/ The Influence of Christianity on Korean Parenting


Based on qualitative fieldwork conducted in Philadelphia, this article describes the ways that Christianity impacts how Korean immigrant women parent their adolescent children. Findings indicated that Christianity is a central tenet of parenting in the lives of working immigrant women from Korea. Christianity is not merely what they believe but rather a fundamental element governing parenting choices. Adopting Christian parenting values signals a dramatic change in contemporary Korean-American culture.

Key Words: Korean parenting, Korean immigrant mothers, Christianity, Christian faith

    1. Seongeun Kim, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Pennsylvania State University, Delaware County, PA 19063. E-mail: sxk71@psu.edureturn to text

    2. The author deeply thanks Tara Wolfolk and Frances Hurwitz, who read an earlier version of the manuscript and provided invaluable comments.return to text

    A growing body of research on parenting and religion emphasizes the significance of the roles of religious faith in parenting. These include the impact of religion in the construction of ideal fatherhood (Dollahite, 1998), the centrality of religious faith in the construction of the father role (Latshaw, 1998), the influences of religious faith on dealing with children's chronic disease in Mexican American families (Rehm, 1999), and the positive impacts of parental religiosity on parenting practices (Strayhorn, Weidman, & Larson, 1990). In spite of parenting, religion, and religious faith as a burgeoning research area, studies on the influences of religion on parenting among immigrants or non-European American populations are rare.

    The reality of immigrant family life in America tends to suggest that the significance of examining religion's impact on parenting among these populations lies in contradictions between cultural values and religious values. Where religious beliefs and cultural beliefs are incongruent, what values are in conflict and how the clash is handled have become concerns. For example, the Christian value system is contradictory to the traditional philosophy of Korean motherhood. Traditional Korean motherhood is rooted in Confucianism which defines women's identity as mothers after marriage and requires mothers' unconditional dedication to their children. The essence of womanhood in mainstream Korean culture is sacrifice for husband and children, defining women exclusively in the contexts of family (Kim, 1998). In this cultural concept of motherhood, mothers' devotion to their children's success and educational excellence is second to none.

    In contrast, the Christian religion conveys the message that one's central identity is constructed through one's relationship with God. In this ideology, what mothers do and how they care for their children does not seem to be based on the context of family. Rather, these women tend to regard themselves as instruments of God's authority and His will for their children. This idea is echoed in the findings about women in Kim's (2002) research on mothering adolescent children. The Christian Korean immigrant mothers of these adolescent children tended to regard themselves as custodians for the children whom God has entrusted to their care.

    Despite the radically different concepts concerning mothers and children in Korean culture of Confucianism and their Church's interpretation of Christian tenets, the impact of Christianity on the ways in which Korean mothers parent their children has rarely been studied. Further exacerbating this paucity of research is the lack of reliable statistics available on the number of Korean Christian women in the U.S. The dearth of existing statistics on Korean Christians suggests the need to study the centrality of the practice of Christianity in the lives of Korean immigrants.

    In Hurh and Kim's (1984) research, 69.9% of Koreans in Los Angeles and 76.8% of Koreans in Chicago were church attendees. By contrast, according to a report released by the National Bureau of Statistics in 1985 (Hurh & Kim, 1990), about 21 percent of Koreans were affiliated with churches in Korea. Considering this relatively small percentage of church attendees in Korea, Korean immigrants' high affiliation with churches implies the extent to which Christian practice and church attendance impacts the lives of Korean immigrants in the U.S.

    Koreans are the fastest growing population among Asians in Philadelphia and its surrounding region. According to population data on metropolitan areas, Philadelphia is the 7th largest Korean metropolitan community in the United States (Gall & Gall, 1995). In addition, Philadelphia is a place where the proportion of Koreans among the total populations becomes significant in numbers. In the greater Philadelphia areas, Koreans are the largest immigrant group, excluding Puerto Ricans (Goode & Schneider, 1994). From 1980 to 1990, Koreans increased 41.5% from 7,463 to 17,985, making Koreans a major ethnic group among Asians in the area (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1983, 1993). In Philadelphia, Koreans constitute 11.5 percent of the Asian group, ranking them as the second largest ethnic group among Asians, after Chinese. Also, Koreans are the largest populations among all Asians in Delaware and Montgomery counties in 1990, comprising 48.5% and 24.8% respectively of all Asians (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993).

    This study examined how Korean immigrant mothers of adolescent children enact their Christian values through mothering, and specifically how these women's Christian faith impacts upon the role of motherhood and their relationships with their children. The study explored the meaning of Christianity for parenting in the lives of working Korean immigrant mothers as they struggle to survive in a new land, while providing the best care they can for their beloved children.



    The study sample consisted of 22 working Korean immigrant mothers of adolescent children in Philadelphia and its surrounding regions: Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties. Mothers in this study were recruited through Korean churches and acquaintances in the region. The participants' length of residency in the U.S. ranged from 3 to 25 years. These women's ages ranged from 41 to 5 1. They worked an average of about 56 hours a week. The majority of the women ran small businesses such as dry cleaning shops, or discount stores, and the rest of the women were employed in Korean ethnic businesses.


    Sampling was purposively conducted based upon Strauss and Corbin's grounded theory approach (1998). The first step, open sampling, was conducted among full time working Korean mothers of high school children in Philadelphia primarily to keep the collection process open to all possibilities in terms of immigration experiences, jobs, mothering experiences, religious experiences, and situations that would lead to an understanding of the parenting experiences of these women. However, as Strauss and Corbin stated, it does not mean that the sampling was arbitrary: but rather in this stage, data gathering was viewed as to the direction of future interviews as well as to the discovery of concepts emerging from the data.

    Open sampling led to relational and variational sampling, meaning that as the research process progressed, interviews were conducted based upon certain concepts and categories that had emerged. The author continued reading transcripts, adjusting the focus of data collection based upon concepts found through analyzing both collected data, and incoming data. At this stage of sampling, a pattern emerged among the working Korean immigrant mothers in this study, indicating that the length of residency differentiated these women's mothering, immigration, and religious experiences.

    The classification of the two groups of women in this study is based on a comparative analysis of the data. Recent immigrant women (N = 8) came to the U.S. less than 7 years ago. These women came to the U.S. around 1997 when Korea had very serious economic problems. They were severely affected by the economic recession in Korea, and some of them had lost their economic stability before they arrived in the U.S. Long-term immigrant women (N = 14) in this research have been in the U.S. more than 13 years. They came to the U.S. between 1970s and 1980s, and they have been working hard to negotiate Korean cultural beliefs for the sake of their children. For instance, these women tend to measure "success" based more upon children's religious belief, character development, or morality than their educational attainments. Considering the Korean cultural belief that for a child to enter a prestigious university guarantees future success, these women's shift in beliefs is revolutionary.

    After these patterns were found, data collection and analysis became purposive. The recruitment of participants from that point forward was to supplement data and to further uncover the differences in parenting experiences between recent immigrant women and long-term immigrant women. For sampling in selective coding, women were chosen to maximize opportunities for comparative analysis (i.e., sampling was driven by selective coding). One of the distinctive characteristics of this approach is to compare data and to develop inferences from them.

    Data Analysis

    Data analysis was conducted based upon Strauss and Corbin's grounded theory approach (1998), and three steps of coding were adopted; open coding, axial coding, and selective coding. First, open coding was used to become familiar with the data by reading through the transcripts repeatedly. Also, at this stage, since interviews were conducted in Korean, finding English equivalents to convey original meanings and nuances took precedence over discovering themes or concepts. Reducing the information given by each woman in Korean into English was done as a basis of discovering concepts and themes. In fact, naming and labeling concepts and themes were not completed until the project was over because they were always subject to change. Although most of the concepts were defined similarly from the beginning to the end of the research, their relevance was continually cross-checked with incoming data. During the open coding, some tentative concepts concerning mothering, children, work, religion, immigration, and relationships were explored, and they were compared and contrasted with incoming data.

    Second, through axial coding, categories were related based upon concepts, and their dimensional variations were also initially found. That is, axial coding was mainly about how categories were related to sub-categories and further categories in terms of their properties and dimensions. Concepts were all constantly resorted and reorganized throughout the research process until they were correctly placed. Using diagrams, returning to the literature, and consulting with experts in the areas provided a solid foundation for grouping data together under categories.

    Third, selective coding was used to integrate categories into a central explanatory concept or category. The central category was identified in various ways, such as through writing the story line and reviewing and sorting memos. There were numerous ways to write about this work on motherhood and religion, depending on the prevailing central categories, but the author chose as much as possible to write about the construction of the experience of motherhood from these women's perspectives. The previous process of data analysis allowed me to conceptualize how concepts and categories are interrelated, and in fact, in this process, drawing flow charts and revising them has been helpful.

    Results & Discussion

    Religion & Faith Themes

    The themes that emerged from the data indicate that religion and religious faith have a large impact on the ways Korean immigrant mothers parent their adolescent children. The themes include,

    • God is ultimately in charge of my children, not me
    • I entrust my children to Korean churches
    • I make my children's Christian identity a top priority
    • I submit my wills to God's will for the welfare of my children

    The four themes show that the basic values and beliefs which infused the minds and hearts of these Korean immigrant women as they parented their children are, in fact, derived directly from their practice of Christian religion.

    The first theme, God is ultimately in charge of my children, not me, which was mainly discussed among recent immigrant women, concomitantly shows that as they have become faithful Christians in a new land, Korean immigrant women in this study express the belief that God is in charge of their children. Instead of adopting or adapting the Confucianism paradigm that parents are primarily responsible for how their children develop, these women believe that God is directing the lives of their children. As recent immigrants who must struggle to physically survive in a new land, it appears that this rationale reflects efforts made by these women to reduce their frustration as mothers who are unable to provide the kind of care that they wish. Also, because these women need to release the heavy burden thrust upon them after coming to the U.S., God appear to have become a source of hope and relief for them.

    The second theme in this study, I entrust my children to Korean churches, reflects these women's desire, as Christian mothers, to provide their adolescent children a safe environment. They appear to need this haven nested in American culture in order to offer their children protection from the aspects of American culture they see as endangering or possibly corrupting. This theme is shown mainly in the narratives of long-term immigrant women whose children have been extensively exposed to the American youth culture. These women believe that only their churches and God can provide safe environments for their children. They urge their children to be a part of the Korean church culture, lest they be corrupted by the secular youth culture in America.

    The third theme, I make my children's Christian identity a top priority, mainly reflects these women's efforts to support their children's faith during adolescence. Although they regard education, secular success, and having decent occupations as very important in the lives of their children, the deepest desire expressed in the interviews with these women is for their children to become Christians who walk with God daily.

    The fourth theme, I submit my will to God's will for the welfare of my children, shows that the women in this study, particularly those who were long-term immigrant women, are struggling to provide the best for their children in the present, instead of focusing on what they want their children to be in the future. They endeavor to discover God's will for their children, and to identify and develop their children's talents accordingly, rather than to make their own plans for their children's future without feeling assured that these plans reflect the will of God. Because educational success is highly appreciated and valued in Korean cultures, these women's attempts to figure out God's will for their children's future can be a major challenge.

    Religious Themes & Korean Parenting

    God is ultimately in charge of my children, not me. While struggling to survive in America, religious recent immigrant women in this study have redefined their perceptions of who is in charge of taking care of their children by operationalizing their religious beliefs. Instead of perceiving that they are the ones primarily responsible for the guidance of their children's lives, women turn to God, believing that God is the one who is actually in charge of leading their children's directions in life. Often reporting feelings of deep despair and frustration in mothering their children, these women trust in God's care for their children, for whom they pray incessantly.

    Since she came to the U.S., Mun, mother of a 17-year-old daughter, has become a devout Christian. In accordance with her fundamentalist teachings, she believes that everything is in God's hands, and that God is the one who protects and takes care of her family. In Korea, where she was just a churchgoer who did not practice the authority of God, she had not experienced the meaning of becoming God's child. However, in America where she finds that because of her work constraints, she cannot be the kind of mother she used to be in Korea, being ready for her children at all times.

    She turned to God to lighten the burden of her mothering. In the process, she gradually came to feel that she is not primarily responsible for her children: God is. Her husband was a CPA in Korea, but now is running a discount store. Because he has been severely damaged by the loss of status his family experienced when they made the life transition necessary to come to America, he is far less emotionally available to his wife, Mun. As a result, she has clung to the only rock she has found, God. Mun stated:

    Well, when I was in Korea, I thought that I was the one who was in charge of my children. I was the one who took care of my children. However, now I don't think like that. God is the one who is in charge of my children because He sent my kids to me. I truly believe that. My kids also believe that they are trying to become self-reliant because they know that we (my husband and I) are having a hard time in America since immigration. They have become mature in their Christian faith. They also believe that God is the one who is ultimately taking care of them, and that we, as parents, are the ones who are meeting their earthly needs. I truly believe that fundamentally God is in charge. [What do you mean by fundamentally?] Everything is in God's hands. Our birth, death, our success, and our failure are all in God's hands. What we can do as parents is limited, and we can only do is what we can control. Everything else is under God's control.

    After experiencing God's grace a few years ago after she came to the U.S., Mun has become more devout than she was in Korea. When a large trailer rolled over her son, she thought that he would die. However, her son had only minor injuries, and she felt that without God's work, her son would have died. She deeply gave thanks to God. After that accident, she was convinced that God would take care of everything for her children, and she entrusted herself and her family to His care. God is real and present for her.

    Formerly atheist women in this study started attending church services after they immigrated to the U.S., and women who were already believers in some form of Christianity have become more dedicated. A recent convert in this study stated that she has found comfort in Christ, and that believing in God was the right decision for her to make in America. Since they know that they can hardly meet their children's needs in the situations where they work hard to survive as new immigrants, they have started relying on God and believing in God's work for their new immigrant families.

    Furthermore, based upon observations in local churches in Philadelphia, a large number of nonbelievers among newcomers to the U.S. started to attend church services, and some of them have become very religious Christians in a short period of time. One of the dramatic changes made since they have become Christians is that they tend to rely less on themselves or others, but more on God: When they want to have any issues resolved concerning marriage, children, or family, they turn to God and pray about them. For example, in various church meetings, most of the prayer requests of mothers concern God's taking care of their children and their smooth adjustment to American society. The underlying assumption of their prayers and behavior is that God is in charge of everything in their lives.

    The adoption of Christian values in parenting and childrearing reflects a dramatic change in Korean culture. Relationships between parents and children are hierarchical—parents have the highest authoritative power over their children. In contrast, these women believe that God, rather than the parents, is the highest authority in the lives of their children; they view themselves as raising the children God has sent to them. These women believe that they have been entrusted to take care of their children who are considered as gifts from God. They do their best to fulfill what they regard as a sacred trust.

    I entrust my children to Korean churches. When long-term immigrant women are unable to adequately care for their children due to their long hours of work, the Korean church has become a refuge where they are protected from teenage American culture and "undesirable" friends who use drugs or drink alcohols. Church for long-term immigrant women is a place to supplement parenting for their children's better development and protection. The Korean church meets various needs of adolescent children that these working women are unable to meet as mothers, thus encouraging children's development and providing a safe environment.

    The Korean church has become a buffer zone for dangerous aspects of American culture. For the past few years, in order to protect Korean adolescent children from illegal drugs as well as drinking or smoking, which have become prevalent in the Korean community, Korean church leaders have been working in conjunction with other Korean family agencies. The Korean churches in the greater Philadelphia area have initiated various programs, counseling, conferences, and workshops for both adolescent children and their parents (Hong, 2000a, 2000b). Although not all parents send their children to Korean churches for this reason, the Korean church provides some invaluable services for these immigrant families.

    Choi, mother of a 16-year-old son and a 15-year-old son, encourages her children to socialize with friends in the Korean church because she feels that church provides a safe environment for children in a threatening teenage culture in America. She is very happy to see her children socializing with friends at church, because spending time at church, instead of at other places, protects her children from drugs or alcohols. Women who spend most of their time working outside of the home and who are unable to constantly monitor their children, find relief in the knowledge that their children are participating in church activities. Choi stated,

    My kids have gone to church since they were very young. They were raised in Sunday school. They really like friends at church, and sometimes they don't want to come home from church. When we [my husband and me] cannot take them to Wednesday meetings because we are very exhausted after work, they get really frustrated. Well, I don't think they go to church because they have faith in God. I encourage them to go to church and hang out with friends at church because I thought it is one of the ways that their faith could grow and they meet friends. They would be on the right track. When kids, in general, have much free time, they tend to just waste their time. But, when they meet friends at church, it is safe because parents all know one another, and we know what they are doing.

    There are approximately 170 Korean churches listed in the Korean telephone directory in the greater Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Delaware areas (Shin, 2000), and many of them have youth group ministries serving adolescent children. Women in this study rely on youth group leaders in the Korean churches for their children's development. Youth group leaders play crucial roles in bridging gaps between parents and adolescents, especially when adolescents do not want to communicate with their parents. These women heavily rely on meetings with church youth group leaders who consult with them, rather than relying on other people outside of the church. In fact, for women who are not fluent in English and cannot go to school meetings for their children, contacting youth group leaders and conversing with them in Korean has become critical in bonding with their children.

    Song, mother of a 15-year-old son and a 14-year-old son, also encourages her children to go to church and spend time with friends at church because she regards church as a safe environment. Since she cannot possibly watch her children's every step, especially after school and on Fridays and weekends, she chiefly relies on the Korean church to provide a protected environment for her children. Song stated,

    My kids spend time at church with their friends. They play sports together like playing basketball. I like my kids making friends at the church. It is good, though if they don't do anything bad. [Anything bad?] Well, doing something bad. Well, sometimes kids like provoking anger and fighting or kids are using drugs. But, I know that my kids are on the right track. I am not that worried about my kids when they hang out with friends at church. I become relaxed.

    Song, whose business has expanded during the past few years, has little strength and energy for anything other than her work. For her, spending time together with her children and monitoring is not easily done. She encourages her sons to be actively involved in youth group church activities and to socialize and participate in sports with friends in the Korean church. Furthermore, she feels confident that leaders of youth groups in the Korean church can monitor and guide her children in her absence, especially over the weekends. Church, a nurturing place in the Korean immigrant community, provides a safety net for children. Although youth groups do not meet every day, but once or twice a week, these women in this research are satisfied with their children's involvement in the youth group meetings.

    For Park, mother of a 16-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old daughter, sending her children to church is a way of protecting her children from promiscuity. As a mother of two daughters, she cannot possibly stop worrying about her children. She can only encourage her daughters to attend church meetings and hang out with people in church. Park stated,

    Well, I don't think my daughters use drugs. I don't really doubt about them, but I worry about them. Since they believe in God and go to church, I relax a little bit. But, I don't know what they are doing outside of my radar.

    I make my children's Christian identity a top priority. Oh, mother of a 16-year-old daughter as well as two older sons, deeply desires that her daughter finds and pursues God's calling during adolescence and young adulthood. She believes that the most important thing in life is heeding and answering God's call. She wants her children to become faithful Christians, who walk with God daily and fulfill God's will. She has long felt profound remorse because she thinks that she has not been a faithful Christian mother for her two older children. At heart, she wanted to raise her two sons firmly rooted in the Christian faith and wanted to become an example for her children, but she feels that she has not been a model for them.

    She has been raising her children in the church culture for a long time, but her children sometimes raise questions about the existence of God and even ask why she and her husband are not very wealthy if God is taking care of their family. Oh realizes that her children are sometimes resentful about God. She explains to her children that God has different plans for each individual, but they do not seem to understand. For her, their questioning God means that she is not a good mother, because she believes that a good mother helps her children to have implicit faith in God. That has long been a source of her suffering. Although she thinks that she has made many mistakes as a mother, she persists in wanting her children to faithfully walk with God as Christians.

    Christian women in this study unswervingly believe that Christian identity solidifies their children's future development and success in American society. Most of all, to these mothers, children's becoming Christians means accepting God as the source of strength and absolutely relying on God at all times, bad as well as good. These women believe that life is about having and developing a relationship with God and doing God's will. Since God has entrusted children into their mother's care, the mothers' role is to encourage their children to walk with God daily.

    I submit my will to God's will for the welfare of my children. One of the dramatic shifts in parenting among Korean immigrant women in this study is that these women try to discern and develop the innate abilities of their children, instead of imposing their own "selfish" desires upon them. As a life-long Christian, who believes that discovering and developing children's talents is more important than insisting that they conform to a parental mold, Han stated,

    I have been working hard to find and develop their [my children's] own talents, instead of pushing my will of what I want them to become. My first kid was interested in medical fields and arts, but he decided to pursue medical fields. Now, he is in pharmacy in college. Well, I want him to become an artist because he is extremely good at it. But, he said that he could not get much money out of that... my second kid is very patient, so she wants to be a teacher. My youngest, well, I don't think he knows what he wants, and he is not sure about his future. I am trying to support what they want. But, it is not easy for me to accept that I need to support what they want to pursue because I want them to have certain jobs that they may not want. Now, I just want them to earn licenses or any professional jobs, so that they are secure in their jobs in the future.

    In her narratives, she mentioned that unlike the majority of Korean parents, she rarely pushed her children, even when they were young, to excel at school. She did not believe in focusing her children to fulfill her own ambition for their future. Instead, she chose to encourage them to find and to develop their own intrinsic God given talents.

    In fact, these Christian women's setting their own desires aside and seeking God's will for their children is a paradigm shift in Korean parenting. Although in this study women still have great aspirations for their children's educational success, which sometimes results in profound inner struggles, they realize that becoming doctors or lawyers is not the only way to become successful in America. These women have come to believe that in American society, they need to help their children find ways to develop their talents and gifts, and that their duties as parents lie in helping their children pursue their goals through following the will of God's (see Yep et al., 1998).


    This study examined how the Christian faith of Korean immigrant women impacts upon the ways in which they parent their adolescent children. The research findings in this study suggest that Korean mothers' Christian faith is not merely restricted to a concern for their daily practice of children's future welfare. Instead, in the lives of working Korean immigrant women, Christianity is central to their mothering. It means accepting God's ultimate authority on their own and their children's lives. The mothers felt that this belief enables them to protect their children within the circle of Korean churches, to promote their children's Christian identity over any other identity, and to surrender their will as parents to God's will for their children. In a situation where they have limited contact with their children and can do little for them, they entrusted the care of their children to God, whom they see as their only resource. God and church have become pivotal in filling their needs. In the lives of these working Korean immigrant women, God is the unfailing source of help and hope for themselves and their children.

    The study also illuminates the difference in the relationship between children and parents in Christianity and Confucianism. Devout Christian women in this study discarded traditional Korean paradigm of Confucianism, for a relationship with God. God has become their ultimate authority. Unlike Confucianism, which emphasizes hierarchical relationships between parents and children, women regard God as the highest authority. As indicated above, the practice of Christianity among Korean immigrant women is a revolutionary departure from the concept of parenting in Korean cultures. Rather than viewing their children as their possessions or assets, they see them instead as unique creations of Divine providence.

    Study limitations were mainly related to sampling. Highly religious women who were willing to discuss their Christian faith were sampled, although there may be various levels of Christian faith which would have impacted on parenting differently. Some women who claimed to be Christians did not choose to talk much of their parenting in the context of the experience of Christian faith. Therefore, findings in this research tend not to show a wide range of religion and parenting experiences. Furthermore, data from each participant were collected in only one interview, followed by additional phone conversations. A comprehensive understanding of mothering experience and religion cannot be achieved through a single interview. Although the author tried to hard to gather as much information as needed for this work by conducting interviews, making observations, and having additional conversations, the findings presented here need to be further explored in future research. Additional interactions with participants for the future and recruiting more immigrant mothers will ameliorate the limitations of the study.

    In addition, looking at women's mothering experience within the context of family relationships is critical, since as Hequembourg and Farrell (1999) indicated, one's definition of a mother is deeply dependent upon relationships with significant others. However, husbands or men were excluded in this research; this work on motherhood did not touch upon husbands' contribution to these women's mothering experience. For a more comprehensive understanding, we must investigate the mothering experience of working Korean immigrant women within the context of the entire family.

    Considering that religion plays a crucial role in constructing ethnic identity among Asians in the U.S. (Min & Kim, 2001; Yang, 2002; Yoo, 1999), further research on relationships between religion and Korean immigrants as well as Asian immigrants from other counties will enhance the understanding of their lives. It is the author's hope that this work will be act as impetus to expand the research on religion and parenting among Korean immigrant parents in the U.S.


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