Sound of the Genuine

Hardy Kim: Faith, Expectations, and Transformation

October 01, 2021 FTE Leaders Season 1 Episode 14
Sound of the Genuine
Hardy Kim: Faith, Expectations, and Transformation
Show Notes Transcript

A second generation Korean American, Hardy was born in Seoul, South Korea, and grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, and near Detroit, Michigan. 

Hardy studied government at Harvard University, law at the University of Michigan, and then received his M. Div. from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. A year of volunteer service in Belfast, Northern Ireland, working with at-risk youth and young adults, solidified his sense of call to ministry.

Hardy serves as Pastor at Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church, in the heart of Silicon Valley. His previous ministry work has focused on evangelism and ministry to young adults in Atlanta and Chicago.

Hardy lives with his wife, Hyunjung, and their kids Jonah and Haeil.  Hardy enjoys food and travel that connects him to different cultures and their generative intersections, and struggles to make room for the spiritual discipline of running.

Instagram: @hardyhkim

Twitter: @hardykim

Music by: @siryalibeats

Vector Portrait by: Rafli

Follow FTE on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for alerts on new episodes. 

Patrick: Welcome to the Sound of the Genuine. The Forum for Theological Exploration's limited audio series on vocation, meaning and purpose. I'm Dr. Patrick Reyes the Forum for Theological Exploration's, senior director of learning design. And this is a space where we hear the stories of inspiring religious leaders who are living into their call and purpose. And today we have Reverend Hardy Kim, who's head of staff at Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church in California. 

All right, Hardy. I am glad that you're here with us, joining us from my favorite place in the world in California. How are you doing?

Hardy: I'm doing okay. I'm really grateful to you and to FTE for this invitation. And I'm hoping that we can have a good conversation and continue some of the chats about vocational discernment.

Patrick: I'm looking forward to this. And I know that you're pastoring at a large church in California and we'll get to that. But I'm curious about you. Tell me about yourself. Where'd you grow up and what was that like? 

Hardy: So I was born in Seoul, South Korea, but my family moved from there when I was 10 months old. And we landed in a wonderful place. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, until I was 10 years old and had finished fourth grade. That was where we called home. And it was really a wonderful place to grow up. A beautiful city, really supportive schools and communities, and the center of community for my family was a Korean Canadian immigrant church which happened at that time to be Methodist. It was such an important base of support from my parents and foundational for me and my identity so that when my dad got a job with an auto company and we moved to the suburbs of Detroit, they sought out another church. They wanted a similar place for our family to be rooted.

And that ended up being a Presbyterian congregation outside of Detroit, which drew Korean Americans from all over the Metro Detroit area. And it really was a safe place for me. My brother and I ended up going to middle school and high school in a very, very white suburb. We were one of just a handful of non-white students at that school.

So that was a real big shift in the experience because Vancouver had been very diverse. And so the contrast between my sort of church life, where I was grounded by community, where so much was a shared experience of that immigrant journey and so much didn't have to be explained, to this other place where I struggled to understand what was going on and I struggled to fit in.

Patrick: What were your parents like as you're navigating the church and school and life in Detroit? What was that like at home?

Hardy: They were full on tiger parents, both of them. There wasn't like I could go to one and catch a little break from it. It was hardcore ‘we are here to find a better life and we're investing all of this energy in you, so you have to make it worth it.’ Make this risky venture of being an immigrant pay off for us, right? So I think the thing that was a little bit hard about the church experience too was so many of the other adults there were of the same mind, and faith was really more about making sure that you got on the right path in life towards success. And that's very different from how I understand faith now, but everything was directed in that way.

And then especially cause I did pretty well in school. I managed to handle the academic stuff and to figure out where I could be successful. And so I remember distinctly my parents sorta did the Asian-American story right. They worked hard, saved up a bunch of money and they got their son into an Ivy league school.

And when that news hit my church community, I just remember hearing about it from everyone. Having parents just asked me to talk to their kid and say, hey can you give them some advice, help them out?  To have a community invested in you and care about you and adults recognize who you are. It had its good and its bad. 

In most Korean immigrant church settings the understanding of what a pastor is, is definitely this suffering servant based on mythic images that have what the missionaries came to Korea did and stuff like that. So no, nobody wants their kid or somebody they like to go on and be a pastor and have to go through that, right? So that definitely wasn't the goal. For me it was sorta like now I had this opportunity to be whatever I wanted to be and to realize the potential that this community felt that it had. And do something important and really make a name for the Korean-American community.

I internalized that pressure on myself. Because I had other experiences, especially through pastors and leaders in ministry and other connections that I was able to make across the denomination.

So being Presbyterian, there were offices that were interested in racial justice. That had started in the sixties and they exist now, but in different ways. There were youth ministry offices so my pastor could get me money to send me to conferences, to connect with other Asian American young people and adults, and recognize myself in mentors who had taken different paths.

So I got that experience as well, that faith could be transformative in a different way. And that my identity wasn't just about this immigrant journey to justify your presence and your place in society, but that it could be a little bit more freeing. So it's definitely the case that I remember in high school feeling like church was going to be important to me.

Faith was going to be important to me down the road, but for really different reasons. And I couldn't necessarily reconcile those two images of what it meant to be, to do right by what people had invested in me. 

Patrick: What'd you end up studying, as you head off to school? What was the plan meet these expectations?

Hardy: My mom was really interested in me becoming a doctor. I know that's super stereotypical, but it was there. So I started off thinking I might study chemistry when I got to school, but man math classes were rough when I got to college. But I was taking these classes about history and philosophy and they really captured my imagination and some of the questions that they started asking in some of these classes, especially like the classic question of philosophy in the Western tradition, right? How do you get people to live good lives? How do you build a good society, right? That really felt like an important one to me and something that I could really dig into. So I switched my major and became a political science philosophy major and loved it. Loved those questions.

Loved learning about the history, but also imagining how we could improve on it. So studying constitutional law in the United States and recognizing so many injustices and thinking about how it was that people through the legal process had made improvements on that. Learning about law regarding representation and thinking about how there were ways that communities that had been underrepresented could be empowered.

So because of that, I knew that I cared about all those things and leaving college, the thing that seemed most obvious to me that that could channel that interest was law school. So without much thought or research, I went straight from college to law school. And I liked some of the classes, I liked a lot of the people, but something about the whole culture of law school made me immediately miserable.

And I had a really rough first year.  I was messing up badly, so I decided I need to figure something out. I turned to my old pastor and I asked her to give me some advice about what I could do to maybe change my situation, sort some things out. And she suggested that I do this a mission volunteer program.

It's through the Presbyterian denomination. There's a lot of different national and international locations where you can go do a year of service in a community-based setting, and really it was for vocational discernment. I wouldn't have recognized it at the time. I just wanted to get out. And so I got matched with a place that I didn't necessarily think would be a good fit for me.

I got matched with Belfast, Ireland. And went to work there with troubled youth and teens and young adults, a lot of whom were in their situations because of the long-term individual and communal effects of trauma and violence and loss of life. Everybody was somehow connected to somebody who had been injured in prison, killed because of the troubles over there.

And so I spent a year working with young men and women on both sides of the Catholic Protestant divide. And that was the year that actually led up to the Good Friday Agreement. So it was a really interesting time to be there. Still a lot of tensions, but definitely some hope in the air.

It was one of the hardest years for me, both in terms of the work. It was experience after experience of realizing you don't know what's going on. And also you don't have the relationships you need to have in order to really be effective or to really feel at home in the community.

And you have to work really hard to get trust from folks. Those are still lessons that are valuable to me today, but at the time going through them was rough. But on the backside of it, I just had this feeling of wow, being a part of community that cares about these things and where you're with people, sharing in their meaningful stories of struggle, it just felt right. But then I came back, and it was time to go back to law school. 

And looking back, I should have said, no, I should have just packed it in, Just from a financial standpoint, from a just knowing myself standpoint. But I couldn't, I couldn't walk away from that. I felt like I would be letting down my parents, my family, my wider community. There were so many expectations on me about, when people would talk to me about, oh you're in law school, you're going to be an attorney, that's going to be great. Think about all the things you're going to do.

And frankly, even personally in my own mind, there was a life that came along with that. A certain amount of status, wealth, privilege, all these sorts of things. It's one thing to say as people of faith, we should value our part in the ministry of God and not worry so much about whether we have the status or recognition or money that we want but, I have to tell you those things are powerful and I could not walk away from them.

Patrick: Tell me about how you discern that.  It's not just the community that has its eyes on you. The pressure of the ancestors that there's been multiple generations to make this possible for you. How do you discern to walk away from something when everyone's putting their hope in Hardy making it in law school? What are some tools to doing that sort of level of discernment? 

Hardy: I wish that I knew more than because I would've saved myself a lot of self-sabotage. I have to do right by all of these expectations, all these other things, but I'm going to mess myself up. I'm going to screw it up. I'm going to get it wrong. And so I mucked around for a long time in law school, not able to just push myself across to finish it and to take that next step.

So I definitely don't want to put this forward as a story of you just gotta do what makes you happy cause that’s not the point of it for me in terms of recognizing my own journey. But I do think that there's this way in which the expectations and pressure and potential disappointment we imagined out of all those people around us is probably far greater then we think it's going to be. Because at the end of the day these people are so important to us because they have loved us and they have cared for us and they, they want to see us thrive. 

And I remember in particular this one conversation I had with my dad. Which still, like when I imagine it, I still feel some of those emotions. Cause there was so much anger. There was so much hurt in that conversation. And my dad was trying to figure out, I think at the time I felt like he was just coming down on me so hard, but I think my dad was trying to figure out what's going on with my son?  I just want him to sort it out.

At the end of the conversation what he kept saying to me was, if you can't do it, don't do it. And I remember in the moment just being so angry with him, cause it felt like a dismissal or an expression of disappointment. And even some of the things he said in the midst of that were like, if you want to go be a chef and go to cooking school, go do that. He was naming these things and each one of them as I received it in the moment, I was like, why is he trying to tear me down like this? But what I recognized was he was mentioning things that actually mattered. 

I love cooking. I love food. Some of my most treasured experiences are moments of encountering other people and other cultures through food. And I think what he was actually saying to me was out of compassion. He just wanted me to be, to be whole. And I think sometimes people say those words of encouragement not knowing your struggle, because why would you talk to them about, hey I'm falling apart.

I hate myself right now. I don't know what I'm doing. You don't share that with other people. So people just tell you things hoping to encourage you. But I think really that comes from a place of wanting you to thrive and yeah, they're proud of you. They hope for great things for their community to be represented well, but if you're happy, if you're doing something that displays your purpose and how God is moving through you, that gets the community to the same place you hope, right? Maybe sometimes that won't be true. Maybe there are certain things that people really value that the community will reject.  But I think that people who really love you, they, they want you to be healthy. And if you're not gonna be healthy, it doesn't matter that you achieve some sort of platform that they imagined is where you're supposed to be.

Patrick: Wow, so as you receive this advice and love, it sounds like it's a reflection looking back that someone's trying to love you into being…to be whole. What do you do with that?  

Hardy: In that moment in my life was to sort of walk away from my dad, angry at him and not being able to hear his love and compassion. But I can see it now. And I'm grateful for it. It takes time to, I think, recognize honestly who you are and how the gifts that your community has given you empower you to live as a faithful part of God's work in the world. I specifically don't choose to say to live out God's purpose for you, because that I think ultimately is beyond our knowing and we just do the best that we can.

There are hiccups along the way, but I think that if I learned anything from that process, it's that I was too afraid all along to be honest with myself and with other people about what wasn't working for me and what I really cared about and, how I might be disappointing them on certain levels.

So if I had had the maturity to be more upfront with myself and others, I would have saved myself a lot of, a lot of struggle. And I wish I had been able to do that. Yeah so I ran away from law school and I went to seminary. So seminary was a really different experience.

I, again, met some amazing people, really was fascinated by everything that I was encountering, even things like biblical languages right, which I thought I would hate. But the culture of everything was so attractive to me it scared me. So I definitely tried to keep my distance.

I was still working a part-time job at a law firm, all this sort of other stuff. And I really wasn't very engaged. I think I was definitely holding myself back because I was afraid to fully commit to this. So I kinda got kicked out of seminary after my first year. I don't share that story all the time, I even lost my scholarship and everything like that too. I took a year off.

Worked part time in ministry with youth at local congregation, part-time retail. Had to really sort through some of my stuff. That's when I started recognizing some of the reality of what I had been denying acknowledging in myself. Then the following year I went back to seminary.

I started over again. And really was able to recommit. So I think what that year  was a year of grieving the self that I thought I was going to be. And I definitely feel like I had to bury it, right? I had to bury an illusion or a vision of myself in order to move on with the other one. I still think I encounter that grief from time to time in my life now. Because it's seductive, right? The nice and shiny images of success and status and power that masquerade as our callings sometimes they're persistent. And so burying the image of high powered attorney or ‘legal change maker Hardy’ was a struggle.   

And I did have a pastor and mentor who every time I saw them about once a year, they'd say so when are you coming to seminary? And I'd have to say, I'm not going to seminary. I don't know what you're talking about. So it was a combination of sort of those reminders from people who had helped form me in the faith, but also just experiences that I had had as a young person that gave me a glimpse that I was called to be a part of something in the church.

Patrick: How'd you imagine your ministry following seminary? 

Hardy: Yeah, it didn't play out the way that I thought it would. I mentioned before that growing up in the Asian-American immigrant church was just a huge part of my experience and the Asian-American church was what I knew best, what I cared about, right? So I had thought in many ways that I was going to end up working in the Asian American church context.

But I think as I grew and shifted in my own understanding of things like scripture and ministry and our relationships with the wider church I became increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of restricting myself to just one part of the church. And then also it felt like at that time, and I know that there are far more progressive Asian American contexts now, but at the time I didn't see them out there and I didn't see myself as somebody who would be good at helping create those spaces. So I started looking outside of that. 

I had a lot of opportunities through Lilly funded programs to do different things. So my first call was actually to a Lilly residency at a big congregation in Chicago. And it was a predominantly white congregation, really tall steeple church.

So I had a going in, I think, a pretty cynical perspective of what ministry in a place like that would look like and what my relationship with that structure and what the whole community would be.

But I ended up loving my ministry there, building great relationships with people, meeting wonderful mentors who became some of the hands-on mastercraft people who taught me the trade and one person in particular, who he would constantly talk about it as ministry, as a craft. And that to him, the reason why he was involved with the Lilly residency program was because he recognized it as an apprenticeship program.

You have people who practice at a craft, they learn all the ins and outs, the small things that you can't learn through classroom study. And he wanted to be a part of passing that on to other people. And he definitely did that for me in many different ways, just the practical ups and downs of day-to-day ministry. That's why I'm so passionate about it too, because I've had so many  positive experiences of that for myself.

After doing that, I went and served another congregation in Atlanta but after a couple years, I came back to the same congregation in Chicago as an associate pastor for evangelism and ministry with young adults. And that was a really wonderful experience of walking alongside young people in a big vibrant city like Chicago. People who had had sometimes similar experiences to me, of being really successful at school getting the opportunities and having all of that potential in front of them, but also the way that those expectations, and then having to come and live real life in a city and figure that all out and still choosing to be a part of church as a part of the support system that helps them navigate the ups and downs of life and some of the disappointments and struggle that they have. And I've really loved that part of ministry.  And actually, I miss it a little bit in my current context cause I'm in Silicon Valley. And even though I know that there are people who are facing those same transitions and struggles around discernment, here the big tech companies and the gurus that come out of it and the influencers, they dominate the landscape so much that the church is completely an afterthought I think for people when it comes to those conversations. 

Patrick: The move from Chicago to Silicon Valley, it sounds like you're really affirming your call, at least in Chicago, as you're talking about working with these young people, young adults. You're excited about that work. And now you're moving to Silicon Valley. The voice drops like they got a hold on this thing, what is it that ministry is for you? Is it about making people come alive is it about connecting is it about the community. What is it that ministry in Chicago just looked, it just looks from this interview just get you excited? And then you move to this new context the broader context, not necessarily the congregation, but the broader context is a very different feel that is changing the shape of your ministry now.  

Hardy: So let me bracket a part of it. I think…I felt inside that sense of the drop. And I think part of that for me is, going from the role of an associate pastor that gets to focus on just these specific areas and try to help people thrive in them. And then in my current role as head of staff of a congregation that is going through a major transition, that you're a part of, right?

They haven't had a leadership change in that pastor role in over 25 years. So there's a lot of grief and struggle and just stretching and straining in different ways that haven't gone on in a long time. But I think the weight of that for me too, is also compounded by the experience of this past year and trying to help a community navigate a crisis like this pandemic and have people feel so much separation and loss over this period of time. 

And so there is a different weight to that, and it's not that I care about that work less or find it less meaningful, but there's less straightforward joy in that. There's a lot different kinds of hard decisions in those sorts of things. But at the same time, I think I can transfer some of those things that I've learned in my work with young adults, even to these settings where people of all ages have to change.

Going back to working with young adults and doing a lot of vocational discernment, I guess the energy that I get from that is that as pastor to some of these folks even when I encounter young adults who are struggling and maybe feeling like they're not living up to their community's expectations, their own expectations, where they're not keeping up with others, right? Which is a hard thing, which I think our social media culture makes it even tougher for all of us. What I was able to witness because of how honest they were willing to be with me is just how beautiful the humanity and the potential is in each one of them. Even when they would come to me with some of their just hardest personal struggles around relationships, for example, or difficulties with family, or just not finding that breakthrough that they were hoping for in their field, there's amazing things in each one of them. And I think part of what I loved about the ministry that we were able to form alongside young adults in Chicago is that they became a community of recognition, of reflecting back those things in each other. This was a group of people than in any other setting that would not be friends with each other.

Cause they came from such different places, had such different backgrounds and they were always learning things from each other. I think that part of the beauty of what church can be for young adults is a really brave space of growth, where you share things that in other spaces you might be afraid to share, or just seems out of place to share. And I found actually that the more messy you make things, the better it gets for the kinds of community you can build. 

Patrick: You've been pastoring through a lot of transition and transformation, I'm wondering how you see that now as head of staff? You are firmly in this call, what is life like now? What does pastoring look like now in the 21st century in Sunnyvale, California?

Hardy: So I think if there's a gift that I have to bring out of those experiences to the community I currently serve, I would say that Silicon Valley has had a very comfortable rise in prominence, in wealth, in security in all sorts of other things, up until now. This is such a period of disruption in so many different ways.

And not just because of the pandemic, even before that. I think there were so many questions people were starting to ask about whether the work that's being done here is right. Whether it's just, the amount of money that's being made, the way that it's being made, the way that it's affecting society, all sorts of other things.

And there are a lot of different just practical economic and demographic shifts that are happening in this place. This place is so very diverse with people from all over the world. But then there's also a big disconnect between some of the older populations, which are in our mainline churches who have owned property and have different sets of concerns from a lot of the newer people who are coming in. Even though it seems like a very liberal, sort of a bastion of progressivism to a lot of other people around the country, there's a lot of conflict between folks who have historically worked in service sectors or in agriculture, in this area, people who own land and homeowners who worry more about whether their property taxes are going to go up versus whether kids in this area get all the resources they need to be educated for the world that we're living in now.

Because there's all this tension transition, and really I would say grief and discomfort, I think my experiences of developing in faith and as a person in ministry, I hope to bring that kind of resilience and ability to recognize God at work in places of discomfort. And I give credit to the congregation I serve, they recognized in calling me, I think, that they needed a change. That change was happening and that they wanted to be a part of addressing it. And we've done even more work since then to recognize that we need to change. And there's nothing like a pandemic to bring that home, right?

Patrick: Now Hardy I just got one last question as you've taken us on this vocational journey, which it really has been about transformation both as you into this role that you're in now in your life. I'm curious as to how much of your sense of calling or purpose of vocation is shaped by community and how much is shaped by your inner self your conversation with God, your understanding of who you are?

Hardy: Man, that that's huge question. And I think I was trying to say before one that I've struggled with for a long time, right? My struggles in college, law school, all through seminary are all related to not being able to strike that healthy balance between recognizing what God is saying to me, through my own spiritual journey with God, and also what God is saying through other people to me, or misinterpreting that in some instances.

So I do think I need to pay attention to how well I'm listening to God and myself. I think I know this about you well enough we can talk about this. You're huge into running. I would bet that you'd call it a spiritual practice like I do. I've done a lot of reading about running, where it comes from, all this sort of other stuff. I do think it helps me tap into my creatureliness. I'm very aware of myself as a creature, as a part of God's creation when I'm running. 

And that helps me understand my smallness in the whole context of God's great creation, but it also, paradoxically by putting me in my place, helps me feel better connected to what God is doing in the world. And so in those moments of running I think I can get more comfortable with the scope of my work and my failures and my powerlessness.

Because why would I expect one small creature right. In the middle of God's great creation to be able to save or control or do anything? I don't know if that makes, if that sounds right or make sense to people, but to me, that sort of spiritual discipline that puts you in your place, I think can really save you from despairing over your failures and also maybe hopefully keeps you from getting too big a head about any of your accomplishments too.

On the flip side of that, in terms of hearing what folks are saying, the part that I left out about my journey to Silicon Valley is that I was not looking for this call at all. I don't say that out of any disrespect to anybody or because I dislike where I am. I really feel passionate about my work right now. But it was other people, it was other friends who kept sending this job description to me saying, hey this community that has been largely white but now is really seeking to transform and to grow in connection to this diverse population around it, all these other things, we think that you could be the person. It was only because I trusted those voices enough that I decided to enter into this conversation with the search committee and ended up being here. It is really great to have trusted friends who, they know you. 

It's hard to resist the pressure of people who hold up that shiny new image of you that you think you could be maybe. And it's not their fault. They do want what's best for you, but they don't maybe know you as well and some of your failures and your shortcomings. But people who really know you - they know everything that you could do wrong and they still think, hey actually this sounds like you right here. That's something to pay attention to I think. 

Patrick: Thank you Hardy. Thank you for sharing your journey with us and your struggles, your joys, your passions, and your conversation, both with God and your community. I think this is really powerful. And one of the things I'm walking away with is just deep gratitude. 

Hardy: Thank you, Patrick. I look forward to sharing more stories with you and hearing more of yours because I'm grateful for community like this that lets us hear one another, cause that is what keeps me going. 

Patrick: I want to thank you for listening to Hardy's story. We know you can find inspiration to many places in your life and we're glad you chose to join FTE to hear this story. Gratitude to our design managers Heather Wallace and Elsie Barnhart and @SirYaliBeats for his music. Don't forget you can get more information about the Forum for Theological Exploration and our many resources at fteleaders.org. Share and subscribe our audio series with a friend. FTE is a leadership incubator cultivating diverse young adults to be faithful wise, and courageous leaders for the church in the academy. Thank you for listening and see you next time on the sound of the genuine.