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Profile: Eugene Cho
Krish Kandiah meets Eugene Cho, justice advocate and the founder of Quest Church, Seattle, which has just bought former church leader Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Ballard Campus.
I met Eugene Cho in a darkened room of a sleazy-looking bar within the recesses of the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. It was the only quiet space we could find amid the buzz of the 2,000 20-somethings who had descended on the historic theatre in this rundown part of the city. They were there for the Justice Conference 2014, to learn about pursuing justice globally and locally.
Cho, who is Korean by birth but moved to the US aged six, will again be one of the keynote speakers at the 2015 Justice Conference in June, alongside Lynne Hybels, Louie Giglio and Bob Goff.
Interest in Cho and his ministry was stirred among American evangelicals a few years ago by his One Day’s Wages campaign, which he launched following a trip to Burma. The campaign saw thousands of people donate the equivalent of a whole day’s pay to help those facing extreme poverty. Cho himself felt led to donate a year’s worth of his wages, and had to move his family out of their home as a result. His charity, One Day’s Wages, remains a significant part of his work.
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But lately, Cho’s name has resurfaced in the Christian press due to the news that the church he founded in his front room with his wife Minhee in 2001 – now known as Quest, Seattle - has purchased the 40,000 square foot building (Ballard church), previously owned by Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill, for $9 million (£6 million). Quest has grown from just nine attendees to around 1,000, and was in need of a larger home; the Mars Hill building is just over a mile away.
Writing on his website, Cho reports a somewhat bumpy relationship with Driscoll. ‘While we may not be close friends, I consider him a brother-in-Christ,’ says Cho, who preached at Mars Hill in the early days. Driscoll once tried to recruit him, but the two soon identified a fundamental disagreement in their thelogy of women in leadership and the employment never progressed.
Fifteen years on, Cho says he has experienced ‘mixed feelings’ about Driscoll’s ministry, but he ‘truly grieved’ over the closure of Mars Hill and Driscoll’s fall from grace and subsequent resignation. ‘The scrutiny and critique were warranted, but there’s a fine line and it was incredibly painful to witness some folks reveling in the pain and demise of Mars Hill. The threats to his family? Unacceptable. People publicly disclosing his home address? Vicious.
‘I know that there are many who are still hurting. I have read and personally heard some of the stories of deep wounds and I hope for healing and restoration in their lives. I pray for healing for the Driscoll family. I pray that God does something in Mark – believing that God is not yet done with him.’
Cho describes Quest as ‘an urban, multi-ethnic, multigenerational church that is compelled to the ministry of reconciliation’. Perhaps Quest’s slow, quiet expansion into the former Mars Hill territory is symbolic; an indicator that Cho’s understanding of the nature of evangelical Christianity has far greater longevity than Driscoll’s ‘sock it to ’em’, masculine approach, which sadly collapsed as quickly as it grew.
How did you become a Christian?
My great-grandfather, whom I never met, was one of the first believers in his town, just outside the city of Pyongyang; right now the capital of North Korea. Back then, Korea was just one nation. As a result of his coming to faith, the whole household became Christians. Both my mother and father were born in North Korea and they share amazing stories of fleeing in the middle of the night because of the persecution due to the rise of communism. I believe that because they showed great faith to the gospel, it trickled down to me.
I came to a personal confession aged around 18. My family had emigrated to the States, which I found difficult. I struggled with a lot of identity issues. It was obvious that I was not American and that was hard; I went through a lot of depression. I became very angry as a teenager. I still remember people saying, ‘Go back home.’
But it was right after my senior year in high school, after difficult emotional struggles and some substance abuse, that I prayed in the quietness of my room: ‘God, if you’re out there, I believe in you and I want to commit my life to you.’
The person that really was instrumental for me during those years happened to be a Hispanic custodian who worked at my mother’s deli and didn’t speak any English. In hindsight, I feel like I endured four years of Señora Nicora, our arduous Spanish teacher, in order to hear the gospel from this gentleman. He would always invite me to accept Christ and I never did so in front of him, but in my room that summer I made that confession.
Do you think that experience of being an outsider and then being brought to faith by another immigrant shaped your views about the Church?
Absolutely. There isn’t a week that goes by where I’m not reminded of my immigrant story or I’m not reminded of the ‘otherisation’. This is why Jesus really compels me. I think of his story…He heard on several occasions: ‘What good comes from Nazareth? Who are you? You’re the son of a carpenter. You’re no one.’
I love the way he embraces the marginalised. And it’s not to say that he doesn’t love those who are in the middle or mainstream, but the gospel is for all people. We’ve learned over the years that if the gospel isn’t good news for anyone and everyone, there’s something wrong with that gospel.
Martin Luther King once said that America is at its most divided at 11am on a Sunday morning. Do you think that’s still true?
I’d like to say that it’s no longer true, but I think I’d be lying. Even though there is a rise of multicultural churches it’s still a minority. The Church is still divided. Our wider culture doesn’t know how to navigate the conversation about race.
One of the reasons my wife and I started Quest Church was a vision to embody a kingdom-minded church that would take strides towards being a multigenerational and multi-ethnic church. I still remember the looks that people gave. It was like I was speaking Greek; it was such an abnormality. And I know that things have changed because as I speak about multi-ethnic church now it’s much more embraced. I’m not seen as some kind of outsider. It’s becoming a little more mainstream.
Reading your bio is exhausting. You’ve planted Quest Church, you run an arts centre café space and a global charity. Most people would struggle to do one of those things, let alone all three. Have you any tips?
No! Don’t do it! End quote! Part of maturity is living into who we really are: knowing our strengths, our weaknesses and our insecurities. It doesn’t mean that everyone should be running three organisations. Because I’m aware of my insecurities and my insufficiencies, I know the people that I want to work with because they are better able to complement me, and vice versa.
There is a myth though that the more you do the busier you get…It doesn’t always have to be that way. You try to exemplify good leadership, which I would say is good delegation, good team spirit, good collegiality. I’m a full-time pastor and I work with a great team at our church. With the non-profit café and music venue I’ve got a couple of people running that with their baristas. All I need to do is cast vision and take good care of our leaders.
The charity, One Day’s Wages, has certainly been a handful. It’s been an endeavour that has taken its toll [on] our family. But I made a decision with all of these things that I don’t need to change the entire world. That’s a myth and it’s a dangerous path. I can’t do everything. I can only do a few things and hopefully a few things well.
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Even though these three things are big things in addition to being a husband and a father, I just need to give myself some grace that it doesn’t need to be something that is neatly and nicely packaged perfection. This has probably been the biggest significant life decision that I have had to make, coming from a culture and family background of perfectionists.
How do you work out what your calling is and isn’t? And how do you learn to say no?
Learning to say no is a skill that all of us have to develop. When we were younger we were taught ‘yes, yes, yes, yes’. That’s compounded often in the religious evangelical culture: ‘Send me. Yes, yes, yes, yes.’ I think there are a few significant theological truths that we have to learn and one of them is that I am not the saviour. I am not the messiah.
Personally, I’m recovering from a saviour-messianic complex. I think a lot of Christian pastors and leaders are recovering in that area, or if they’re not they really need to be. As much as I want to save the world...as much as when I see injustice I want to rectify, correct and change it, when all is said and done I am not the saviour. There is a saviour and his name is Jesus. God is in control and I have to surrender to that.
Why did you start One Day’s Wages rather than working with others in Burma who may have had longer and deeper experience with the Karen people?
It’s a great question; one that we’ve had to ask ourselves on numerous occasions. Starting NGOs today is akin to people starting bands in the 80s and 90s. As we came back we really wrestled with what we experienced. As a pastor, a blogger, a speaker and having a small but growing reputation as someone that loves justice and advocates on issues of justice, I realised on a personal basis that I had grown more in love with the idea of justice than actually living justly.
That experience was truly a personal conviction where God – and I can’t say it any more bluntly – rebuked me for my arrogance that I was for some stupid reason thinking that I was ushering in God’s work or God’s presence, whether it was in Burma or Seattle or wherever. The question I had to ask is not so much, ‘God, how can you be a part of what I’m doing?’ but ‘God, I believe you’re at work. I believe that you’re speaking. How can I be a part of what you’re doing?’
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So with One Day’s Wages we don’t reinvent the wheel. We look for the women and men and organisations that are on the ground, and that understand the context and culture…so much more than I can ever do. We want to come alongside them.
You felt personally led by God to give not only one day’s wages, but one year’s wages. In order to fulfil this promise, you felt convicted to move out of your family home, rent it out and stay with friends. I’m trying to imagine how you spoke with your wife, a marriage counsellor, about this conviction…
Reflecting on the conversation that I had with my wife about this, I must admit it was stupid on my part. We were about $10,000 short of the $68,000 we had promised to give. One night in my office, probably past midnight, while my wife and kids were asleep – it was either a moment of stupidity, or faith, or craziness, or all of the above – I put an ad online to rent out our home for $10,000. A businessman came to see the house on Wednesday when my wife was out, and he said he wanted to move in on the Friday.
I remember chatting with my wife that day and saying, ‘Have a seat…this is only an idea…there are no decisions that have been made.’ I explained the situation and let’s just say that she said some words that can’t be printed in this magazine. She was upset, and rightly so. I think she cried a little bit.
But she didn’t have to be forced into this decision. It was a family thing and it was a mutual decision. But I really mean this; if I knew how difficult it was going to be, there’s no way we would have done it. The most difficult moment of my life was that night, where she said, ‘Ok, let’s do this.’ Bringing our kids into our bedroom, she said: ‘Look, we’re going on a field trip. Everyone gets one bag.’
Some people might say that you gave a year of your wages away and that’s fantastic, but others may criticise the fact that everybody knew about it. How does that fit with the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing?
I think for us, the reason that we ultimately chose to make that decision is that we live in a very sceptical and cynical world, and we function and live in a culture and in a time when people are wary of leaders, pastors and organisations; that there’s a sense of duplicity or lack of transparency.
As things have turned out, there are those that think that it’s unChristian and unbiblical and that we’re being boastful and arrogant, and those that understand that, in our context and times…we’re living by the philosophy that we don’t want to ask people to do something that we’re not willing to do ourselves.
Overrated: Are We More in Love with the Idea of Changing the World Than Actually Changing the World? (David C Cook) by Eugene Cho, is available now. For more information on One Day’s Wages, visit onedayswages.org