The thoughts of Seung Hui Cho, exposed on videos sent to NBC News, were never unfamiliar with me, said a pastor whose immigrant life experience was like that of the gunman behind last week's deadly shootings at Virginia Tech.
David Lee, who pastors a Korean American church in Bayside, N.Y., came to the United States when he was around 20 years old.
“I came to the United States and became a U.S. citizen. But through the [Virginia Tech] incident, I realized once again that I’m a Korean,” said Lee in a column translated from Korean. “As I watched what he did through news reports, I recalled the Cho that had existed inside of me as well.”
Lee's experience was more complicated than Cho's in terms of the number of countries he had immigrated to (six) but still the cultural shock was the same as many other young Korean Americans have felt when entering a foreign country, particularly for the 1.5 generation – children who immigrated to the United States and feel they neither belong in the Korean culture nor the American culture.
After graduating from middle school, Lee moved to South America where he faced the typical language barrier that other immigrants would. He also had difficulty making new friends. Unable to speak the native language fluently, Lee had to rely on his native peers. It was difficult to speak out or voice his opinions, so most of the time, he just had to listen, and it gradually took a negative toll on his pride. Any differing views he expressed could have meant conflict not just for himself but for his family.
As Lee spoke less and less, he began to discover a growing hatred toward specific persons. He began to hate rich kids as he felt they were only enjoying their wealth because of their parents. Kids at school who were predominantly white had blonde hair, were much taller than Lee, fluent in Portuguese and rich. They seemed to lack nothing. That made poverty feel even more overwhelming for Lee and his family.
He couldn't help out with the family business during his high school years as he prepared for exams and studied at nights. Yet at school he would constantly worry about the business.
Everything seemed unfair to Lee and his hatred toward society grew more. Occasionally, Lee would even have dreams where he'd hit someone and see them bleeding.
He recalled that heart he once had and those past emotions when he heard Cho's video messages:
"Your Mercedes wasn't enough, you brats," said Cho, who immigrated to the United States when he was eight years old. "Your golden necklaces weren't enough, you snobs. Your trust funds wasn't enough. Your vodka and cognac wasn't enough. All your debaucheries weren't enough. Those weren't enough to fulfill your hedonistic needs. You had everything."
Moreover, Lee had even more hatred toward church kids. They seemed hypocritical to him and would judge him. Whenever they saw Lee wandering, they'd refer to him as the prodigal son. Lee felt some kind of boundary was built around them and he couldn't enter. Not feeling acceptance, he would at times go to church drunk and be disruptive. Looking back, he now sees he was a wandering soul.
Days after the Virginia Tech shooting, some evangelical leaders expressed concern that the Church has not been there.
"We have not done what we need to do to make sure that that Answer is everywhere at all times … so that those suffering the kind of pains and the mental anguish that this young man was experiencing could know that there was someone he could talk to who could point him to God and help him before he would engage in such a horrific act," said Barrett Duke, the vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Cho's family, described as hardworking, quiet and nice, did not regularly attend church, according to The Los Angeles Times, and they seemed unusually reclusive.
When Cho's parents turned to the church for help with Cho's emotional problems, he was bullied in his Christian youth group, especially by rich kids, according to Newsweek magazine.
Pastor Sang Mok Park of California Christ Community Church in La Habra says the confusion of the 1.5 generation identity is more serious than we think and that even churches do not offer them a place where they can fit in. The 1.5 generation kids either have to join the second generation ministry (English-speaking Korean Americans) or the first generation group (Korean-speaking immigrants).
As more Christian leaders are expressing concern that no one had seriously reached out to Cho, who committed suicide last week after killing 32 people, Lee from Bayside said he one day had discovered life was fair. It was the day he met Jesus. Someone had shared the Gospel with him and at that moment, Lee laid everything down before the Lord, he said. He discarded the complaints and hatred he had felt and began to live diligently.
He is now pastor of Bayside Presbyterian Church which draws some 1,000 members.
To Lee, Cho is not a stranger or a madman, as some reports have described him. He is merely a reflection of the 1.5 generation kids who have not found true value. Churches, he indicates, need to reach out to them more.