The River Runs Through Him: Meet the Millionaire Minister Looking for God at Ground Zero

charles park the river The River Runs Through Him: Meet the Millionaire Minister Looking for God at Ground Zero

Charles Park did not grow up believing in God. He did not even pick up a Bible until he emigrated to America from South Korea at 13, arriving in Los Angeles, where a number of his relatives lived. His uncle had already been exiled there for criticizing the republic, and his grandmother joined him. When the South Korean president was executed in 1980, Mr. Park’s parents decided to send him away, though they stayed behind.

“I started reading the Bible because it was the only book I could find in both English and Korean,” Mr. Park told The Observer over lunch recently at Petite Abeille in Tribeca. “And even then, it did not appeal to me. That came much later.”

That Mr. Park would go on to found two churches, a thousand-strong congregation in Cambridge, Mass., and a burgeoning flock called the River that now holds services at 7 World Trade Center—and which was featured in this week’s print Observer—came as a surprise to everyone, and not least of all to Mr. Park himself.

He grew up in Seoul, where his father taught German philosophy at Korea University. He was an agnostic while his stay-at-home mother practiced Buddhism with the same fervor most Americans bring to their Presbyterianism, which is to say not much at all. “This is my rebellion, I guess,” Mr. Park said with a chuckle.

But that was not until much later, after he graduated as valedictorian at Warren High School and began studying at Stanford. There he majored in computer science and economics, neither of which was particularly challenging. Meanwhile, the $20,000 his father had given him a year after coming to America had multiplied into a couple hundred thousand, by Mr. Park’s estimation. His father had told him it was important that he know how to handle money. Clearly, the son did.

“The problem I experienced at Stanford was, I got all I wanted, I worked really hard to be where I am, I’ve got the American dream,” Mr. Park said. “Objectively speaking, I’m young, I’ve got stimulating people all around me, who give me a good education and a good experience, and, really, life doesn’t get too much better. It was really a good time. And the fact that I’m not happy, and the people around me aren’t happy, what do I do about it? I drank and did some stuff with some other unhappy people. The question was, what do I do with that experience.”

The partying did not last long—Mr. Park said he did not have a taste for it—but it was not until he arrived in Cambridge, Mass., where he was pursuing a Ph.D. in economics at M.I.T., that the brainy investor began attending church. Before that, he had mostly just returned to his Bible. “As it pays off, you give it a little more,” Mr. Park said. Throughout grad school, he continued to invest, and his fortune reached into the millions by his early 20s. Still unfulfilled by the money, Mr. Park set his sights on a billion dollars. “I began to do riskier and riskier things,” he said, “and I lost it all, $40 million.” Yet it was not only recklessness but also the tech bubble that brought Mr. Park down.

Looking back, he says he does not really care about the loss, calling it “just another point in my life,” albeit an important one. It allowed Mr. Park to realize he could live without all that money, that he could dedicate himself to the church. With a few dozen families, he established the Vineyard in Cambridge just as he was wrapping up his doctorate. Within five years, it surpassed 1,000 members. He even convinced his parents to convert to Christianity.

Part of the appeal for many of Mr. Park’s parishioners is the intellectual rigor and Ivy League sensibility he brings to services. “A lot of people here went to an Ivy, studied science and philosophy growing up, and we all understand it does not have to be one or the other,” Jin, who volunteers at the church and works in finance, said after a recent Sunday service.

“This church would not be what it is if it weren’t for Charles,” John Furste, the associate pastor and band leader, told The Observer after he had finished performing. “He is just so smart and brings such a different perspective to Jesus.”

Mr. Park’s teachings draw in part from the work of M. Scott Peck, the psychiatrist and author, and his “Four Stages of Spiritual Development.” Just as a child grows into an adult, so does humanity develop spiritually. In Mr. Park’s telling, the chaotic first stage was the age of myth and paganism, followed by the order of early Judeo-Christian religions, which were heavy on rules and belief, but lacked the faith and compassion Mr. Park sees in his own church. Then came the skepticism, the teenage rebellion of the Reformation, and only now are we approaching the fourth stage, which borders on enlightenment, though not in the Buddhist form, the pastor points out, as the Buddha rejects while Mr. Park embraces.

“I think New York is at the vanguard of this change,” he said. 

And yet he is also equally comfortable trafficking in pop culture, and even admits to a weakness for his iPhone, though he also uses it to remind himself of the fulfillment offered by Jesus over man. “That’s a disconnected place,” he said of modern distractions during a recent sermon, “that’s not a place of fullness.”

In that same sermon, Mr. Park compared Jesus’ telling of the parables at the Sea of Gallilee to an opportunity to hear the ultimate speaker at Madison Square Garden, a cross between Bono and Nelson Mandela—”Bondela,” he called him, exclaiming ever so slightly in his soft-spoken, accented English, as a picture of Morgan Freeman flashed across his screen. The parishioners chuckled, a far more common refrain than “hallelujahs” or other exaltations.

At lunch later that day, Mr. Park, in addition to his numerous references to the comedian Louis C.K., touched on cultural figures both high and low, among them Charlie Sheen, Sheryl Crowe and Lilly Tomlin. “She made a joke once, ‘How is it that when people pray, they are said to be talking to God, but when God talks to them, they are said to be schizophrenic?,'” Mr. Park said, in reference to a question about his comment that he had been talking to God for decades.

The same characters can be found in the Zizmor-style subway campaign the River recently launched. They feature the usual offerings from St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis but also more unusual quotes from Gaughin, Helen Keller and Vladimir Lenin. “‘If I keep listening to Beethoven’s Appossionata, I won’t be able to finish the revolution.’ COULD CHURCH bring peace?” the latter ad reads.

The pastor lives in Battery Park City with his wife, who also works for the church, and their three kids. He said he spends about 50 hours a week working for the church, which does pay him a salary—funds come from member donations—though he also spends about five to 10 hours a week investing, embracing the value model of Warren Buffett and Rudi Dornbusch, his mentor at M.I.T, an approach that he said provides him with a comfortable six-figure salary. “I don’t believe in efficient markets theory,” Mr. Park said. “There are always inefficiencies in the market that can be exploited.”

He is also good at spotting inefficiencies in the soul, though investing in them has proven more difficult.

Even with his gospel of love, Mr. Park does not always find it returned to him by his neighbors. “I don’t blame them,” Mr. Park said. “They think I’ll be proselytizing, there is a ce
rtain stigma involved. It’s funny, I had more cache as a venture capitalist. It used to be the other way around, that pastors were respected.”

Favoring smart, colorful gingham shirts and loose slacks, the trim and unimposing Mr. Park could easily pass for the money man he once was; and he still embraces the finer things in life, even if he is not indulging. Part of the reason he suggested Petite Abeille, the Belgian bistro on West Broadway, for lunch is because of its expansive beer selection. He ordered a beer, suggested The Observer do the same, and suggested one a few more times, as he thoroughly enjoyed his (yet it was the only one he had during the course of our two-hour meal).

“I feel more comfortable in secular culture, to be honest,” Mr. Park admits. “The church culture can be weird.”

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mchaban [at] observer.com | @mc_nyo