There isn’t much to see when you drive through West Comanche Avenue.
On the corner where the road meets Hillsborough Avenue, you’ll find a Shell gas station. Next door, a rundown auto shop with faded signs and old abandoned cars lies unattended. Heading further down, West Comanche is an uneven gravel road dotted with poorly filled potholes and weeds. Tall grass lines the sidewalks. Prehistoric looking trees cast shadows over the unkempt lawns along the street. The neighborhood of brightly colored houses remains quiet most of the time, except for the occasional car or bike-riding child passing through.
It’s not where you would expect to come across a Korean church.
Positioned between an empty plot of land and the predominantly Hispanic residential area behind it, the yellow church building with its stark white steeple and stained glass windows, stands out against the surrounding wire fencing and overgrown shrubbery. An American flag flies high on a flagpole in the front of the parking lot, right next to the church’s bright blue sign. Plastered on a thick marble pillar, the sign, written in white Korean and English lettering, reads: Assembly Full Gospel Church of Tampa.
This building and the off-white building adjacent to it is where the congregation, a diverse and eclectic mix of Korean and local culture, has gathered for the past 36 years.
The church sprouted up in this curious spot thanks to a Korean elder from the overseeing Assemblies of God denomination. Rev. Byong Chin Lee, senior pastor of Full Gospel, cannot recall his name. He and his family arrived and took over leadership of the church just 11 years ago.
“Well, it’s not a typical spot for a Korean church, but it was God’s plan for us,” Lee said in Korean.
Originally, the church leaders intended to reach just the Korean community in Tampa. There were no plans to become a multi-ethnic church. Not that they had any objections, Lee said, it just wasn’t on the radar.
Over the years, people of all different walks of life have found their way through the doors of the church. The church’s nationalities include Vietnamese, Caucasian, Filipino, Black, Puerto Rican, Chinese and Korean. Lee said the influx of ethnically and culturally diverse church members is exciting.
“It makes the church feel more alive,” Lee said.
Lee said there is a downside–the loss of communication and a potential for misunderstanding between the older Korean generation of immigrants and the younger, non-Korean generation. In fact, the church is split into two parts, services for the Korean-speaking older parishioners, and English services for the younger members. Not every older Korean member speaks or understand English, and not every youth speaks or understand Korean. Both sides get lost in translation.
That’s where Pastor Joshua Kim came in. A Korean immigrant, originally from Baltimore and then Miami, he moved to Tampa with his family to be the English-speaking pastor at Assembly Full Gospel in 2013. He received recommendations from members within the church to take the position here.
“Every church has its own distinct identity,” Kim said. “For us, we cannot be closed off to other cultures. It’s not what God called us to do.”
So what is the vision for Assembly Full Gospel?
“To reach the lost souls of the world, starting with our own neighborhood,” Lee said. “We might be in a Hispanic neighborhood, but we can connect with them and impact them too.”
He believes it starts with prayer. The church holds hold a prayer meeting every morning at 6 a.m., and on Friday nights as well. The meetings are not just to pray for the church members and attendees, but for the entire neighborhood. The entire city. The world.
The Sunday morning sun beats down on the church’s 36th anniversary. Lunch is special today. People cram into the small air- conditioned lunch room. It’s lined with long folding tables and packed with plastic chairs. Korean and English chatter fills the air as people get in line for food. Korean, Chinese, African-American, Filipino, and Vietnamese, all different faces, but one family.