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In Brooklyn, a Korean Pastor Leads a Russian-Speaking Flock

The Rev. Leonid Kim delivers a Sunday service in Russian at the All Nations Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York. Michael Chin / NBC News

Among the townhouses on a quiet block in Brooklyn, New York, sits an old church.

But like many things in New York’s “Borough of Churches,” there’s a twist. The congregants of All Nations Baptist Church include Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Ukrainians. The pastor is of Korean ancestry. And everyone, including him, speaks Russian.

“I am working in America because I love this country, I love people,” Rev. Leonid Kim told NBC News. “Love is a very important thing.”

How 66-year-old Kim is fluent in Russian — and how he ended up in New York City — is a story that traces back more than a century.

Facing harsh economic conditions, Koreans began migrating to the Russian Far East in the mid-1800s, according to David Chung, a professor at the University of Michigan.

Kim’s own grandparents made the trek in 1899, earning a living by planting rice and wheat, Kim said. His mom and dad were born in a city near Vladivostok, not far from today’s Chinese and North Korean borders.

“My [grandparents] and parents [had] Russian names and [accepted] Russian culture,” Kim said.

Young members of a Russian speaking congregation in Brooklyn after Sunday services. Michael Chin / NBC News

Before the turn of century, tens of thousands more had begun moving from Korea into the region where Kim’s grandparents had settled, Chung told NBC News.

Even more headed to Russia, as well as to Manchuria and China, after Korea became a protectorate of Japan in 1905, he said. Over the next few decades, Koreans fully integrated into what later became the soviet system.

“They were part of the bureaucracy, they fought in the soviet army, and they fought against the Japanese,” he said.

Then came 1937, the year the Imperial Japanese Army captured the Chinese capital of Nanking during the Second-Sino Japanese War. Skirmishes also broke out with Soviet forces along the border, Chung said.

Joseph Stalin, the former Soviet Union’s premier at the time, grew concerned and issued decrees.

“The first one came out and said these Koreans are spying for Japan and they need to be moved out of there,” Chung said.

The All Nations Baptist Church in Brooklyn, where the Rev. Leonid Kim leaded a congregation, shares a spiritual home with another church. Michael Chin / NBC News

Stalin also wanted to populate remote regions in Central Asia and to start rice growing and farming, Chung continued.

Soon after, during the height of Stalin’s Great Purge, close to 180,000 Koreans living in Far East Soviet Russia were rounded up and put on trains bound for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, according to Chung.

“That was the first successful ethnic cleansing, according to a lot of historians in the 20th century, where people are forcibly moved because of their race, because of their ethnicity,” said Chung, who filmed a documentary about these deported Koreans entitled “Koryo Saram — The Unreliable People.”

Kim’s parents and grandparents were among the Koryo Saram — the Soviet Korean phrase for a Korean person — who were forced to make the 3,700 mile journey.

“It was winter time and many Koreans died,” he said. “It was so cold. Our parents [were in] open trains [used] for animals.”

Kim’s family ended up in Uzbekistan, a former republic of the Soviet Union where he was born in 1951. His grandparents returned to the agricultural work they knew well, he said.

Growing up, Kim spoke Russian and said he knew only a little Korean. As for his career path, Kim studied aviation mechanics, working as an engineer for a few years, and then taught martial arts and Taekwondo for a period, he said.

It wasn’t until the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s that Kim met missionaries of Korean descent from Texas who introduced him to Christianity.

“Before that, the Soviet Union was a country that rejected God,” he said.

Congregants of the All Nations Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York, share a meal of salad, tuna fish, and bread after a Sunday service. Michael Chin / NBC News

Kim said he began going to church because he wanted to learn Korean, a language he was barred from studying when Uzbekistan was part of the former Soviet Union. After that, he started learning the the bible, he said.

Married with two sons, Kim said he was invited to study at an American Baptist seminary; in 1995 he immigrated to the United States.

While hard numbers are difficult to come by, Kim estimates there are around 1,000 Koryo Saram living in New York City.

Kim has served as pastor of All Nations Baptist Church since it was organized 16 years ago. It shares a spiritual home with another congregation in a 19th century church on 12th Street in Park Slope.

On one Sunday morning in late July when NBC News visited, Kim led more than 100 worshipers in a two-hour service. Inside the Romanesque Revival-style building, Ukrainians sat amongst Uzbeks, Kazakhs amongst Russians. Koryo Saram filled out a good portion of congregants. Kids ambled about before heading to Bible study.

At the start of services, a band with guitars and drums played contemporary Christian songs in Russian as worshippers clapped along. A choir of four women also sang more traditional numbers later on.

Afterwards, over a lunch of salad and tuna fish spread served on bread, attendees shared similar stories of how All Nations Baptist Church became their place of worship.

A woman sings during a Russian-language sermon led by the Rev. Leonid Kim in Brooklyn, New York. Michael Chin / NBC News

Batyr Osserkul, 26, started coming around three years ago after hearing about it through a friend.

Born in Kazakhstan, he recalled the frustration of attending English-speaking services at other churches after moving to the U.S. in 2011 and not understanding a word.

The Russian-language All Nations Baptist removed that barrier, Osserkul said, and his English also improved.

“You can feel God is here,” he said.

Rev. Leonid Kim delivers a sermon in Russian at the All Nations Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York. Michael Chin / NBC News

For 27-year-old Aleksandr Kim, a Koryo Saram, the Russian language was also a factor.

Raised as a Presbyterian in Uzbekistan, Aleksandr Kim (no relation to the pastor) was first introduced to All Nations Baptist by a friend of his mother. He said he’s worshipped there since 2008, the same year he moved to the U.S., and is part of the church band.

A sense of fellowship, Aleksandr Kim added, is what unites many of the congregants.

“A lot of them here are very lonely, a lot of them don’t have families here,” he said.

Like the others, Iryna Bilohubka said she too was happy to discover a church where Russian was spoken. English is also not her first language.

Having left the Ukraine in 2011, Bilohubka learned about All Nations Baptist through Russians, she said. Raised as a Catholic, she has been attending Baptist services at the church since 2012, she said.

Her first impression of Leonid Kim, the pastor, was memorable.

“I listened to his words, and I understood,” 25-year-old Bilohubka said. “There’s something that he speaks that I felt was mine.”

While Brooklyn’s All Nations Baptist Church was begun for Koryo Saram, according to Leonid Kim, it has grown to take in faithful from a number of former soviet republics, uniting a diverse group brought together by a familiarity of Russian language and culture.

The pastor quickly added one more thing to that list.

“I think that Jesus, he united us,” he said.

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