Working as a community chaplain in the addiction recovery program at the Union Rescue Mission on skid row in Los Angeles, Calif., Albert Kae has come to see that many of the people with whom he works believe strongly in a punishing God.
They are convinced that God gives people such as themselves, especially those who have been in gangs and/or in prison, what they deserve for their crimes and mistakes.
An important part of Kae’s role as manager of the Christian Life Discipleship Program — a year-long alcohol and substance abuse recovery program — is to meet with and counsel these residents.
“When I started, I found they are likely to believe in karma — that God gives them what they deserve because of what they have done. So I thought my job was to correct their theology,” said Kae, a Fuller Theological Seminary graduate who has been serving at the rescue mission since 2015.
Ordained as a CRC minister late last year, Kae works in a setting where there are not a lot of chaplains, CRC or otherwise. “This is a pretty unique area, and we think that the future of chaplaincy could significantly reflect this sort of ministry,” said Matt Hubers of the CRC’s Chaplaincy and Care office.
As he began serving the community of men in the Union Rescue Mission, Kae had to change his approach. Instead of being there to convert the residents of the program, he discovered that he needed to better understand the view of cosmic justice that most of these people had. They believed that God holds their sins against them instead of offering forgiveness.
Kae realized he needed to help these men address the guilt and shame they felt in their mistaken belief in a creator who metes out only harsh punishments. Without doing that, they couldn’t move forward.
“I prayed with them and helped them to connect with God’s grace, not karma,” said Kae. “I encourage them to lament before God and to protest the hard things they have experienced. . . . They can find that God wants a relationship with them.”
Kae grew up in the Korean-American CRC of Orange County in Orange, Calif. He appreciated going to church and especially loved reading theology and would study it often at night. At one point, church leaders wondered if he felt a call to ministry.
On the one hand, he did, he said. But in his twenties he had gone through a rough time, getting involved in things for which he felt shame and guilt. “I had my own struggles with lifestyle and hesitated to pursue seminary. I felt it was no place for me,” he said.
With help, however, he came to see — just as he passes along today to the men at the rescue mission — that he could bring his sin, his brokenness and shortcomings, before the God who would welcome him with open arms. This freed him to pursue that call to ministry.
Enrolling at Fuller Theological Seminary, he planned to work on an advanced degree in theology. But then, recalling that his pastor at the church in Orange had said that one of the highlights in his seminary training was a Clinical Pastoral Education course, Kae decided to take that course too.
As part of the Clinical Pastoral Education unit he enrolled in, Kae worked as a hospital chaplain and was almost immediately drawn to this type of ministry. “I realized that chaplaincy is the area in which the rubber meets the road in dealing with questions of suffering,” he said.
Moving in this direction, he decided to see if he could focus on prison ministry, particularly because he was deeply concerned about the issue of the mass incarceration of minorities.
But it was difficult to find a job in federal prisons because they tended to hire ex-military personnel. County prisons didn’t seem to have a place for a young chaplain either. Then, as Kae was about to graduate from Fuller, he landed an internship at the Urban Rescue Mission.
The streets around the mission are populated with tents in which families and individuals live, in which drug deals go down and prostitution occurs regularly. There, in the heart of L.A., groups of people live under nearby viaducts. Because the area has faced a rat infestation and living outside with so many others can be unsanitary, sickness is common.
About 1,300 people sleep in the mission every night. The recovery program is located on the third floor, providing dorm rooms, a barbershop, a movie and workout room, and a laundry to help fill the residents’ physical and social needs.
Chaplains meet with the men one-on-one, hold group counseling sessions, and encourage the men to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
The chaplains try to help people who are wrestling with many issues, including chronic homelessness, violence, addiction, and mental illness. These are people who are shunted to the margins of society, where Jesus himself came to live and work. Kae explained that with some surprise he has learned to see Christ’s claim on this population too. “Working here, I have felt life in a place in which I least expected to encounter Christ,” he said.
Working with the men who are addicts, Kae recognizes it is often pain of one kind or another — or of many kinds — that underlies and fuels their addiction.
“Addictions are forms of pain management,” he said. “Drugs and alcohol can help numb the pain. Recovery means dealing with the trauma that may have led to the pain — a broken home, abuse, neglect. We try to create a safe space where people can be vulnerable and talk and tell stories about this.”
Telling their stories is hard for many of the men to do; listening to them is difficult as well, said Kae. But this is an important part of recovery, itself a long process.
Living out the theology he still likes to study, Kae perceives that his role is to act as a “sacred presence so that we can experience Christ together in the sacred moments of people telling their stories.”
Such sacred moments highlight how chaplaincy is a vital ministry. But the long-range work of chaplaincy can’t succeed without the church.
As a result, Kae said, he tries to find local churches to welcome men from the mission as members.
“I have served as an associate pastor and an interim pastor at Faith Community CRC in Fullerton,” said Kae. “I hope to continue ministry in a CR church setting in the future — along with my chaplaincy ministry — because I believe God works primarily through the church, the body of Christ.”