Gloria Yi, MDiv ’02, completed her undergraduate studies at Bryn Mawr College in 1996 and set off to East Asia. She needed a job, but she also wanted to reconcile her identity as an Asian American, a Christian, and a feminist. “In college I had begun searching for my identity, and I was ready to live it out,” Yi says.
It was the start of an extraordinary two-year odyssey in which she gradually awakened to her calling and started on the path to seminary.
She moved to Seoul, South Korea, the place where she was born, to teach English at a private girl’s high school, living and working alongside Roman Catholic nuns, and traveling to China where she ran a summer camp with other Christian teachers. “There we were in this Communist country singing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and ‘This Little Light of Mine,‘” she says.
Yi also made a daring trek to the Chinese-North Korean border to search for a long-lost grandmother, who she never located. But her visit led her to the ethnic Korean churches in the border area where she had the “eye-opening experience” of seeing that the congregations were led by women.
A coworker noticed her energy and leadership skills and offered some advice: Go to seminary.
Her frenetic pace and can-do spirit came naturally. “I was very entrepreneurial,” Yi says. “I was always doing things.” But still she was skeptical.
“I didn’t think I was seminary material,” she said. “I was always spiritual. But I grew up in a very conservative religious environment and never saw women in leadership positions.”
Yi’s Korean family had moved from Seoul to South America when she was two years old, then settled a decade later in Philadelphia. Her parents, having finally achieved their dream of moving to the United States, joined a large Korean church that became the center of the family’s immigrant life. Drawing on her Spanish fluency, Yi was occasionally called upon to translate for visiting Spanish-speaking missionaries.
“That was the only time anybody ever saw a female in the chancel, and it was me,” she said.
Despite her doubts, Yi entered Princeton Theological Seminary in 1998 as a student in the Master of Arts in Christian Education and Formation program. “Even at that point I didn’t think I would become a pastor,” she says.
But she soon encountered a teacher who would bring her to a deeper awareness. James E. Loder, Jr. was a faculty member at Princeton Seminary for nearly 40 years. Intellectually challenging in the classroom, he was also an ordained minister and distinguished academic who had a profound influence on generations of students.
“I would go to him, extensively, and speak from the depth of my soul,” Yi says. “We would pray together, and he would say: ‘What is God saying to you?’’’
Loder, who died in 2001, was an eminent scholar who focused on the transformation of the individual through faith and the critical role of Christian education in that transformation. He encouraged Yi to look deeply into the narrative of her life.
“Together we connected all the dots of my journey, all these different encounters with leadership,” she said. “He would say to me, ‘Maybe that wasn’t a coincidence. Maybe that was Jesus calling you.’”
Yi earned a Master of Divinity at Princeton Seminary in 2002, and emerged from Seminary determined to seek the answers to the many questions she still had, including what type of church would be the best fit.
In 2003, she married a fellow Princeton Seminary graduate, Steve K. Yi, and the couple joined the staff at Woodside Presbyterian Church in Yardley, Pennsylvania. By 2008, Gloria Yi was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), the mother of a young daughter, Emmanuella, and the associate pastor at Woodside.
Four years later, in 2012, her husband found a lump on his neck. “He never, ever complained, but I think he must have known intuitively something was wrong,” Yi says.
Her husband sought immediate medical attention and was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Ten months later, in December 2013, Steve died. He was 45. Yi was in shock. She had been married for 10 years, and suddenly she was a widow and single mom.
“Your whole identity changes,” Yi says.
The community at Woodside rallied around her and Emmanuella, forming a loving, protective shell. “The first two years were pure grief, and I was on autopilot,” Yi says. “Woodside basically helped with everything. They were incredible.”
But as time passed, Yi realized she was at a crossroads. She needed to continue growing as a person and a minister. And that meant leaving the comfort of Woodside for a destination that was as yet unknown.
As part of her job search, she wrote this personal statement that included a reflection on the death of her husband and its impact on her as a minister:
“Because I ‘tasted’ death and so closely witnessed the power of the resurrection and eternal hope, God has prepared me to be a compassionate leader, one whose vulnerability and authority work together to pursue a life of purpose, meaning, and emotional well-being.”
In early 2018, Yi boldly set out again for a new spiritual challenge. She took a position as a solo pastor at a Maryland congregation that had faced its own struggles and losses but then experienced a rebirth. Hope Presbyterian Church, located in the small suburban town of Mitchellville, about 15 miles east of Washington, D.C., had like many congregations seen its membership peak and then dwindle amid demographic shifts in the community.
But the church had since begun to rebound, in part from an influx of immigrants from West Africa — including Cameroon, Nigeria, and Ghana — who joined together with the existing membership.
Like Yi’s parents, many of the immigrants at Hope Presbyterian Church had spent years in other countries, waiting to come to the U.S. She instinctively understands their hopes, dreams, and fears. And she feels like she has come full circle.
In a sermon she gave in the fall of 2018, Yi spoke of struggles and second chances.
“No matter what our past was like, the time is now to answer and to be wise about our answers,” she said. “Whether you lost a loved one in the past, or you are wondering if you are going to lose your whole village, or whether you lost your marriage, or your job, or even your faith… you are given another opportunity now.”
Yi has lived those words. So have many of her congregants.