D.J. Lee, Senior Service Specialist for Korean Membership, strengthens connections in the Church.
In a small conference room at the Board of Pensions, before COVID-19 led to staff working remotely, D.J. Lee recalled how he chose to travel from his home in South Korea to Philadelphia to earn an MBA. He spread an imaginary map of the United States across the conference table and ran his hands across it, one westward, one eastward.
“I opened up the map, and I had a few choices,” said D.J., Senior Service Specialist for Korean Membership at the Board, referring to his university admissions. “Philadelphia, I had never heard of. Philadelphia has the longest spelling. Hmm, Philadelphia is the place to go. I want to explore. I like adventure.”
Today, D.J. gives back to his adopted city as a volunteer at Greater Philadelphia Health Actions (GPHA), where he has served on the Quality Oversight Committee and Strategic Planning Committee since 2019. GPHA provides comprehensive health services to uninsured and underinsured people in the region. “It has been a great opportunity to share my knowledge and experiences gained from the Board and my education,” he said. “This is my way to return something back to Philadelphia.”
Dong Jo Lee arrived in Philadelphia in August 1994, his first time in the United States. “When I was young, I always dreamed about America,” he said. “I loved Western movies and World War II movies.” D.J. had no family or friends in the U.S., but he had been introduced to the Presbyterian church in high school by a friend and soon, he was worshiping with a Presbyterian congregation in Philadelphia. “It brought me back to my faith,” he said.
By February 2000, D.J. had two master’s degrees (MBA and M.S.), a wife, a young son, and a new job as Benefits Specialist at the Board of Pensions. Twenty years later, he and his wife, Heayoung Shin, share their home with son Nathan, a college sophomore, and daughter Hannah, a high school junior. And D.J. is helping to strengthen church ties with Korean congregations.
D.J.’s father-in-law, the Reverend Dr. Sang Gil Shin, was thrilled when D.J. was hired by the Board. Rev. Shin had moved to the states from Korea in 1983 with his family — when D.J.’s wife was 13 — for a Presbyterian leadership exchange program. He retired in Korea in 1997 after 30 years in ministry that included serving Presbyterian churches and in validated ministries in Korea, a PC(USA) congregation in the U.S., and as a missionary in Mexico.
Rev. Shin saw D.J. as a connection between Korean Presbyterians and a valuable church agency. Today, that connection is direct. Since January 2019, D.J. has served as the face of the Board for Korean Presbyterian ministers and congregational leaders in the approximately 400 PC(USA) Korean churches. He travels, educating these congregations on the church Benefits Plan and how to use Benefits Connect.
“The people I meet with really appreciate the outreach,” said D.J., who has expanded face-to-face service for the constituency. “The word spread out. I have a total of 18 outreach activities scheduled in 2020, including workshops, Korean retiree luncheons, and NCKPC [National Caucus of Korean Presbyterian Churches],” he said, although COVID-19 has forced schedule changes.
Connecting on a personal level is important to D.J. In April 2019, he began sending e-birthday cards to all Korean-speaking plan members — active members, retirees, and term vested [those vested in the Pension Plan but no longer in PC(USA) employment]. In January 2020, he launched an annual New Year’s greeting for these members. “I’ve collected very positive feedback and appreciation from the members,” D.J. said.
D.J. is new to this kind of service role. In the past, he supported the technical side of Plan Operations. As Business Process Systems Manager, D.J. received the Board’s highest employee honor, the Ernesto Badillo Award for Hospitality through Service, for his behind-the-scenes, “impactful contributions” to getting the 2017 Benefits Plan up and running.
Still, D.J. is not new to teaching. “My father was a teacher for 48 years,” he said. “I was a trainer in the military [in Korea], and after that, I was teaching English to junior high school kids at a private institution.”
D.J.’s understanding of Korean culture has been critical to conveying the richness of the Benefits Plan. Korean plan members traditionally haven’t made the most of their benefits because plan information was not always reaching the one responsible for wielding it.
“We used to train the ministers,” D.J. said, but it is the spouse who oversees family medical claims and expenses. “In Korean culture, many spouses are women who have sacrificed their professional careers to support their husband’s ministry and child care. Once I took over this role, I said, ‘Hey, bring your spouse.’ Now, I see more engagement.”
D.J.’s outreach supports the efforts of the Board, as part of the PC(USA), to strengthen the community of faith. In 2019, for the first time, the Chief of Church Engagement for the Board of Pensions attended the NCKPC. Translations of documents on pensions.org continue to grow, and this year, the Board plans to deliver Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations in Korean.
On his travels, D.J. shares stories of the late Rev. Badillo, the name on his award and a close friend. A picture of the beloved Board representative hangs in his home, “reminding me why I’m at the Board of Pensions — as a Christian, as a Presbyterian, we should have different values.”
With Rev. Badillo as a model of service, and powered by the energy and determination that carried him to the U.S., D.J. is strengthening connections with Korean congregations. Inspiring him is his memory of Rev. Shin’s excitement at seeing his son-in-law as a bridge between Korean churches and the Board. “That’s why I’m here,” D.J. said.