COLUMBIA — With his son in his arms, Wonseok Kim walked around the main service hall at the Columbia Korean Baptist Church, where he has served as a volunteer since 2002. At the same time, his wife was downstairs preparing Korean food for church members. Kim came to Columbia in 2000 and is now a research associate in plant molecular biology at MU.
Kim’s family is among many Columbia Koreans who think of the Korean Baptist Church as their second home, but the tightly knit community faces a threat. Membership in the church has grown continuously, and it needs more room. Plans to expand, however, are handicapped because city officials say the church lacks adequate fire protection, said H.T. Lee, a deacon at the church who came to America 35 years ago and is now working as a radiologist.
Because the city considers churches to be commercial buildings, they require bigger waterlines for fire protection than are required for residential buildings, Lee said.
Built in 1991, the Korean Baptist Church is in the middle of a residential area along I-70 Drive N.W. In an effort to accommodate the growing Korean community in Columbia, the church nearly doubled its size in 1996. But the next expansion won’t be as easy, even though sections of the building have already been prefabricated and paid for.
Because the city adopted new fire codes in 1998 that require the larger waterlines, the church fails to meet the criteria, and the city rejected its application for a building permit.
“The city insisted we pay for building the waterlines, which will cost $300,000. But we don’t have so much money,” Lee said. He argues the city’s demands are unreasonable, especially since the area was annexed more than 15 years ago.
“For the areas in the city, they enjoy all the benefits of the city,” Lee said. “The city should provide adequate fire protection.”
Church member Kimberly Conrow raised the issue at the Aug. 6 meeting of the Columbia City Council, saying the city should pay for the waterline.
Lee said the church hopes to reach a compromise in which it would contribute $10,000 to $20,000 to a waterline project.
“That’s the amount we can afford,” he said.
City Manager Bill Watkins said he expects the council to make a decision at its Sept. 4 meeting. The city staff is preparing a report that will summarize the issue and make recommendations. Watkins said the church’s offer of compromise will be included.
Church members are anxious to see what the council does. Lee said the congregation can wait no longer for an expansion.
“We have 150 people on good weekends,” he said. “There are also quite a few school-age children — up to 100.”
When parents are at weekend worship services, all the children attend a single Sunday school class and then divide into smaller age groups. With one mission center hall, one main service hall and five classrooms, the church is filled with people every weekend.
“We need five to six classrooms, three to four offices and about two to three small conference rooms,” Lee said. He said the church went ahead and paid for the pre-built sections of the church additions because the congregation thought there would be no problem with the application to expand.
“The building sections are now in the factory parking lot,” Lee said. “I don’t know, if the city says no this time, what to do with the building.”
Chang Lee, the pastor of Korean Baptist, said the church serves not only religious purposes but also other needs of the larger Korean community. It often helps Korean scholars and students at MU arrange rides, get apartments and driver’s licenses, open bank accounts and enroll children in school.
“In Columbia, there are about 600 Koreans, which is not a small number,” Chang Lee said. “The church is not an official community center, but it is acting as a community center.”