THE ROAD VICTOR KO, age 39, traveled to the Christian Reformed Church was unusual, but one on which he now recognizes the Spirit’s leading at every step.
Victor grew up a Roman Catholic in Seoul, South Korea. His father had left atheism to marry his devoutly Catholic mother, but her “Damascus road experience” (see Acts 9) when Victor was in third grade changed their lives. She became an avid Bible reader, then a Presbyterian. This introduced Victor to Sunday school, to Presbyterianism, and to the charismatic movement.
When Victor was 14 his parents moved to the United States, where his mother’s family already lived in Ann Arbor, Mich. Victor adapted to his new culture quickly, while his well-educated parents learned to run a restaurant.
After graduating from the University of Michigan, Victor went back to the restaurant, but his brother at Calvin College wanted him to move to Grand Rapids, Mich., to share an apartment. It was 1993. “Prior to that I had never heard of the CRC, nor Calvin College or Seminary,” Victor says. Though he wanted go back to Ann Arbor to study social work, he stayed to help his brother pay the rent. He began to take theology courses—“just temporarily”—at Calvin Seminary.
“I enrolled in the shortest program, in missions, because I was killing time,” Victor admits. “I thought I was brilliant [in planning my life], but in hindsight this was God’s way of opening and shutting doors for me.” He began to feel that he was “being invited by God into pastoral ministry.” When he was sure of that calling he switched to the master-of-divinity program. His parents were surprised but supportive. “My mother had offered my older brother to the Lord, like Hannah did Samuel. They felt he would be the pastor and I would run the restaurant.” They now saw that God had other plans.
Victor relished the seminary’s Reformed emphasis on God’s sovereignty. “I saw how God is active in the affairs of the world. That was very refreshing to me.” But where would he go as a pastor? “My professors encouraged me to consider the CRC because of my background,” he says. “The CRC would like to have more diversity. I felt God was sending me to the CRC for that purpose. We want to see people of different languages and heritages worshiping God together.” So in 1999 Victor accepted a call to Third CRC, Kalamazoo, Mich. That large church is, however, almost all white. “Even today I get asked, ‘How did you end up in a church like that?’” he laughs.
“Someone like me being a pastor helps to change the stereotypes,” he says. “I give Third Church credit for calling me; I am their first non-Dutch pastor. I was asked how I would feel coming to an Anglo church. When I went to school it was in an Anglo context; when I go to banks and restaurants, it is in an Anglo context. I feel like a fish in water.
“When I was in the seminary everybody assumed I would work in a Korean-American church . . . but I never had that passion or felt God calling me to that context.” Victor’s wife, EunAe, a fellow seminary student and a recent Korean immigrant, understood. (They have a daughter, 9, and son, 6.)
“I think it’s a very exciting time to be in the CRC,” Victor concludes. “I see the Holy Spirit working. We are embracing changes, diversity.”
“I would ask people to be proactive to others who are from different backgrounds. That takes intentionality and much effort.” Yet diversity shouldn’t be its own end. “Any church that is doing well should be a church that’s welcoming, inviting, open. We need to focus on lost sheep. Period. ”