Editor’s Note: This piece is in interview form and features Daniel DK Kim, worship pastor of Mariners Church.
His full bio can be found at the end of the interview.
DK, you’re a Korean-American worship pastor at a megachurch. It’s rare to see that. How did your journey unfold?
I went through a transition with my previous church (which was predominantly Asian-American) over 5 years ago and my friend (who was the worship pastor at Mariners at the time) reached out to me.
Mariners was intentional about hiring staff that would represent the diversity of the community around them and through the hiring process, it became clear that this was where God was leading me and my family.
We never imagined we would be in a predominantly caucasian setting but I quickly learned that I was comfortable and felt called to an environment where I would represent the minority, all for a purpose that was greater than what I had previously imagined.
Did you feel ready for it at the time? How did you manage that jump into such a key role?
I began my time at Mariners as the associate worship director, in support of my friend who was the worship pastor.
It was a great way for me to enter a brand new space, build trust with the congregation, and thrive within the support system of a larger team.
It was a much-needed time of acclimating to a new culture and a wider size and scope of ministry than I had previously experienced. It was a year of learning, adjusting, and feeling a sense of fulfillment, even as I wrestled with my long-term future. I felt ready for more but did not know what that meant or how it would look.
Then in the most unexpected and painful way, I was asked to assume the role of worship pastor on the day of my 1-year anniversary at Mariners. My friend and worship pastor had abruptly resigned and in a moment’s notice, I inherited a role and a world that would represent both the extreme challenges of ministry and the unexplainable grace of God that often accompanies the overmatched and desperate.
I recently celebrated my 5-year anniversary at Mariners and looking back, this journey has been filled with waves of adversity, victory, and everything in between. My story is one of God’s grace on display.
What has been the major blessings and challenges of navigating this space as a minority leader?
The most difficult day as a minority leader was the day after the 2016 presidential election.
For the first time since I joined the staff at my church, I felt like an outsider and whatever veil of safety was over my eyes had been lifted.
It was a strange and difficult feeling but it woke me up to the reality that God had brought me to my church for a purpose much larger than a weekend set of worship. As important as that corporate time was and is to me, I realized God called me to this unique place to act as a bridge to help unite a massive divide that was made evident through the political season.
It was as if a light went off in my spirit which caused me to see the immense responsibility and opportunity I had to use the platform He gave me to promote God’s message of unity in diversity.
In one of the most prestigious and wealthy regions of the world where people can easily live insulated from the harsh realities of the rest of the country and beyond, I felt as if God was asking me to champion the message of racial reconciliation.
That moment was the greatest blessing and burden as it has elevated the sense of urgency and weight on my leadership journey. There have been many moments of victory but the reality of the journey ahead has been at times overwhelming and isolating.
You lead a diverse worship team. What’s your thinking process behind that and why would you say it’s important?
When I look at the landscape of corporate worship across this country, there are not many examples of shared, diverse leadership and representation. I am not sure that I can name a single ministry or movement that has done this well.
I believe our church can help blaze a new trail as we champion and model this Kingdom value in all of our weekend services and by empowering voices that are typically on the margins.
I find that God has used me uniquely to build a diverse team because, in a way, we had a head start simply by the fact that I am an Asian American leader in a prominent role. My first hire was a high-caliber white guy who then connected me with a powerful black worship leader.
Together, we get to model shared leadership through the foundation of friendship. We get to lead the way in representing God’s eternal vision of every nation, tribe, and tongue united in worship to the God of all creation.
What are the missteps minority leaders can take in the diversity conversation?
A typical mistake we make is in thinking that we can move the proverbial needle forward by ourselves.
To put it bluntly, we need white allies in this conversation of reconciliation and diversity. Without the involvement of Majority culture, the change that we see will only be incremental and short-lived. This is because of the current system in which we live and operate in.
Change must happen from the inside-out, which means that the very system that oppresses and alienates is the system we must work within, confront, and lead with change. This is not possible without allies and champions who are white.
A prime example that I point to in all of this is the Colin Kaepernik saga.
Imagine what progress we would make in that particular conversation if Tom Brady decided to take a knee and speak out on behalf of his black teammates? What if he publicly asked for the NFL to shed light on the issue behind the act of kneeling that had become so criminalized? What if he decided to learn more about police brutality and systemic injustice?
The whole situation would shift and the narrative would turn from something divisive to something infused with exponential power for change.
We as minority leaders have a two-fold responsibility to share our story, our pain and speak truth to power while at the same time, finding a way to invite others into the journey so that we move forward in collective advocacy and power.
We make the mistake of thinking that our primary job is to say our piece, drop the mic, and walk away. We need to find a way to invite others into the conversation and become bridge builders toward lasting change. This is difficult, but it is more necessary now than ever.
What would be a few words of wisdom for minorities leading in diverse contexts?
Don’t give up. There will be many days and even seasons that will feel like a true movement forward is impossible. The work of racial reconciliation is a long game and it is filled with tremendous setbacks mixed in with moments of great victory and light.
Stay in the game and lead with honesty and hope.
Find a way to be an approachable, safe person in what is otherwise a difficult, confusing and scary conversation to climb into.
Discover language for your pain and emotion that gives access to people to enter into the discussion.
On another note, if you are a minority leader in a diverse context, work hard and be really good at your job. I have found that you get an edge in trust and credibility when you kill it in whatever game you are in - and add to that your integrity, humility and character and you are someone worth following and listening to.
What would be your encouragement for minority leaders in mono-ethnic contexts?
I think there is a time and space for mono-ethnic contexts, especially to feel a sense of safety and comradery in the midst of what is otherwise “the struggle.”
Within that space, however, I think it is important to call out blind spots in what can quickly become an enclave that isolates from the rest of reality.
In particular with our young people, I would encourage them to seek out friendships with those outside of their cultural realm whether it’s at school or places of employment. I would encourage everyone to be intentional about forming and joining companies, teams, musical bands, etc. that proudly display a diverse representation of people.
If I were to get on my soapbox for a moment, I want to challenge our young musicians and entrepreneurs to get out of the mindset that the way forward would be to form all-asian businesses and bands to “prove” our worth and show that we can make it.
This drive in of itself is not a bad thing and we should all want to advance the “cause of our people” but if we want to make a dent in history and really pave a way toward change and progress, we need to form alliances and partnerships with majority culture in addition to others. When is the last time you saw a Billboard hit from Far East Movement?
So whatever your current world looks like, let’s imagine a world that goes beyond the familiarity of the status quo and do your part to become what you desire to see.
You must realize that you are actually part of the solution simply because you can speak to the minority struggle while being inclusive enough to draw in the members of the curious majority. Be the bridge as Jesus had already modeled throughout His life on earth.
DK was born and raised in Southern California to immigrant parents from South Korea. From an early age he felt a draw toward pastoral ministry and began leading worship after a radical transformation before his sophomore year in High School. Upon graduating from the Harvard of the West (UC Irvine), DK has now served in full time ministry for 16 years, 3 of which were spent overseas as church planters in Bangkok, Thailand and Mexico City with his wife, Sadie. Together they have been married for 14 years and have 2 really good-looking kids, Micah (10) and Isla (8). DK currently serves as Worship Pastor at Mariners Church and leads a team of musicians and artists who are passionate about bridging the spiritual and relational divides that exist in the world today. In addition to seeing lives changed in the presence of God, DK’s life mission is to one day convert his wife toward Laker fanaticism and together he hopes they can pastor and shepherd the Laker players... from courtside seats.