Gripping his small burgundy Bible in one hand, Isaac Kim faced away from his fellow leaders of the Ark College Ministries. He was singing praise songs near UC Berkeley’s Sproul Fountain. This is the same fountain people were baptized in during the Jesus Movement in the late 1960s, when thousands of people along the West Coast converted to Christianity at the peak of the hippie era. Turning back, Isaac asked for quick prayers from his friends. He decided he was ready to just go for it. He was going to preach in public, without a pulpit, without a congregation. What’s the worse that can happen? Isaac wondered. It’s not like they are going to stone me.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” Isaac began. “My name is Isaac Kim, and I have some wonderful news to share with you today.” He continued speaking the words he practiced at home. He shared about how God created people because He wants to have a personal relationship with them. He illustrated how sin divided them from God, who sent His son, Jesus, to reconcile people back to Him. Isaac continued to explain that God is a God of love, but he is also a just God.
He finished his three-minute sermon with “God bless you!” There was no crowd gathered around him. There weren’t any claps or cheers. Isaac could see people watching and listening to what he said from a distance. A few students walked by and gave him a nod.
And no one lifted any stones.
“He really loves this person he is preaching about,” Isaac’s older brother, John, says about the first time he heard his brother preach. “When he talks about Jesus, I can sense that he loves Him very personally. And he is out to share this person he loves with other people.”
Laughter follows Isaac. This seems suitable considering his name means “he laughs” or “laughter.”
“he laughs” or “laughter.” Smiles break out at the mention of Isaac’s name. He can make even the most mundane topic of conversation interesting by his delivery. Even with common Bible stories that can often elicit yawns from an audience, the way Isaac shares it invites laughter.
“The disciples were probably like, ‘Jesus, where are you going? Everyone’s, like, waiting for you,’” Isaac says in front of an audience, as he preaches on the book of Luke, chapter five. “‘We’ve got the sound system set up. You’ve just gotta go preach. Like, the tent is ready, everything. Jesus, what are you doing?’ He’s like, ‘I gotta go guys.’”
Laughter erupts from the crowd as Isaac gives his version of a conversation Jesus likely had with his disciples on the importance of prayer with God.
“And, you know, I bet Peter was like, ‘Where do You think You’re going?’” Isaac continues. “I bet you he was rebuking the Lord, like, ‘Jesus, come here! Where do You think You’re going? We are about to start a mega-church overnight, right now.’ And Jesus is like, ‘I’ve gotta go,’ and Peter is like, ‘Well, where are You going?’ and Jesus is like, ‘I’ve gotta go pray.’”
But Isaac's laughter hasn't always come naturally. It came through making a decision. A decision made at many times. Times in the attic, or in a large empty room, or in a small cramped bathroom, simply being with God.
In various sections of life, Isaac had to choose whether he would ask, “Why me? Why now?” or to simply pray.
The Son In 1998, when Isaac was 11 years old, his dad moved the family to California, where he eventually became the head pastor of a church in Los Angeles.
Angeles. Nineteen-year-old Isaac and his family went through what can only be described as a very difficult year. Isaac’s dad took a step back from his ministry to focus on his marriage and protect his family from falling apart. Their struggles brought them to their knees, crying out to God.
As Isaac watched other families gather at church every Sunday, he wondered if those families were having problems too, if they were experiencing hurt, and if they felt like they were falling apart. Or was his the only one? Was there something he had done wrong?
Isaac did the only thing he knew. He began waking up every day to get to church by 5:30 a.m. for morning prayer, a common practice among Korean churches in which a lot of the congregation spend two hours praying early in the morning. Isaac focused his prayers on his parents. God, heal my family. Take away the pain. Let them feel and trust in your unconditional love, no matter what.
During those services, as he shook off the early morning fatigue, God urged Isaac to trust in Him, in His word. Isaac opened his Bible to the book of John, focusing on chapter 15. His eyes stopped on verse 12, which read, “My command is this: love each other as I have loved you.” And instantly, he was flooded with the love of God. Yes, I'm loved, Isaac thought. My family is loved.
“Looking back, I think there was a very specific reason why [Isaac] was there, staying with mom, and I was the one overseas,” John says about that difficult time. “That was a time when mom needed a lot of love, a lot of attention, a lot of pursuit. And I think Isaac was more gifted in that relational aspect…I really saw his love for mom and his heart for people that isn’t too easily discouraged.”
Even when Isaac wondered why his family struggled the way they did, he chose to pray and trust in God’s love. He soon learned that this decision was one he would have to make over and over again.
The Student Minister At the end of that difficult year in 2006, Isaac’s parents decided to move back to Korea, where they are originally from. Isaac, then, moved to Berkeley, California to be a part of a ministry he had recently discovered.
Isaac got connected to a group of people who would eventually form a church known as “The Ark Ministries.” One thing that stood out to him was their heart for prayer. Praying wasn’t something Isaac did out of habit but rather out of necessity. He needed to talk to God...every day.
In his youth, Isaac remembers whining to God in his prayers. Jesus, where are all the passionate people? I know I am not perfect, but I want to be with people who love You as much as I do. Am I the only one? It wasn't until Isaac was surrounded by people who prayed more fervently than he did that he realized how ignorant those early prayers were. Now, he was surrounded by individuals who seemed to pray more than they conversed with people.
Isaac started life in Berkeley living with nine other people. Since everyone he lived with also attended church at the Ark, the house was appropriately named the “Ark House”. The stunning Victorian-style house with light green siding and white trimming was located only four blocks away from the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley). Perfect. Except Isaac needed to figure out a way to get into the school first. He also needed money to pay for his education.
While attending a community college, Isaac began working at a local sushi restaurant. Starting off as a sushi helper, he eventually became an assistant manager.
manager. Through scholarships, his new job, and a lot of prayer, Isaac eventually made enough to support himself and pay for his own education.
After two years at Berkeley City College, Isaac stood next to the cashier’s computer at work, wondering if he should check online now or wait until later. He straightened his black apron, re-tied it over his black work pants, and patted down the front of his white button-up shirt. He stared at the screen, debating. No one was around, so he clicked on the link that took him to the admissions site. As he waited for the page to load, he wondered what would be waiting on the other side: an acceptance letter or a rejection? His eyes darted to the first line, which read, “Congratulations!” It took everything in him to not do a happy dance. Instead, he went back to work with a smile plastered on his face. He was going to UC Berkeley. His heart had never felt so grateful. No one seemed to notice the extra skip in his step and the smile that refused to leave his face for the rest of the shift. No one noticed because Isaac always had a smile on his face.
As Isaac attended classes at UC Berkeley, his compassion grew for the people in the area. He walked by homeless people, young and old, living in cardboard boxes on corners. He encountered men and women who sought after spirit guides, rituals, drugs, and the like, to simply chase an experience. Isaac quickly realized he wanted to do more than just go to class. He wanted to engage with the community, to love them, to pray for them.
Isaac, along with three other college friends, started meeting regularly to pray in the attic of the Ark House. They prayed for each other as well as to meet people on campus whom they could encourage and share God’s love with. The four college students eventually grew into a group of 40. As more and more students gathered to pray, the head pastors of the Ark Ministries, Ryan and Suky Longfield, asked Isaac to lead the group in a more formal way.
Ryan and Suky Longfield, asked Isaac to lead the group in a more formal way. Isaac became the leader of the newly-formed Ark College Ministries.
“I feel like [Isaac's] greatest strength and greatest asset has always been that he’s got this ability to be this incredible pastor,” Pastor Suky says, “which is someone who cares a lot about the people who come in through the door…He’s very great at bringing life. He is a very ‘alive’ person. Some people bring peace, and some people bring serenity, and some people bring comfort. But I feel like Isaac brings vibrancy in life and enthusiasm and passion.”
Isaac's sermon in front of Sproul Fountain proved to be the first of many. He talked about his love for God at every opportunity, with students, strangers, and homeless people alike.
But preaching wasn't enough. He wanted to put his words into action. In the middle of a conversation with a homeless man, Isaac decided to invite him to his house. Although his roommates were a bit shocked at first, Isaac just wanted to give him a warm meal and a bed for the night.
One man he met on the street was so dirty, Isaac insisted he come to his house and take a shower. As the homeless man scrubbed the filth from his skin, his tears mixed with the dirty water that washed off of him. He was now clean and desired to reflect that cleanliness from the inside, too. When he finished his shower, he told Isaac that he wanted to follow Jesus from that point on.
As Isaac prayed that night, he spoke to God from a heart full of gratefulness. He was living out his calling. He was helping people.
In 2011, however, five years after he moved to Berkeley, Isaac received a phone call from the Korean Consulate that caught him off guard. His passport was about to expire. Either he needed to become a U.S. citizen or he had to go back to South Korea immediately to fulfill his military duty, a requirement for all Korean male citizens.
back to South Korea immediately to fulfill his military duty, a requirement for all Korean male citizens.
Isaac thought back on the past five years. Wasn’t he doing the work of God in Berkeley? Hadn’t God provided for him here, so that he could minister here? He had graduated from UC Berkeley. He had helped start a college ministry. He had grown so close to the community, they were like his second family.
Isaac searched his Bible to understand the future God wanted for him. He read Proverbs 19:21. “Many are the plans in the mind of man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that prevails.”
Isaac thought about the future he had set in his mind. His plans to live in California and minister to UC Berkeley students. But that’s just it, they were his plans. Was now the time for God’s purpose to prevail in his life? Wasn’t he doing God’s work here in Berkeley? Isaac didn’t know what to do, so he did what came naturally to him. He prayed.
“In my ambitious mind, I thought, ‘I am going to be the young and up-and-coming cool minister but really humble at the same time. And bring revival to UC Berkeley,’” Isaac says. “But I got the call [from the Korean Consulate] and rather than dismissing it, I felt that I needed to really pray about it.”
So he did. And the reality of leaving Berkeley hit him. He thought about moving out of the Ark House, where the men he lived with felt more like brothers. He thought about leaving his pastors behind, who took him in when he was only 19 and treated him like a son. He thought about the students he was leaving behind. Students that he looked after, wanting to love them the way he felt loved by God.
And despite the pain that came with those thoughts, Isaac also felt a deep peace about moving to Korea. A peace that he trusted was from God. A peace that could only come from prayer.
The Air Force Interpreting Officer During his first few months in Korea, Isaac stayed with his parents at his grandmother's house in the coastal city of Busan, South Korea. Discovering an attic in his grandmother’s home, Isaac found his quiet place to pray. As he prayed, his mind wandered back to Berkeley, where he left a thriving and vibrant ministry, where he helped the homeless, where he cared for so many individuals. He listened to worship songs he used to sing at the Ark on repeat. He wondered if the Lord was with him here, as he was in Berkeley.
As a way to cope, Isaac read Joshua 1:9 over and over again. “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Eventually, Isaac moved to the capital, Seoul, where he worked as an English teacher while he prepared to enter into the military. The longer he was away from Berkeley, the idea of joining the Korean military became more daunting. Isaac worried about his age. Most Korean men entered the military right after high school or a year or two into college. At 26 years old, he would be out of college for more than two years by the time he joined. He worried about becoming a soldier and not being a part of the world for two years. He worried about not being a part of a church community.
Isaac was tempted to ask God, “Why me? Why now?” But instead, he chose to trust God’s plan, like he had done up until this point. He chose to pray, even if he didn’t know what to say.
Six months after arriving in Korea, Isaac’s dad informed him about an opportunity to be an Air Force Interpreting Officer in the military, which would give him a unique way to fulfill his military obligation.
would give him a unique way to fulfill his military obligation. He could speak English and have a regular 8-5 job after boot camp. In other words, he wouldn't be limited to seeing family and friends only on the weekends, like soldiers were. But first, Isaac had to pass a language exam proving he was bilingual before he could even be considered for the job. Isaac’s Korean was conversational, at best. He didn’t have much hope, but his dad did. So Isaac took the faith his dad had in him and studied as hard as he could.
Out of 105 people who applied for the position, 20 were chosen. Isaac woke up the morning he was supposed to hear back nervous and queasy.
“[It was] very similar to that feeling of opening up that Berkeley acceptance letter,” Isaac remembers. “I woke up in the morning and checked my phone, and it said, ‘Congratulations, you’ve been accepted as an interpreting officer.’”
Once again, all Isaac saw was the word “Congratulations” before pulling the covers back over his head. He couldn't stop smiling. And the verse in Proverbs flashed through his head. But the purpose of the Lord prevails. He knew, then, that God's plans were so much bigger than his own.
It turns out, however, participating in those plans wasn't always comfortable.
Isaac squinted in the dim light while reading the first few lines of his burgundy Bible. The same one he held as he searched for answers to his future. The same one he held while preaching on UC Berkeley’s campus. Grateful for any light at all, Isaac sat backwards on the seat in the stall, using the tank of the toilet as his desk. During boot camp, soldiers were kept busy from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m., when lights shut off. Only one place provided light after that. Only one place allowed soldiers to be alone: the bathroom.
Isaac knew that the army officials weren’t going to understand his need for prayer time when he woke up. And they weren’t about to let him take an extra long lunch break to talk to God, either. As the rest of the cadets slept, Isaac read his Bible in the bathroom and prayed what he always prayed in Korea. Lord, are you with me? Please be with me.
Boot camp challenged Isaac. Thinking of his parents and the church community he just began connecting with made it worse. But even though his circumstances looked dismal, Isaac kept praying. Going back to the verses that gave him hope, he read Joshua over and over again.
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
He revisited Proverbs, too.
“Many are the plans in the mind of man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that prevails.”
Isaac Through it all, Isaac chose to pray. He didn’t always have the answers, but he knew he could always trust in God. And that trust brought him here.
A lamppost illuminated the middle of a small park as soon as the skies turned dark. Directly underneath the light sat a white teepee filled with pillows. A bouquet of white, yellow, and pink flowers had been carefully placed on the top of the teepee. In the trees nearby hung colorful lights, their fat bulbs swaying in the evening breeze.
It looked like a scene straight out of a Korean drama. But this was real life. Almost 20 people hid behind a row of large bushes, some holding trays of cheese and crackers, while others held clear cups of parfaits.
cheese and crackers, while others held clear cups of parfaits. Other people in the park grew curious, crouching low and walking towards the group behind the bushes. They assumed this must be a celebrity sighting. The word “proposal” drifted through the air in hushed whispers.
Isaac and his girlfriend, Tina, had met at New Philadelphia Church a year prior and started courting each other, even writing letters while Isaac was in boot camp.
On this evening, he led Tina by the hand to the teepee. She became giddy with nerves. Inside, Isaac confessed his certainty about her, that he was choosing to commit to her. He, then, asked her to be his wife. Smiling, she said, “Yes.”
As the zipper came down and the newly-engaged couple stepped out, the friends and family who hid behind the bushes just minutes prior stood outside the teepee and yelled, “Congratulations!” Isaac wrapped his arm around his fiancé and looked at the small crowd gathered in front of them. His heart flooded with gratefulness. Here, just three years after leaving Berkeley, stood a new community of friends whom he considered family. When God plucked Isaac out of Berkeley to return to Korea, he worried about his future and the plans that were thrown out the window. But here, God had shown, yet again, how His plans prevail. How His plans were always better than Isaac’s.
“I remember my immediate response was, ‘That is why he is who he is,’” Tina says of Isaac. “That is why he is such a man of prayer. His strength and his optimism and his bright personality...it really roars from something deep. It’s not something idealistic. It’s not something happy-go-lucky. But it’s really from a constant position of prayer.”
As Tina shares this, Isaac smiles at her. He returns to the verse that brought him to Korea: Proverbs 19:21.
brought him to Korea: Proverbs 19:21.
“At first, that was a verse that came to me as something that I needed to surrender to: it’s God’s purpose that will prevail. [I] have plans, but it is God’s purpose that prevails,” Isaac says. “But after coming to Korea, it’s not a verse that squeezes surrender out of me but rather gives me so much relief. I have so many plans, but they are flawed plans. They are not all perfect. And I used to think, ‘Okay God, yeah, Your purpose will prevail. I submit to that.’ But that was shifted to, ‘Thank God Your purpose prevails through my plans because my plans aren’t as all-knowing and as all-seeing and perfect like Yours.’”
At the end of every day, Isaac chooses to return to God. It’s a choice he makes through every emotion and every season. When he is sad or disappointed, he returns to God. When he is happy and grateful, he returns to God. Knowing that God is always there. And His purpose will prevail. For God’s plans always prevail. And while that may have confused him once upon a time, now it frees him. And he simply smiles.
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