By Kevin Matthews
Dong Soon Im wasn't a wealthy donor or, he says, a very religious man when he met his wife. Their arranged wedding took place upon her arrival in the United States in 1971, a year after Mr. Im traveled to San Francisco from South Korea with $200 in his pockets.
One long-term real estate investment later, and after months of praying, the Ims last year endowed the Dong Soon Im and Mi Ja Im Chair in Korean Christianity at UCLA—the first endowed chair of its kind at a western, secular institution, according to UCLA Center for Korean Studies Director John Duncan. The $1 million donation will further work on Korean Christianity that is already underway at the Center by providing a research budget for an eminent scholar dedicated to the specialty. Roughly 25% of South Koreans and a majority of Korean immigrants to the United States, about half a million of whom live around Los Angeles, are Christians. South Korea, a focus for Christian missionaries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is now the second-largest training ground for them, following the United States.
"The creation of a chair in Korean Christianity is an important step for UCLA, for the study of Korea, and the study of religions," Professor Duncan said. "The rapid growth of Christianity in Korea over the past century is one of the most salient aspects of modern Korean civilization and one of the most remarkable stories in the history of religion."
The Ims describe themselves as "average" Los Angeles County employees and reborn Christians. They live in Fullerton and attend Young Nak Presbyterian Church in downtown L.A. Both of their grown children work, the daughter as a pharmacist at UCLA.
At a Jan. 24 dinner at UCLA in the Ims' honor, hosted by Executive Dean Patricia O'Brien, Mr. Im thanked God for making the donation possible. He said that he and his wife expect the chair to "provide fruitful wisdom and knowledge to many students for many years to come."
Now that their gift has become public, the Ims have received attention in the Korean press and have been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times.
The UCLA Center for Korean Studies oversees a Korean studies program with more full-time professors and courses than any comparable program in the United States; the largest enrollment of Korean-American students, who make up roughly 10% of the entire UCLA student body; and an extensive program on religion, including courses in Korean Buddhism and Confucianism. With funding from the Luce Foundation, the Center holds public events on Korean Christianity, including an annual conference, and offers a lecture course. The Im Chair is the Center's first endowed chair.
Sung-Deuk Oak, an adjunct assistant professor at UCLA, says that the mostly Korean-American students in his Korean Christianity course come to learn more about their own parents and extended families. They go away with a perspective on Korean history that simply isn't available at other U.S. institutions.
"Without understanding Korean Christianity, you can’t understand two centuries of Korean history," Oak said.
The formation of a search committee to fill the Im Chair awaits required approvals from the Academic Senate and the President of the University.
With reporting by Judy Lin, UCLA senior media relations representative.