By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
"Dave is a guy who's most comfortable being uncomfortable," says Bob Shank, former senior pastor of Irvine's South Coast Community Church (which eventually merged with OC's second-largest megachurch, Mariners). "He set out to do things that no one is doing. He's the new generation of church leaders."
A supernatural force fuels him, Gibbons says. "I think what God is calling us to is a radical life that's generous and not boarded by walls like the ones we have in Orange County," he says. "It's not about preaching to people; it's about loving people."
Gibbons was born in Seoul, Korea, to a Korean mother and an Irish-American father. When he was in grade school, the family migrated to Tempe, Arizona, and started attending a Christian fundamentalist church where, he says, "everyone kind of looked alike, with big Bibles and short hair." As a teen, he accepted Christ as his savior. "God discovered me, and I found a purpose and energy from it," he says.
Gibbons attended Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, a Bible college infamous for a ban on interracial dating that lasted until 2000. Gibbons proved a monkey wrench as a mixed-race individual, so much so that school administrators offered him a choice: date white or date Asian, but not both. During this time, the U.S. government wanted to deny funding to the university because of its segregationist ways, and the school decided to take the issue to the United States Supreme Court, which ultimately sided with the government. News outlets were turning to students such as Gibbons to speak out against Bob Jones, and because he complicated matters—he was dating a white woman named Rebecca who would soon become his wife—he was called into the dean's office and asked to leave the school. "I was like, 'What the heck is this?'" Gibbons recalls. "I didn't think Christianity was supposed to be this way."
Back home, tragedy struck. His mother was killed in a hit-and-run accident on Interstate 10 in Arizona. "When I went to the funeral, I remember seeing my mom in the casket, and it was just a stark moment," he says. "I realized, No. 1, life passes by really fast, and No. 2, all that my mom had accumulated, all that material success, it didn't really matter. I was sitting in the front row, and I remember hearing God say, 'Hey, Dave, I want you to give me your life. I want you to give me everything.' At that time, I thought that meant I should go into ministry."
After grieving, Gibbons attended Dallas Theological Seminary, taking a staff job at a Korean Presbyterian megachurch in Baltimore after graduation. "I'd never seen so many people like me—second-generation Asian Americans," he says. But the church was struggling to retain its younger members. A 1994 Los Angeles Times article explored what Korean pastors were calling the "silent exodus," reporting that 60 percent of English-speaking churchgoers in their 20s and 30s were dropping out of Korean churches because they couldn't understand the language well enough to be inspired. "It just burdened me that church was totally irrelevant to them," Gibbons says.
He was hired to help ignite the diminishing generation, but he felt constrained by the controls of old-school church elders. Then, one day, he was invited to speak at a conference for young adults at Bethel Church in Irvine, one of the largest Korean churches in the country. He felt an instant connection to the people there. "I thought, 'This is home. This is right,'" he says.
God confirmed it. While sitting in his room at the Crowne Plaza Hotel on Von Karman Avenue, Gibbons heard Him speak. "I don't hear God all the time," he explains. "Growing up, I was told God doesn't do that. But I heard two words—Psalm 40—and I heard them twice. I thought, 'What the heck is that?'"
He opened his Bible and read the verse: "I took your feet out of the muddy clay, and I placed you on a rock. I gave you a new song." He then looked out his hotel window and saw the sprawling landscape of Orange County.
"I thought, 'Shoot, are you telling me to come here?'"
God said yes.
Gibbons told Rebecca about the spiritual encounter and was shocked when she agreed to uproot their three preschool-aged kids to an area neither of them knew. "I would never start a church out of any natural, logical framework. I don't recommend it," he says with a laugh.
For several months, Gibbons pondered and prayed about the church he would build. "I looked at myself and asked, 'Why did God make me who I am?' I was Asian on the outside, but I felt very American. I felt like I didn't fit anywhere. So I thought, well, maybe I need to start a church for people like me, for misfits, outsiders, marginalized people."
He then thought about his mother. About four years before her death, she and her husband divorced; Gibbons' father had been caught having an affair. "The church didn't know how to adjust to my mom as a divorced woman and, on top of that, an Asian woman," he says. "She didn't fit. Then I thought, 'There are so many people like that. What if we had a church for people like my mom?' I studied the genealogy of Jesus. He comes from four women. One is Bathsheba, King David's wife. She was an adulteress. Another is Rahab, a prostitute. Another is Ruth; she's on social welfare. And then another is Mary, his mother, who said she was a virgin and was impregnated by God. In other words, she came from questionable origins. This is what the church should be, a church rooted in the theology of the misfits!"