Religion and Diaspora: The Korean Community in Austria

This project is an ethnographic research exploring Korean diasporic religion in Austria. Specifically, it studies the currently active Christian Protestant (Korean Methodist Church; Korean Vienna Gospel Congregation; Korean Presbyterian Church; Protestant Jungdong Church; Full Gospel Church; Korean Protestant Church [Vienna, Salzburg/Linz, Innsbruck, Graz]) and Catholic Korean churches in Austria, examining their role in Korean community building and construction of an ethnic identity, as well as their impact on and accommodation within the host society. Like with diasporic churches worldwide (Hur and Kim 1984 and 1990), Korean churches in Austria function not only as places of religious service but as a hub for various social, educational, and personal matters; places where newly arriving immigrants can adjust more easily to their new environment. They serve as service facilities for gathering information (schooling, visa etc.) (Lee 2010), as educational spaces for next generations, but also as places where the members may receive social status and recognition through the participation and contribution to ‘their’ church. Whereas the earlier Korean churches were chiefly functioning as a place to support the incipient Korean community in settling in the new environment and maintaining its cultural identity, Korean churches in Austria today put a particular focus on contributing to the host society by spreading the gospel in the local churches as well as supporting other immigrant groups by regularly visiting and serving refugees or the homeless, organising small concerts, spending time with the elderly, or serving free meals. This shift demonstrates that the Korean churches became more entrenched in the host society and, likewise, the Korean community has become socially and economically stronger. Also, due to growing national confidence and a rising cultural consciousness in the global society, members of the Korean community believe that they have to contribute to the host society, thus influencing people of other ethnic and cultural contexts (Der Verein der Koreaner in Österreich 2012). The ethnographic research on Korean churches in Austria will shed light on important issues pertinent to the societal and identificatory role of diasporic religion, immigration history in Europe, the role of immigrants in the global society, and the transition of diasporic identity. Diaspora and religion has been a vastly researched topic across disciplines, with many scholars pointing to the formative influence religion exerts in the shaping of diasporic presence (cf. Warner 1994; Ungar 1995; Warner and Wittner 1998; Yang and Ebaugh 2001).

The purpose of this project is fourfold. Firstly, it traces the historical development and the structure of Korean community-building in Austria in the light of diasporic church history. It focuses on how Korean churches have become the vital centres of diasporic life. In other words, from a historical perspective, the project examines the specific role Korean Christian churches have played in the process of community building. The immediate background of Korean church formation on Austrian soil can be traced back to the early 1970s, when around 100 nurses came to Austria to find jobs at hospitals across the country. They settled in Vienna during that time, gathered together, and conducted the first formal service at a dormitory in April 1974. This marked the establishment of the Korean Vienna Gospel Congregation (Koreanische Vienna Evangeliums Gemeinde) and, accordingly, the beginning of institutionalised Korean Christianity in the Austrian diaspora. Since then, the Korean Vienna Gospel Congregation expanded to become the major Korean church in the country with presently more than 300 people attending the regular services, having sent out abroad more than 100 missionaries over the years. In 1980, the Korean Presbyterian Church was formally launched, quickly growing into the second largest Korean congregation, encompassing more than 100 members. Since then, other churches emerged, mainly by Korean students and expatriates. The total number of Koreans living in Austria is estimated at around 2,500 people, of which around 1,500-1,700 are involved in the community life of the various Korean churches. Secondly, this research seeks to understand the communal impact of Korean churches as seen through various activities, such as education, private social services, and social gatherings. By examining the various events and activities conducted, the study will shed light on the role and impact of these churches within the diasporic Korean community. Thirdly, this research intends to explore the inner tensions of diasporic identity as well as the Korean communities’ struggle vis-à-vis assimilation and adaptation in the host society. Commencing in the late 1980s, Korean churches increasingly struggle to foster ‘authentic’ tradition and culture among the second generation of Korean immigrants, which will soon assume the role of cultural preservers and transmitters within the (church) community. Second and first generation Koreans do cherish different values (Chai 1998; Min and Kim 2005), a generational conflict saliently articulated in the religious context. Whereas the first generation focuses on retaining tradition and culture and considers the church as a means towards that end, the second generation commonly places belief over culture. A closer look at the transformation of church community life reveals this conflictual dimension embedded in a religio-cultural discourse. Fourthly, the project is a country-specific case study of diasporic Korean Christian churches. Scholarship on diasporic Korean churches chiefly draws on studies conducted in the United States and Canada (cf. Ley 2008; Park 2006). The European context has been hitherto largely ignored. Since the immigration history and the process of Korean settlement in Europe differs from the one in the United States, the intended case study will offer a more rounded view of the mechanics of diasporic Korean society and its respective immigration history. Institutionalised religious life bracketed by Christian churches has been the major formative factor in community building of Koreans in Europe, and, accordingly, presents the main focus of this research, which will detail specific local scenes while adopting broader perspectives on the function of Korean diasporic churches in terms of ethnic bonding, cultural preservation, and identity transition.

The research employs a variety of methodological approaches, ranging from qualitative interviews and participant observation to archival research. It will analyse textual, visual, and audio materials that will be collected and explored in the field. The research team will participate in the services and the community life of all churches in order to understand the local environment and dynamics of each individual church. Pastors and elders as well as a larger sample of members, who regularly participate in church community life, will be interviewed. In addition to the qualitative semi-structured and narrative interviews, a standardised questionnaire will be circulated to widen the sample of members. The questionnaires will be divided between members of the first and the second/third generation.




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