Nanoom Christian Fellowship offers a place for drug users to get clean
By Corina Knoll
Photographs by Eric Sueyoshi
Some of the Inmates at Nanoom pose for a photo op outside of the church that serves as their temporary home.
LOS ANGELES — The 20–year-old is outgoing and earnest as he talks about himself, saying he knows he looks younger than his age and that growing up in Orange County was boring. He’s a sophomore at the University of Southern California and was once a business major, but now is much happier pursuing political science, although he wouldn’t mind making communications his main point of focus. For now, it’s his minor, and it might one day lead him to his dream of becoming either a sportscaster or a sports agent. He was once an athlete himself, wrestling the 112- and 119-pound weight class at Los Alamitos High School.
Andrew Kang is at ease opening up to a complete stranger while sitting at a picnic table in the parking lot of Nanoom Christian Fellowship, near downtown Los Angeles. He’s a friendly and polite young man whose personality makes you hope that one day he’ll achieve his goal and be found giving the play-by-play on ESPN or escorting a basketball star to the draft.
But there’s a reason why Andrew splits his time between college courses and Nanoom, a church that doubles as a drug rehabilitation center. So while getting to know Andrew as an individual is easy now, when he steps into the scenery that includes around 50 young adults who once abused drugs, he gets lost in a crowd of the 1.5- and second-generation who have been written off by Korean America.
These are the kids your parents said you weren’t supposed to play with. The kind who sport shaved heads and tattoos and wear “wife beaters” and baggy pants. The ones who get into fights and have the scars to prove it, and who roll with gangs and commit petty crimes. And they all know too well where to buy crack, what it costs and how much is enough to get them high.
Six years ago, pastors Eric Hahn and Yong Il Kim decided to address the issue of KAs and drugs, one that had long been overlooked. The two bought a building on the corner of James M. Wood Boulevard and Bonnie Brae Street, a seedy area near MacArthur Park known for housing drug addicts, and turned it into a church and residence for drug users. The location was and still is a place that reeks of temptation to drug abusers, but the pastors insist this is the point.
“So many people came to me, ‘How can you open the rehab center here? How can you open the church here?’” says Hahn.
“This is the only way you can stop doing drugs. You can buy drugs anytime, but you can stop here. It’s in the middle of crackhouses, but it’s working. If you go to the mountains or oceans, far from drugs, you think you can get away? Come on, there’s no way.”
Beginning with 10 residents, Nanoom now houses around 70 people. While there are some older first-generation KAs living at Nanoom, the majority of the “inmates,” as they call themselves, are young men. But don’t let this fool you. Hahn says that it is actually young KA women who are more at risk, due to the weight-loss side effect of drugs that many teens find appealing. However, young women are less apt to commit crimes while they are high and therefore don’t get caught using, and it also seems to be more shameful for Korean parents to admit and confront a daughter’s drug problem.
But the common factor between most KAs who begin using drugs is the dreams for success pushed on them by immigrant parents. Getting high offers an escape from the pressures to excel in school and to pursue jobs that require higher education like law or medicine.
“All the Korean parents are crazy about education,” explains Hahn, 47. “Maybe the parents, they never went to school in their life. … They’re only concerned about school. School is the most important thing for the children.
“You know, I have four kids, and the oldest one is 20 years old. Why can’t he be a janitor? Janitor is not a bad job. Why do we always look for the high positions? Because of that, you are destroying your kids’ lives,” says Hahn.
“Basically, Korean parents are in denial. They find out their kid’s doing drugs, they just ignore that. If they go to school and if they study good, they accept the way it is, whether they do drugs or not.”
But Hahn, a former drug dealer and gang member himself, says that formal education is the last thing a drug addict should be pursuing.
“You know, I keep telling youngsters,” he continues, “I tell them, ‘You have a bad personality, I think you shouldn’t study. If you study and you become a lawyer or doctor, you will destroy so many people.’”
Diana Kim, a former inmate at Nanoom, recalls that the reason she started smoking marijuana in sixth grade was to seek a life outside of studying.
“I wanted to fit in because before I was so into school I didn’t really have any friends,” she says. “So I thought maybe this would be a way to socialize better, meet more people and go out and have fun.”
Influenced by an older friend, Diana quickly moved from weed to crystal meth and cocaine and even began pushing drugs herself. The young girl from Carson, who planned on becoming a physicist and was enrolled in honors classes, used drugs for five years until she was eventually kicked out of two high schools and her parents took her to Nanoom.
“My parents actually did something about my problem when I got kicked out of school,” says Diana, who thinks her drug problem would have been overlooked if she had continued doing well in school.
At Nanoom, she was introduced to a new lifestyle where every hour of every day is accounted for. Inmates follow a schedule that begins at 7 a.m. and ends at 10:30 p.m., and includes chores, hiking, classes, Bible study and worship. At night, males and females retire to separate sleeping quarters that consist of cramped, makeshift rooms that look like cubicles and house several bunk beds or mattresses. There is little privacy and not a lot of free time.
“Discipline is very important, and they need to learn about patience, too,” explains Hahn. “That’s why the schedule constantly has programs. It’s good for those young people and especially because people who are involved with drugs have a very unstable lifestyle.”
At first, Diana didn’t take to her new home and had problems adjusting to the schedule and to other inmates. But this is said to be normal for a new resident, and after a while, it changes.
“It grows on you,” she says. “Like your family — they are your family. You take showers with them. You go through emotions with them. We all experience everything together, so it’s like you build a special bond with everyone.”
And while she had never discussed her drug use with her parents, Diana found herself opening up to the two pastors who, while described as different as night and day, easily gain inmates’ trust.
Diana’s mother, Jung Sook, recalls the way it was before she took Diana to Nanoom.
“It felt like the sky was crumbling,” she says. “What parent would want to believe their own kid was doing something as bad as drugs?”
Looking back, Jung Sook recognizes that it was a lack of communication and a difference in cultures that might have contributed to Diana’s drug use.
“I was trying to raise her in the Korean style, and she was trying to grow up the American way, so I think that made a lot of things difficult,” says Jung Sook. “She can’t understand Korean very well and I don’t speak English perfectly, so there was bad communication between us. And I work a lot, and she just goes into her room or goes out with her friends after school, so I feel like a lot was lacking in family interaction. I guess I didn’t give enough attention to my kids because of what I know of raising kids in Korea. I thought they were just growing up well.”
While it was embarrassing and shameful for Jung Sook to admit that her daughter had a problem, she attended the Saturday seminars at Nanoom that are held specifically for parents of drug abusers and says that she and Diana have managed to build a stronger relationship.
“My expectations changed a lot. I always thought it was so important for her to just go to school, but it’s about what she wants,” says Jung Sook. “I want to let her be able to do what she wants. I don’t push. And she’s at the age where she needs to make decisions for herself.”
And now, what Diana wants has changed. The 18-year-old, who finished high school while at Nanoom through a tutor, recently graduated from the program and now hopes to serve at Nanoom.
Another former inmate experienced the same revelation, but took it one step farther. David Kim, 27, a man who was thrown in jail five times for committing crimes to pay for his drug habit, is now attending seminary school and is currently a jundosanim, or junior pastor.
Having arrived in the United States at 16, with his parents and younger brother, David, who grew up in Busan, heard all the stories about how great his new American life would be.
“When we go to America, we’re gonna have a nice car, we’re gonna have a nice house, [meet] nice white people, more food,” says David, recalling his parents’ voices.
But being a teenager who didn’t speak English meant that David was ostracized from many of the cliques at John F. Kennedy High School in Buena Park.
“At school, we were called F.O.B. (fresh off the boat). I was hanging with some F.O.B. people. They’d always talk about basketball and video games and stuff. They weren’t my type so I found a few other groups, and they would talk about where they were drinking, you know, at whose house, and say, ‘How’d you come home yesterday? You were so drunk!’ I don’t know, somehow I liked those people.”
Joining a gang, David soon found himself in a world where robbing houses, stealing cars and committing fraud were all in a day’s work, especially if he wanted to maintain his $1,000-a-day drug habit. It was a life far from what his family had envisioned when they arrived in America.
“Because of me, my parents were suffering for many, many years. I didn’t go home, I’d always call from jail, ask for bail, always make trouble,” says David.
The last time David was arrested was in 1999, and he was court-ordered to stay at Nanoom for six months. After he graduated and began working for a shoe company, he began to rethink his life and wondered if he shouldn’t return to the place that quite possibly saved his life.
“I was making good money,” recalls David. “I bought my Mercedes, I bought a motorcycle. And then one day, it was December last year, … I was driving and I was thinking, ‘What am I doing?’”
Calling his boss to announce his departure, David then enrolled in seminary school and is currently in his second semester. It’s a calling that has not only changed his life, but his parents’ as well. They no longer have to worry about fielding phone calls from county jails.
“My mom’s so proud,” says David. “She owns a beauty salon and works on ajoomahs’ hair. Sometimes I go there. Before she had nothing to say. ‘Oh, this is your son! What school does he go to?’ She had nothing to say. But now she says, ‘Oh yeah, seminary school. He’s become a jundosanim and he’s gonna become a pastor!’”
David now lives at Nanoom and helps lead worship and praise teams. His hope is not to fix the habits of those who come to the center, but to “brainwash” society and prevent future drug users who seem to be getting even younger, like the four 13-year-olds who now reside at Nanoom.
“At age 13, they need to go to taekwondo lessons, piano lessons, you know, just be a 13-year-old kid,” he says.
David, as well as the pastors and everyone else who works at Nanoom, do not earn salaries, and the church subsists on donations, since it doesn’t cost to enroll in the drug rehab program where residents can stay anywhere from six months to over two years, depending on their progress. Even on holidays, Nanoom is open and you’ll find it bustling with activity since inmates are encouraged to stay and celebrate with each other.
While Nanoom’s worship services are open to the public, there are many who refuse to enter a church located among crackhouses or even acknowledge its existence.
“So many Korean people are ashamed about this church,” says Hahn. “The Korean community has big problems to me. … They’re always saying they’re concerned about the kids and they’re concerned about the next generation. If they’re really concerned about the new generation of kids, they must get involved in this matter. [But] they don’t even stop here.”
Perhaps the presence of Nanoom points to a problem within the Korean community that is hard to accept especially at a time when we celebrate the centennial and the accomplishments of KAs everywhere.
So maybe the words of Andrew Kang, a college student and Nanoom resident who once used ecstasy and crystal meth, apply to a community that has a hard time recognizing itself outside of Rose Parades and distinguished achievements.
“I try to be as straight up as I can,” says Andrew, who looks forward to graduating from Nanoom. “I don’t like to hide anything. I don’t want people to have a misconception of me, so if they ask me where I’m staying, I’ll just be like, ‘I stay in rehab.’ I’m not ashamed. I guess that’s the first step of recovery, too. You gotta accept it. You don’t want to hide something about who you were or who you are.”
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