Alfred Lerner Hall on Sunday mornings is a quiet, peaceful place—except on the fifth floor.
Young couples sit on lounge chairs next to their strollers, discussing the Bible in Korean. Kids bounce down the ramps. Inside room 555, rows of chairs are set up before PowerPoint slides of Psalms in English and Korean. Welcome to the Korean Christian Students Association’s weekly Campus Mission Church service.
Catering to Columbia undergraduates, graduates, alumni, and even students from other schools, the CMC holds three services every Sunday, usually in Lerner Hall. Though the content is in Korean, audio translators are available (though on a recent visit, I was the only one using them). The church, a spinoff of KCSA, was started by a group of Korean Christian students in 2003 and describes itself as “open to anyone regardless of their background, age, and culture.” Early meetings were held in a variety of locations—various classrooms and lecture halls and even in Public School 165 on 109th Street.
Ki Seok Oh, 38, started attending CMC services when he was an architecture M.A. student in 2007. On a recent Sunday, he brought along his one-year-old son and enjoyed the company of friends, many of whom are also students or alumni of Columbia.
“I went to Columbia, so it was a natural progression to find a community here,” he said. “It’s bonding with people who speak the same languages, share the same culture, and have the same Christian beliefs.”
Ryan, a physics post-doc who asked to only be identified by his first name, first came to KCSA’s services back in 2001 when he was still an astrophysics graduate student. The church was smaller back then, he recalled—with only about 30 congregants and one weekly service, but the community was still strong.
“I was baptized here. I know a lot of friends—very close friends—who are almost like brothers and sisters,” Ryan said, adding that he met his wife through the church (they got married in 2003).
More than 71 percent of Korean Americans are Christian, according to a 2012 Pew report—compared to 42 percent of all Asian Americans and 30 percent of South Koreans. And according to the Presbyterian Church in America, there are more than 4,000 Korean-language churches in the U.S. Though this high religiosity among South Koreans is unique due to a combination of historical and governmental factors, the churches, especially in immigrant communities, serve as more than just places of worship—they’re community centers where people who might not speak English can seek support from peers for everything from opening bank accounts to filing taxes. CMC is just an extension of that world into Columbia’s bubble.
“I still feel like I’m part of the Columbia community,” Ki said. “More than just an alumni.”