In many ways, Jason and Julie Choi are a typical Christian couple. Happily married for thirteen years, they are exuberant when talking about their faith, their children and their church. But in one critical way – their inter-ethnic marriage – Jason and Julie are not typical. Jason, whose Korean name is Chung-Ho, emigrated from South Korea with his parents as a teenager. Julie left her native home of Australia in her late twenties to attend seminary in the United States (where she met Jason), eventually becoming a naturalized citizen. Now in their late forties, Jason and Julie are founders and pastors of a growing 400-member church called "The Bridge."
After meeting Jason and Julie at an alumni function for the seminary, I invited them to lunch to get to know them better and learn about both the apparent success of their inter-ethnic marriage and the phenomenal church growth they were experiencing.
Julie opened, summarizing highlights of how they met as well as the challenges posed by their different cultural backgrounds. Her demeanor shifted from carefree to thoughtful as she recounted their struggles when her direct and abrasive "down-under" communication style nearly drove Jason away during those early years. Jason agreed, noting its negative impact on their conflict resolution and decision-making process for years to come. Their greatest difficulty, however, was regulating the influence their families (especially Jason's) had on their relationship. For Jason, family honor and parental deference are culturally ingrained attitudes that are highly valued in South Korean culture. He is aware that his challenge has always been to maintain this ancient eastern respect while also protecting his very western marriage.
Nevertheless, Julie and Jason's marriage is working. They shared with me three keys to their marital health. First, they emphasized the importance of prayer – asking God's help to prioritize His will over their own cultural reactions. Second, they talked about graciousness – prioritizing mutual nurture over the need to be right. And third, they highlighted the role of marriage mentoring – serving as accountability partners with other couples. This, particularly, intrigued me, and I longed to hear more.
Jason and Julie described how their church, The Bridge, has indeed become a model for cross-cultural marriage mentoring. In the early days of the church, only a handful of couples attended.
"It didn't take Jason and me long to realize that most of these couples were having serious marital challenges similar to those we experienced," Julie said. "We decided to establish marriage mentoring as a church core value."
Jason said, "It was clear that being present with Christ's love to these couples, through their communication lapses, unhealthy boundaries, poor conflict resolution and selfish attitudes, was the most spiritual intervention that we could offer. And, these are all areas that God had given us tremendous growth through the culture clashes of our marriage."
Laughing, Julie added, "It reminded me of the biblical account when Mordecai told Esther that she had been 'prepared for such a time as this.' But, what I did not expect was the heightened intimacy that Jason and I would experience as a result of working with these couples. We started mentoring for others, but we keep mentoring for us."
Cross-Cultural Marriage Mentoring
Jason and Julie's experience confirmed some of my own perceptions regarding marriage mentoring. But, what impressed me most was their use of themselves and their own cultural differences to promote cross-cultural learning within their congregation and as an outreach to the surrounding community.
Through transparently sharing from their own history and modeling healthy conflict resolution, Jason and Julie unwittingly challenged cultural expectations, stereotypes and prejudices within and outside of marriage. In doing so, they built a remarkable framework for both healthy marriages and church culture – one that promotes the diversity of ideas and experiences as important to understanding Christ's kingdom. As a result, their church has become recognized as one of the most ethnically integrated and "marriage friendly" churches in their vicinity.
Jason and Julie summarized three valuable benefits of their mentoring program. First, it fosters humility, as each spouse realizes that right and wrong in marriage are often cultural artifacts rather than absolute standards. Second, it fosters the possibility of integrating the best elements of each culture, rather than experiencing differences as deficits. And third, it promotes communication around the important issues of marriage over being frustrated with unmet assumptions.
Interjecting a final point, Julie said, "Regardless of whether you are an inter-ethnic couple or even a Christian couple, these three benefits are marital growth principles. By espousing them in a nurturing environment, we believe couples see their mentoring relationships as a welcome bridge across the marital and social divide."