according to the latest data in a September 2012 school system report on enrollment by race. In the past three years, total enrollment of Asian students grew from 8,165, or 16 percent of all students in 2010, to 8,606, or 16.7 percent in 2011, and to 9,169, or 17.6 percent, in 2012, figures show.

Asian student enrollment is highest in Ellicott City schools. Veterans, Hollifield Station, Centennial Lane and Waverly lead elementary schools, with 47.6 percent, 43.3 percent, 38.6 percent and 35.5 percent, respectively. Burleigh Manor, Dunloggin, Patapsco, and Ellicott Mills middle schools have Asian enrollment percentages of 39.4, 31.2, 27.2 and 24.9. The student body at Centennial High School is comprised of 32.5 percent Asians, followed by 24.8 percent at Mt. Hebron.

Simpson said the staffs of both congregations agree that youths will benefit from attending programs together since Korean-American often youths prefer to speak English with their peers.

Park said he intends to drum up interest in Bethany Korean by handing out brochures at Lotte Plaza, an Asian gourmet food market located in the Golden Triangle Shopping Center, which is wedged between Route 40 and Ridge Road in Ellicott City.

"We have so many plans to include more people," he said, noting that every week new visitors are attending worship services. "We are praying that our church will grow."

"The thing that's different here is that we're trying very hard to integrate the two congregations so we have a shared vision of what we can do together," Simpson said. "We don't want it to be 'us and them' — just 'us'."