‘Fertile Soil For Abuse’: A Reckoning At Covenant Fellowship Church
Sources said the UIUC campus church’s culture, structure and charismatic leader were among the reasons why so many stories of sexual abuse remained hidden for so long.By Esther Yoon-Ji Kang, Susie An
Editor’s note: This story contains descriptions of sexual assault and abuse.
On May 2, 2021, a new Instagram account by the name of @letters_from_rahab appeared on the popular social media platform.
Initially, the account’s posts, addressed to no one in particular, were general notes about sexual and spiritual abuse, trauma and the lack of transparency among leadership in churches. The account had about 20 followers at the time.
Eight days in, the account creator announced in a post that she had created a Google form for stories from survivors. Two days after that, a new kind of post — one much more personal — appeared on the @letters_from_rahab feed. It read: “I was physically, sexually, mentally, and spiritually abused at CFC. -CFC survivor.”
“CFC” referred to Covenant Fellowship Church, a predominantly Asian American church on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). The church, well known among Asian Christians in the Chicago area, particularly Korean Americans, also attracts students from all over the country — and the world.
The creator of the @letters_from_rahab account remembered when she received the first submission from the anonymous “CFC survivor.” She said, “I remember looking at that thinking, ‘Oh, my God, this is where this page is going to go.’ It was actually one of those moments I was just staring [and] crying.”
Over the next few weeks, the account creator and a few volunteers — all of whom asked to be unnamed to preserve the anonymous nature of the forum — read through the submissions and started posting them as text blocks. There were stories about pastors grooming teen girls and making sexual comments, church leaders minimizing mental health issues like suicidal thoughts and depression, women being sexually assaulted and going to spiritual leaders for help, only to be told “it takes two to tango.” Most of the posts were about experiences or people connected to CFC.
In a matter of weeks, more than 300 submissions poured in. The follower count for @letters_from_rahab would reach nearly 3,000, with thousands more from all over the world visiting the account’s resources page.
Upon learning of the posts, WBEZ launched a monthslong investigation: obtaining statements, recordings and other documents about sexual assault allegations; examining hundreds of the @letters_from_rahab posts; and connecting with dozens of sources, including those who created the Instagram page, former and current CFC members, victims of sexual misconduct linked to the church, individuals involved in the church’s leadership and oversight, university officials, and experts on church practices and religious abuse, among others.
What has emerged is a tale of a prominent, mostly Korean American congregation on the UIUC campus, its well-known pastor and the thousands of congregants who came of age in the church. It is a story about sexual abuse, spiritual abuses or the misuse of power within the church, the alleged mishandling of those abuses, and a culture of piety and shame that sought to keep it all hidden for nearly three decades.
On its face, it is an exploration of Asian American Christianity, a small subset of an American religious subculture. But it is also a story about the lifelong impact of sexual assault, the trauma experienced by survivors, and the actions they are now taking to advocate for themselves and to seek justice on behalf of others.
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“I really thought … I was the only one”
When Anna Rhee arrived on the U of I campus in the mid-’90s, she knew right away that CFC would be her church. WBEZ is using a pseudonym for Rhee and other victims of sexual misconduct included in this story to protect their identities.
“Why wouldn’t you go to CFC? CFC was amazing,” Rhee said. “There was no question, if you were coming from [the] Chicago suburbs, and you were Korean or Asian, you would just go there.”
She loved the instant community she encountered, especially after attending predominantly white schools in north suburban Lincolnwood. “When you have, all of a sudden, 500 [new friends], it’s pretty cool because you feel seen, you feel like they accept you, like you don’t have to explain yourself.”
Rhee said the church also felt “organized.” Worship and large group events went smoothly, small groups and Bible studies ran like clockwork, and the preacher — CFC’s former head pastor, Min Joshua Chung — was always on point.
“He was a very good preacher,” Rhee said. “His sermons — very rarely were they boring or dry. I always felt very engaged.”
After finishing her undergraduate studies, Rhee stayed in Champaign-Urbana. She liked her new job in town, and many of the friends she met through CFC were staying as well.
Around that time, she started hanging out with a male friend from church. One summer day, while her roommates were out, he came over and the two started kissing.
“And then I realized this was going south very quickly,” Rhee said. “He was on top of me, and then he started to undo his pants, and I started freaking out, and I was saying, no, stop, no — like repeatedly.”
After he pulled her pants down, she was able to push him off and run to the bathroom, Rhee said. She locked the door and remained inside until he left. Rhee said she was sure he would have raped her if she hadn’t been able to fight him off.
After the incident, she confided in a female friend from church, who suggested they go to Chung.
“We would tell him because he was sort of who you would talk to, even before the thought of going to the police — because the idea is that he would know what to do,” Rhee said.
When she and her female friend went to Chung, Rhee said the pastor acknowledged that he and other church leaders already had their eye on the assailant — that he had a reputation for preying on women in the church. Chung then discouraged her from reporting the incident to the authorities, Rhee said.
“He said, ‘Your parents are well-respected members of their church, your father’s an elder [at their church],’ ” Rhee recalled. “ ‘If they found out, they would be devastated and … you know how people talk, and I wouldn’t want them to have to go through that.’ ”
Rhee said Chung told her, if she were to go to the police, it would likely end in a “he said, she said” scenario. She said the pastor added that he and other leaders at CFC would provide the assailant with counseling and mentoring. Chung, Rhee said, “gave me this confidence that he was going to take care of it.”
When one of Rhee’s male friends, Daniel Chung (no relation to Min Chung), later confronted the pastor about the incident, Min Chung told him, “I didn’t want to ruin his life over this one thing,” according to Daniel Chung.
“That got me really emotional,” Rhee remembered. “Because then what was it all for? Now I kind of almost think that nothing was done, that the whole point was that I would just shut up and not tell anybody and it would go away.”
Rhee is not the only woman who sought Chung’s help after being sexually abused. Michelle Lin, too, spoke with the pastor when she found herself in an abusive relationship. WBEZ is using a pseudonym for Lin.
She arrived as a freshman on the UIUC campus in 2000. Having heard about CFC from an older friend at her home church in Oklahoma, Lin, like Rhee, was embraced by the large community.
Lin soon found herself in a relationship with a fellow CFC member. “I think it was pretty early on when our relationship became sexual, but not by choice,” Lin said. “Not knowing what abuse looks like, and being very sheltered in my childhood, I really didn’t see any of the red flags.”
After being raped repeatedly by her boyfriend, Lin reached out to one of CFC’s area pastors — associate or assistant pastors who oversaw different parts of the UIUC campus. Lin said the area pastor was sympathetic and that he suggested she speak to Chung.
In that conversation, Lin said, Chung did not advise her to report the abuse or to get counseling from a trained professional. Instead, she said he asked her about her “heart motives,” a topic on which Chung was writing a dissertation for his doctoral degree at the time.
“It was very much like, ‘Why do you think you got into this relationship? Why do you think you’re staying for so long?’ ” Lin recalled. She said she asked him what would happen if she got pregnant, and he replied, “Well, you’re going to have to leave school.”
“After leaving the conversation, I was like, ‘Well, I guess I’m on my own,’ ” Lin said. Without the help she needed, Lin said she could not find a way to leave the relationship. She got pregnant her junior year and had an abortion. Lin said she grew depressed and attempted suicide, which resulted in her being hospitalized. After her boyfriend became physically abusive, she said she “tried to make his life so miserable, so that he would finally leave me alone.”
The relationship ended when she finished her junior year, nearly three years after it began. Between bouts of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, Lin sought out a different Christian group on campus where she started the process of healing. She said it has taken many years — and a lot of therapy — to get to a place where she feels comfortable coming forward with her story.
Reports of sexual misconduct and their subsequent mishandling at CFC were not confined to the Champaign-Urbana area. Victims of assault or abuse submitted stories from within their suburban churches in the Chicago area — and beyond — to the @letters_from_rahab Instagram page. Some who spoke to WBEZ said that when they sought help from church leaders who were CFC alums, they were told “boys will be boys” or that they should simply forgive their perpetrators.
In one particular case, according to sources, Chung took steps to cover up sexual abuse committed by a fellow pastor, Samuel Lee, who was leading Faith Alliance Bible Church (FABC) in suburban Des Plaines from the ’90s to the early 2000s.
When Chung found out about his friend and fellow pastor, he discouraged various parties from reporting the incidents to FABC’s elder board, according to sources knowledgeable about the situation. Chung helped Samuel Lee to quietly step down from FABC and move to California, telling people that he had to leave to care for his ailing mother. Chung’s assistance included giving Samuel Lee relocation funds — a five-digit sum — from CFC’s account, sources told WBEZ.
Part of Chung’s plan for dealing with Samuel Lee’s sexual misconduct also included relocating Lee’s victims to the Champaign-Urbana area and promising them counseling and “healing,” sources told WBEZ.
Bob Petty, district superintendent for the Christian and Mission Alliance (CMA), FABC’s parent denomination, confirmed to WBEZ that Samuel Lee had “abandoned his pastorate and congregation and moved to California. He later confessed to sexual abuse charges and both his Ministry License and Ordination were permanently revoked under Christian and Missionary Alliance Formal Discipline process in 2003.”
WBEZ reached out to Chung numerous times and by various means, with specific questions about his handling of reports of sexual abuse and assault from congregants, the assistance he provided Samuel Lee and several other topics referenced in the posts shared on @letters_from_rahab. WBEZ had not received a response as of Aug. 2.
We also reached out to Samuel Lee via phone. After we asked him to respond to the allegations he faced at FABC, as well as Chung’s subsequent handling of the abuse, he hung up.
Many sources — particularly women — who talked to WBEZ said they were surprised to see the number of accounts of sexual assault and abuse linked to CFC among the @letters_from_rahab posts.
Tina Wei Smith thought her story was unique. “I really thought I was alone, that I was the only one that this unfortunately happened to, when — clearly, reading stories after stories — I was not alone,” she said. “And I wasn’t the only one being told that there’s some fault on my end.”
While WBEZ offers anonymity to victims of sexual abuse or assault, Smith wanted to be named in this story to advocate for other survivors. Smith said she sent her story of sexual assault to @letters_from_rahab when she saw the submission form. She talked about how in late 2003, a male member of CFC took her out to the bars, provided her with a fake ID, got her drunk and then raped her.
When Smith went to her area pastor for help, she said “he was very kind, but without resources or training.” Smith said he told her that “they were speaking to [the CFC member who raped her] and confronting him and that they were counseling him.” She said her area pastor also made her feel responsible for what happened.
“I do remember him just saying … not that he put a percentage on it … but that part of it was my fault,” she remembered. “I shouldn’t have been out that late. I shouldn’t have been drinking.”
Smith went home for Christmas break and told her parents she needed help. They told her she could not return to campus if she didn’t report the rape to campus authorities. Smith said she agreed to report the incident and received help from the University of Illinois’ Women’s Resources Center.
Today, Smith, who served as executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders between 2019 and 2021, said she wants to help survivors of sexual abuse and assault linked to CFC find healing for themselves and accountability for their perpetrators. She reached out to the @letters_from_rahab team to ask them to connect her to any victims who need resources after experiencing trauma.
Smith also encouraged survivors to report CFC by filing a Title IX complaint. Title IX is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities. Such discrimination can include sexual harassment or sexual violence, such as rape, sexual assault, sexual battery and sexual coercion, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
WBEZ has learned from UIUC officials that in May CFC chose not to renew its status as a registered student organization, or RSO. Without its RSO status, the church can no longer reserve campus spaces and recruit new students on “Quad Day,” an annual event held at the start of the fall semester where new students are introduced to organizations on campus.
In May, UIUC’s Title IX office received reports directing attention to @letters_from_rahab on Instagram, according to spokeswoman Robin Kaler. The university administration reviewed the social media posts, but Kaler said they couldn’t tie any of the allegations to individual members of any RSOs. Smith said CFC used student leaders as its liaisons — instead of the pastors — for registering as an RSO.
Smith blamed the culture of CFC for the church’s lack of accountability and the reason why so many stories of sexual misconduct there remained hidden for so long.
“It’s Asian churches that operate with a similar culture, saving face, shame,” she said. “There’s certain things we can’t talk about — sexual misconduct, sexual assault, you know, this will make the church look bad.”
She added: “There’s no consequences for [the perpetrators’] sin, no consequences for their crime.”
Sources told WBEZ that the seeds of that culture were planted in the earliest days of CFC and allowed to grow due to the church’s structure, its revered leader and the exuberant and youthful flock he would attract.
“The most influential Korean American pastor in America”
Min Joshua Chung himself was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois. In the 1980s, he came to prominence in Korean American Christian circles as part of a gospel band called Alpha Omega. They toured the country, mostly the Midwest and the East Coast, leading worship at churches and retreats.
After completing his seminary studies in Pennsylvania, Chung, then in his mid-20s, returned to Urbana to start a new ministry on campus. He recruited members from an English-speaking college group he was a part of at the local Korean immigrant church to start what was then called the Korean Christian Fellowship, according to sources familiar with the church’s history.
Later renamed Covenant Fellowship Church, the group would function as a church — but also as a campus organization. As an RSO, CFC would be able to recruit new freshmen each year.
With hundreds of students joining each fall, the church grew very quickly, according to Miryung Fontijn, a former lay leader and founding member of CFC. “It was very exciting — you felt like, ‘Oh, God is moving.’ ”
As the church grew, so did Min Chung’s influence. He was invited to speak at retreats and conferences all over the U.S. — and around the world.
Rev. Owen Lee, a pastor at Christ Central Presbyterian Church in northern Virginia, said Chung “may be the most influential Korean American pastor in America, [given] the amount of people that have gone through CFC or CFC-affiliated churches and Min Chung being invited [to speak at] so many places.”
Back on the UIUC campus, Chung served as something of a patriarch to the hundreds of students at CFC.
“For people who had non-healthy father figures in their life, Min Chung was the epitome of being a loving father,” said Amos Lee, a former leader at the church. “He wanted you to have purpose in your life, wanted you to grow, wanted you to live a fulfilling life — all of these things that we want to hear from our own parents that we did not hear because they were trying to survive as immigrants, [Chung] filled.”
Self-effacing and warm from the pulpit, Chung often talked about how little money he made and drew in students with his charismatic personality, former CFC members said.
Chung was responsible for setting up the church’s governing structure, which gave him unchecked power and little oversight.
Unlike most Protestant churches, where the governing body includes the minister and a group of ruling elders, CFC was led solely by Chung.
Chris Sotelo was an “officer” at CFC — the highest position a lay leader could hold, responsible for leading various aspects of church ministry. He remembered an officers meeting in which Chung was asked about oversight.
“ ‘Who are you accountable to?’ — we were asking this question of Min,” Sotelo remembered. “And he said, ‘I’m accountable to Jesus.’ ” Sotelo said Chung told the officers that he did not need an elder board and that the officers themselves could keep him accountable, as well — a notion that rang hollow for students and young adults.
The one person to whom Chung seemed to listen was a character whose reputation preceded her: a mostly Korean-speaking older woman named Yu Dong Kim whom everyone called Jipsanim (“deaconess” in Korean). She was seen as the church’s spiritual mother, fasting regularly, doling out advice to members, sometimes putting a cash-filled envelope in the hands of a congregant who was struggling financially. Some said she held strong views on women, insisting that they dress modestly and saying that when — not if — a husband strays in a marriage, women should be quick to forgive.
Together, the two cultivated a culture of service to the church — one that some described as a cult-like level of devotion.
Smith, the former White House staffer, said she knew friends who were so involved with CFC “they almost failed out of school, because they were picking up too many responsibilities and activities with CFC.”
Chung also encouraged students to stay in the area beyond their four or five years in undergrad at UIUC, according to many former CFC members who talked to WBEZ.
Sotelo and his wife, Marah, were among the hundreds of CFC alums who lived and worked near campus long after their college education ended.
They were both full-time teachers at elementary schools in the Champaign-Urbana area.
“You’re up at 6 in the morning to go to work, but then [there is] church stuff [afterwards],” Marah Sotelo said. “We just literally were out all day because there would be things like Wednesday night prayer meetings where we were expected to be there until 3 in the morning.”
She added, “The language they used was, ‘We’re building up kingdom workers,’ and … you take it in, like, ‘Yeah, that makes sense. I believe this. I’m doing a good thing.’ But after a while you realize this isn’t healthy. This isn’t normal.”
Damian Lay attended CFC for 14 years and was an officer in the church for six years. He said he neglected his schoolwork and his career by committing so much of his time in service to the church.
“I put 50 hours of work into church on top of my 40-hour job that I didn’t do well in, and I got negative reviews from my bosses,” Lay remembered. “But I just brushed it off as that is not as important because doing God’s work was more important.”
Lay said he and other students were also invited to help Chung’s family with domestic tasks, like picking up and dropping off the pastor’s five children from school, cooking for his family and cleaning the Chungs’ four-bedroom apartment. “We took it as a badge of honor because that was the system that we were in,” Lay said. “We were told that the more we hang out at Pastor Min’s, the more he sees us, so the more he will pray for us. … It sounds ridiculous now.”
While Chung’s salary was always kept modest — at one point as low as $6,000 per year — many of his family’s expenses were taken care of by the church, CFC alums and other benefactors who were close to Chung, Lay said.
Chung’s eldest child, Josie Chung, 30, recalled the countless donations her family received from CFC alumni, including cars, cell phones and gift cards for dining out. “There’s definitely very, very considerable amounts in private donations going to [my father] and my family,” said Josie Chung. A transgender woman, she said she has since cut ties with her family after they provided little support when she struggled with depression and an attempted suicide. She added that the apartment the Chungs lived in was owned by the church, which WBEZ confirmed via public records.
Many former CFC members who spoke to WBEZ said these practices were all part of a culture of deference and loyalty to the charismatic pastor. They said elements of evangelical Christianity, like patriarchy and purity culture, coupled with Confucian and Eastern values such as respect for elders and saving face, created a potent environment that ensnared young college students who were out on their own for the first time.
Chris Sotelo said he and his wife are still “deconstructing” their time at CFC to this day “to figure out and decipher what was good and what was not … what was God and what was [CFC] culture.”
Part of that culture, the Sotelos added, included an environment that was particularly hostile toward the women at the church.
Marah Sotelo remembered “just how extremely misogynistic that place was. … How women didn’t have a voice, how men were revered, specifically pastors, and you couldn’t question anything that they would say.
“The constant policing of what you’re wearing,” she continued. “How, if something happens … you probably asked for it. You probably wore something that made him think of you in a certain way.”
Miryung Fontijn recalled one particular message about sex that Chung delivered from the pulpit: “He would say stuff like, ‘Girls, you don’t understand how much guys think about sex, but let me try to make it make sense for you. How much do [girls] think about food? That’s how much guys think about sex.’ ”
Fontijn and many others who spoke to WBEZ tied Chung’s teachings to evangelical Christianity’s “purity culture,” which she said “puts the shame and onus on girls: the girl is the seductress. The girl controls the guy based on how she dresses, how she presents herself.”
These messages were not lost on women like Anna Rhee, Michelle Lin and others who came forward with their stories. Many have said they still wonder if they bore some responsibility for what happened to them.
“Fertile soil for abuse”
According to experts, CFC’s place on a college campus, and the role it played in students’ lives during their formative years, played a big role in the power dynamic that persisted there for decades.
Abby Wong-Heffter is a licensed mental health counselor who specializes in spiritual abuse. “For college students, if it’s the first time away from home … a church can, in some ways, serve as a pseudo-family,” she said. “It can be a place where you feel connection. You can feel a kind of security, reliability, predictability.”
Wong-Heffter works at the Allender Center, a subsidiary of The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology in Washington that specializes in trauma and abuse. She said religious institutions are sometimes “the most fertile soil for abuse. You have folks that find themselves in really vulnerable and often really open spaces.”
For a predominantly Asian church like CFC there’s another complicating layer, and that’s the culture of deference present in some Asian cultures, she added. “There’s just such a different way of respecting elders and saving face, and I think it would actually be in a lot of ways culturally inappropriate to challenge people in authority,” Wong-Heffter said.
All these factors, she said, can lead to patterns of spiritual abuse, in which a religious leader, organization or peer attempts to control and manipulate others. Wong-Heffter added that one key facet of spiritual abuse is “[using] tenets of faith as a way to gain access, and I would say, take over the mind and will of an individual.”
In Christianity, Wong-Heffter said, those tenets include “dying to oneself” and submitting to the authority of pastors, who are God’s servants. She added that a passage in the Bible — Matthew 18:15, in which Jesus Christ says “if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” — is often used to silence victims of any abuse, with no consideration of power imbalances or criminal activity.
Said Wong-Heffter: “If a kind of sexual assault happened in a workplace, you have human resources. You would go to a place that holds some accountability and [there] would be steps and protocols.”
However, in churches, pastors are seen as “the head and that they have been given leadership and power from God, then it almost puts them in a separate category,” Wong-Heffter explained. “So it makes a lot of sense that women would find themselves really vulnerable and susceptible … especially when you bring in language like ‘forgiveness.’ ”
Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin College and author of The New York Times bestselling book Jesus and John Wayne, is familiar with this practice of using scripture to control victims.
She said, “Often, these churches are also kind of unified around the pastor and supporting the pastor.” She added victims are often told it is “unbiblical” or “un-Christian” to take any problems to people outside the church. And those who speak out on behalf of victims, Du Mez added, are painted with a broad brush: “People who are raising these issues that the church is not responding appropriately to sexual abuse, many of these people are getting defined as ‘liberals,’ defined as ‘enemies.’ ”
Du Mez added that churches often are “ill-equipped” to handle sexual abuse. “In many cases, the authorities in the church have no desire to actually work for justice,” she said, “and instead, there’s just an incredibly strong tendency or a strong urge to cover it up, to make the problem go away.”
Instead of burying sexual assaults and abuse, Du Mez said, victims and families in religious settings should report cases to the proper authorities and seek support from professionals trained to help with the healing process.
As for churches facing allegations of mishandling abuse, leadership should make very clear: “ ‘We’re listening, and we believe you. We’re going to help survivors heal’ ” — regardless of whether the survivor remains at the church, The Allender Center’s Wong-Heffter said. As an example, she spoke of a female client whose church paid for her therapy after she experienced abuse.
Rumors, departures and an apology
In the summer of 2019, after nearly three decades of growth and stability at CFC, a number of longstanding members and lay leaders began to leave the church. Rumors began swirling that their reason for leaving had to do with an incident of sexual misconduct by Chung.
Around that time, Chung announced at a leaders meeting that he would be transitioning out of the head pastor role. Still in his mid-50s, he said he was not retiring but passing the baton to the church’s associate pastors, who would take a team approach to leading CFC. The senior leadership team that would take his place said many times that the transition was long planned and unrelated to any allegations of sexual misconduct.
Former members said congregants were shocked and saddened. One source said, “I remember hearing somebody say, ‘I came to [UIUC] for Pastor Min and now he’s not even going to be a pastor.’ ”
In September 2019, as more members started talking and rumors about Chung spun out of control, one of the senior pastors decided to address it for the first time at a meeting of leaders.
Pastor KJ Kim, one of the pastors on the senior leadership team, announced at the meeting that seven months earlier Chung came to him and another pastor and admitted to touching a female “over the clothing for a brief moment” about 20 years ago, according to a secret recording of the meeting provided anonymously to WBEZ. Kim told the leaders at the meeting that once Chung realized “she did not agree with what [Chung] was doing, he immediately stopped.” Kim also said, “though it may not have been ideal,” upon her request Chung counseled the woman after the incident and there was “reconciliation” between the two, according to the recording.
Kim said the pastors reached out to the woman and got a statement from her saying that, from the beginning, Chung had honored her wishes to keep the situation private and respected her desire to “restore the relationship and move forward.” Kim said, in the statement, the woman also condemned the rumors that had surfaced that year, according to the recording.
A source told WBEZ the woman did not wish to come forward to share her story.
Kim also said at the meeting the church would not take disciplinary action against Chung because — among other reasons — the incident happened 20 years ago, the woman did not want to come forward, and there was “confession and a sense of remorse,” according to the recording.
After Kim’s September 2019 announcement, more longtime members and leaders, many of whom had called CFC home for decades, left the church. In the coming months, there would be several more meetings and announcements from the church regarding this matter, including public apologies at other leaders’ meetings from Chung himself.
In January 2020, at a CFC leaders’ retreat, former CFC associate pastor Sean Lee, who stepped down this past April, said they had reached out to the victim to ask if she had “any other concerns or any other disagreements toward Pastor Min.” That’s according to a second secret recording obtained anonymously by WBEZ. The victim, Sean Lee said in the recording, sent a statement back: “I have no further grievances against Pastor Min as I’m fully restored. And I have no further grievances on how the matter was handled.” Sean Lee also said the woman wrote: “The narrative that it was more than a touch is false.”
Then, Chung stepped in front of church members and read an apology, according to the recording. It went, in part:
“I am deeply saddened to let you know that during the early years of CFC, I inappropriately touched a woman. Not a day goes by without regret, remorse and repentance. It was an inappropriate touch over the clothing. It was not less than that, but not more than that. Even so, it was a terrible sin and absolutely wrong. After the incident, there was repentance on my part, forgiveness from — and reconciliation with — the person involved. At that time, I deeply regret as a pastor, I did not confess to the appropriate people. I definitely could have handled the situation better … by telling my family sooner and getting accountability from older pastor, and I’m sorry about that.”
After Chung read his apology, Kim announced there would now be “restorative steps” for Chung, according to the recording. Those steps included meeting with the CFC pastoral staff regularly for “mutual encouragement and care,” receiving pastoral care and counseling from outside sources, notifying boards on which he sat about his misconduct, and preventing him from preaching at CFC unless invited by the pastoral staff, with the earliest date being January 2021. Chung was permitted, however, to preach outside of the church provided that he submit speaking engagement requests to the CFC pastoral staff.
After Kim’s announcement of the restorative steps, Chung would go on to preach at least a dozen times to various congregations and conferences in the U.S. and other countries, according to videos and photos of Chung’s speaking engagements obtained by WBEZ.
The church also created an “Oversight Board,” a group of men — all of whom have had long ties to Chung. That board, along with the senior pastors, were selected to help “govern CFC together,” according to the “Meet the Team” page on the church’s website, accessed by WBEZ on May 24. That page has since been taken down.
Calls for accountability and transparency
Last summer, against the backdrop of a raging COVID-19 pandemic, a group of men and women — all former CFC members who refer to themselves as “the allegation group” — began gathering over Zoom to talk about bringing formal charges of sexual misconduct against their former pastor, Min Joshua Chung, to the Korean Central Presbytery (KCP), a denominational body to which CFC pastors belonged.
According to the allegation document, which was obtained by WBEZ, the first charge alleged that Chung had touched a female congregant inappropriately in 2001. Seven other charges followed, including the allegation that Chung had insisted on counseling the victim regularly after the incident, that he had “sanitized” and “minimized” his misconduct, tried to silence church members who found out about the incident, mishandled other women’s reports of sexual assault, and that he helped Pastor Samuel Lee cover up his own sexual abuse.
The 124-page allegation document, sent to a five-person investigation committee at the KCP, included written accounts from several former CFC members sharing information about Chung’s alleged misconduct. The document included an account from someone who had spoken to the victim, who said the incident with Chung was “unwanted, non-consensual touch in her private area.” The document also provided details about how Chung’s account differed from those shared by sources who spoke to the victim, and how he himself initiated one-on-one counseling with her after the incident.
The allegation file also showed that Chung was confronted about this incident by a CFC member in 2009, but he told no one, including his wife and the church’s associate pastors, until more people learned of the misconduct about 10 years later.
Janet Park, a CFC alum and member of the allegation group, told WBEZ that she was the one who confronted Chung in 2009 after learning of his misconduct. Park said Chung requested to meet her alone, without her husband present, and told her, “Now you know I’m only human.”
She said she asked Chung if he had told anyone; he answered no. Park recalled, “He kept saying, ‘No one else would understand. [The associate pastors] are too young.’ ”When she asked him if he had any intention of telling his wife or anyone in the future, he said no. Park said Chung’s tone grew increasingly defensive throughout the conversation. “He was starting to treat me like I was a problem, like I was the only one that had an issue with this,” Park remembered.
When she asked why he continued to preach after his misconduct, Park said Chung described a dream in which God showed him he was a “lampstand for this generation.” Park said Chung also told her that God had shown him in the dream that he was “not as bad as [Samuel] Lee,” the FABC pastor who relocated to California after officials learned of his sexual abuse cases.
Other CFC members who confronted Chung said they were told they were “sinning” by asking for transparency and accountability.
Dan and Candis Lee, former longtime members at CFC who are part of the allegation group, said they asked Chung for a meeting when they found out about his misconduct. They told WBEZ that he came to their home that very evening, sat on their couch and asked, “What do you know?”
When they asked him to share his side of the story, Chung spoke about the incident in the third person, Dan Lee said. “He was constantly saying it was an issue that happened a long time ago. ‘The parties involved have moved on from it; they’ve worked through it,’ ” Dan Lee recalled Chung saying.
Dan Lee also said Chung asked him and Candis “not to dig further for our benefit, for our spiritual good, since it would cause us to sin if we found out more.” Dan Lee said he surmised that the sins to which Chung was referring were anger and gossip.
Candis Lee said Chung asked them to bring him a Bible so they could “look at some passages together. He goes to Matthew 18, and says that what happened was a private matter between two people and so … it’s been taken care of according to the Bible.” And then he moved to another verse in 1 Timothy 5 that says “ ‘Elders are worthy of double honor,’ and that’s why I guess we’re not supposed to dig further or hold him to any kind of accountability,” Candis Lee said.
She added that Chung would not leave their home until both she and her husband prayed over the pastor, and as he departed, he asked for hugs from both of them.
“I wish that I had said no … but I was afraid,” Candis Lee said. “That night, I had trouble sleeping.”
Another member of the allegation group, JT Park, said that when he confronted Chung about the sexual misconduct, Chung “compared himself with someone who [continually] struggled with pornography and never [repents].” JT Park said Chung told him he had repented after this one-time sin; therefore, he was in a better position before God.
JT Park said he and his wife asked Chung what they could do to reconcile and move forward within the church. JT Park said Chung told them that they had to promise to tell other congregants that they had made amends with CFC’s leadership and to support the church’s handling of his misconduct. JT Park said he could not agree to that, and he and his wife left his church of 18 years.
These accounts, as well as those of many others who experienced similar encounters with Chung, were all part of the allegation document filed with the KCP. According to the written accounts of multiple people, Chung said that he disciplined himself by fasting and prayer and that he had handled the misconduct properly.
The allegation group called for Chung to be investigated fully and stripped of his ordination, according to the document.
The group also sought a separate investigation and disciplinary process for the associate pastors who handled the case after Chung told them about his misconduct. One pastor in particular — KJ Kim, now CFC’s sole remaining pastor — was named numerous times in the allegation document. Allegation group members who spoke to WBEZ said Kim often quoted the same two Bible passages as Chung, and did not take steps toward accountability and transparency until the fallout from the @letters_from_rahab Instagram account brought unwanted attention to CFC. Members of the allegation group also said Kim initially refused to bring in a third party to investigate the misconduct and instead insisted on conducting the probe on his own.
“They basically slapped his hand”
Sources familiar with the Korean Central Presbytery’s probe said the presbytery did conduct an investigation but chose to take up only one of the eight charges: the one Chung had confessed to, that he had improperly touched a woman. One KCP pastor, who spoke to WBEZ but asked not to be named in this story for fear of retribution, said that without the woman coming forward to give her account, the presbytery could only consider Chung’s account.
“He was tried on the basis of what he confessed,” the pastor said. He also said the presbytery was limited in its jurisdiction over CFC because the church was set up as an independent entity, separate from the denomination.
This past April, eight months after the allegation group submitted its charges, the KCP met in a contentious, two-day Zoom meeting of both Korean- and English-speaking pastors — with Chung present for much of the meeting and allowed to defend himself — and voted to find Chung guilty of only “sexual harassment” instead of any more serious form of misconduct, according to sources familiar with the case. The KCP determined that Chung had been “restored to God, as well as the woman, and that that discipline instituted by CFC pastors was found to be sufficient,” according to the KCP pastor.
Miryung Fontijn, one of the former lay leaders at CFC, was also part of the allegation group. She said she and others in the group were disappointed by the outcome of the KCP vote. “When we brought our allegation, we did not use the term ‘harassment,’ ” she said. “That is certainly not what I would call [Chung’s misconduct].”
Janet Park, who first confronted Chung in 2009, said, “We tried to do it the right way, through the presbytery, and they basically slapped his hand.”
For Owen Lee, the pastor in Northern Virginia, the KCP’s determination comes as no surprise. “[Chung] is a very prominent individual, and my understanding is that he just has a lot of sway [and] influence in that presbytery … with the first-generation pastors, because he does have a very large, influential church, and a lot of their own children attended CFC and were blessed by CFC.”
He continued: “Also for the second-generation guys, a lot of them were mentored by [Chung]; [he] was a spiritual father to them, so they’re very loyal.”
WBEZ reached out to the KCP via email in June. Sungwoo Nam, the presbytery’s clerk, responded that the case was still ongoing and that he did not have permission to comment on it. We sent a list of questions and asked if Nam would point us to someone who could comment on the case. As of Aug. 2, WBEZ had not received a response.
Frustrated after the KCP’s determination, the creator of @letters_from_rahab started the Instagram account as a way to call for transparency and accountability in Chung’s sexual misconduct case — both from Chung, himself, as well as leaders like Kim. However, it quickly became clear that the Instagram account also became a place for survivors of sexual abuse to share their stories for the first time.
She said she drew inspiration from the account’s biblical namesake, Rahab, a marginalized woman and prostitute whose act of faith and obedience saved the Israelites.
For one of the members of the KCP allegation group, who asked to remain anonymous out of respect for family members and friends who still attend CFC, the Instagram page also accomplished its initial goal.
“As much as it’s not the ideal way, through social media, what @letters_from_rahab has accomplished in a month or a couple of weeks, we had been trying to do for years,” the source said. “Now, finally, CFC is listening a little bit, and they’re coming up with these changes.”
On June 1, the CFC Oversight Board announced on its website that the group had voted unanimously to “completely separate from Pastor Min effective immediately. Pastor Min will no longer receive any ongoing financial support and will no longer practice ministry in any capacity with CFC.”
The next day, the Board announced that two staff pastors and an Oversight Board member had resigned. WBEZ reached out to those three leaders, as well as former associate pastor Sean Lee. Two people declined our request for an interview, and the other two have yet to respond, as of Aug. 2.
WBEZ requested interviews with KJ Kim and with members of the Oversight Board. The group sent a statement saying they would not provide any interviews due to a “full investigation by an independent third-party group” specializing in abuse within churches. The church has also hired a consulting group — albeit one with personal ties to Chung, according to sources — to conduct a survey about CFC’s culture. Furthermore, the church is taking steps to join the Presbyterian Church of America, the parent denomination of the KCP, according to the CFC website.
In its statement to WBEZ, the Oversight Board wrote: “As the leaders of CFC, we are deeply grieved and saddened by the pain that people may have experienced through the ministry of CFC. We desire nothing more than to be compassionate Christians and a compassionate church yet we know that we have not lived up to this mission. It is our desire to humbly listen, learn and grow so that we can be a healthier church moving forward, a church that changes lives and the world with the Gospel of Jesus.”
Becky Kim Park, a longtime and current member of CFC, said the church is headed in the right direction. She agrees with the steps CFC is taking to join a denomination and is hopeful that the church will handle reports of sexual abuse better in the future.
“The hope is that, moving forward, we can not just rebuild but transform how we handle those kinds of situations,” she said.
Park added, “I think that God has the ability to redeem anything and anyone, so I think it’s really dangerous to be like, ‘except for CFC,’ because then we’re saying that there are things outside of God’s ability and control.”
Park and other current CFC members have told WBEZ that much of the church’s programming, other than Sunday service and morning prayer, is on hold and that some lay leaders have stepped down from their positions. WBEZ has also learned that two churches in Champaign-Urbana from which CFC rented space have discontinued leasing their facilities to CFC.
Some current members said friendships have been fractured in the past couple of years. Others said the events of the recent months place an unfair burden on current members who have little or no connection to the CFC of old. They said the majority of CFC members, past and present, have been blessed through the church and experienced spiritual growth during their time there.
“This is so much bigger than just Min Chung”
While her own experience at CFC was largely positive, Fontijn, the former CFC leader who is now part of the allegation group, said she wants to advocate for those who have experienced pain and trauma — particularly women survivors.
“At no point in time did Jesus hide abuse; in fact, he was one to bring it into the open,” she said. “Criminal acts were committed against these women. These women didn’t receive the justice that they deserve; they didn’t receive the healing and professional help that they require.”
Other members of the allegation group said CFC should reckon with its past and that it still bears responsibility to reconcile with victims who are no longer at the church.
“Even if it was in the past, some of these stories … how could you not address them?” one member asked.
She added, despite the fact that she and many other alums have remained in the faith and are active members in their respective churches, they have been called “trouble-makers,” dissenters — and worse — by many supporters of CFC for calling for accountability.
“We’ve been portrayed as people who are tearing down [CFC], but this is so much bigger than just Min Chung,” said Janet Park. “We’re trying to solve a problem and make churches a safer place for women.”
Owen Lee, the pastor in Virginia, has heard similar comments about CFC and the unwanted attention it has been getting on social media. “Some people said, ‘Only the devil is rejoicing that all this is coming out now.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t think that’s true — I think Jesus is rejoicing.’ ”He added: “When injustice is confronted and dealt with, it is messy, but what’s worse is for this to have continued in the dark — that’s infinitely worse.”
For survivors like Anna Rhee, the unearthing of survivors’ stories, as well as Chung’s own sexual misconduct, have set her on a journey of healing 20 years after her own assault and subsequent conversation with the pastor. She recently started seeing a therapist for the first time.
Rhee also said she is telling her story for the sake of her young daughter.
“My hope would be that she would have people that would tell her right away that it wasn’t her fault,” Rhee said, in tears. “That when she says ‘no,’ that means anything beyond that is not OK.”
She continued: “If this happened to her, I would hope that I’d be the first person that she would tell … that we would report it to the authorities and pursue legal action, and then also put her in counseling therapy. I mean, look at this, I’m 20 years out, and I still don’t know if it’s my fault.”
On July 13, 2021, the KCP held a special meeting to discuss and vote on a complaint filed by a group of pastors who were dissatisfied with the presbytery’s April determination and sought to indefinitely suspend Chung from ministry. At the meeting, however, the KCP instead considered a motion to rescind the April judgment and to hold a retrial, according to a July 15 statement from the presbytery. The presbytery’s membership is around 60, according to one KCP pastor. But just 35 men voted on the motion at the special meeting, according to the KCP statement. The final tally — 22 voting for the motion, 12 against and one abstaining — showed that the motion fell just shy of the two-thirds majority needed for it to pass.
The April decision, which allows Chung to remain an ordained minister, still stands.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.
Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.
This story was produced for web by Katherine Nagasawa and Mary Hall.