The Reverend Michael Park was just settling down in Olathe, he and his wife, Esther, having just purchased a house there. Then they received the news that it was time to move to Chanute.
Methodist clergy appointed the South Korea native to start his new position in Chanute on July 1, with his first service to be held on Sunday, July 5, at the First United Methodist Church. That service will also be the first service held at the church by any non-white pastor in the church’s 150 year history.
“It was a little bit of a shock, honestly. We expected to be in Olathe for a while. I was a senior associate preacher there and it was a church of around 2,000 people,” Park said. “We had just gotten used to going to Whole Foods, places like that. Kansas City, a much more diverse city, was just down the road. But when the clergy told me I needed to go to Chanute, I realized at that moment, it’s not where you want to be, it is where you need to be. And since arriving here, I have realized this is where I need to be.
“This is really a huge thing that is happening. I will be the first non-white pastor to be here. I think early on it will be a challenge. I have a lot of things to learn about our congregation and this community, which has been limited by COVID-19. My first service, we will have to wear a mask. But I think I have different viewpoints to share with this community and I will have a lot to learn from them. You know, in church there is no skin color. Church should be your happy place. It doesn’t know skin color; it’s a place we all come together and love one another and worship the Lord.”
Park is not a traditional Christian. He was raised in a Buddhist household, but was invited to a Christian church camp as a teen.
“It was a moment of awakening for me, honestly. I had a feeling in my heart that I had never felt before and I knew this was for me from that point in time,” Park said.
At 18 years old (19 by Asian terms), Park headed off to the Philippines for college. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Philippine Christian University and followed that up with a Master’s of Theology from Hupsung Graduate School of Theology in South Korea. He then earned a Master’s of Divinity from St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City.
While in the Philippines, he helped start six churches in his four years there.
Park went back to South Korea, where he served in the Army as a chaplain. And just because he is a pastor, don’t mistake his kindness for weakness. He also holds a black belt in karate.
“The guys in the Army used to call me Angel and Devil. I was an angel when I was giving them blessings on Sundays, but I was a devil the rest of the week. I may have gotten fatter over the past year, but I still have a black belt. I can bless you on Sundays, but (pardon my language here), I can still kick your butt the rest of the week,” he laughed.
While in South Korea, Park helped start a church that continues to grow to this day. It went grew to 14,000 members before he left and is currently up to 18,000 members. He began to feel the church turning into a business, and it made him feel uncomfortable.
“When you have the mega churches, it turns into a business. There is a lot of money involved, and that is not what it should be about. It felt like I was working at LG or Samsung, both very successful companies in South Korea,” he said. “When I left for the United States, people told me I was crazy. But it just didn’t feel right. You don’t become a preacher for money; you become a preacher to lead people to God.”
Michael and Esther have one child, Paul, with another boy due in January. The couple hopes to have a daughter someday, but he is more than happy to add another boy.
“It’s going to be us three guys and Esther. I feel so bad for her because boys can be a handful, not real sure how she will manage,” he said. “But we have agreed to stop having kids when we have a daughter.”
Park has no plans to return to South Korea. If he did, he would become a year older.
“In Asian countries you are a year old the day you are born. I am 42 years old here, but 43 over there. I am not looking to get any older. I have young children, I don’t need to add a year to my age,” he said. “I plan on being here for many years and I think we will have a great relationship with this community.”