LIMA, Peru (CNS) -- The lilting tones of prayer and song rising from San Andres Kim Church on a weekday morning sound vaguely out of place in the working-class neighborhood in Peru's bustling capital.

A glance at the sign on the door explains why. Named for Korea's first priest, St. Andrew Kim Taegon, a martyr, the Lima parish is home to Peru's Korean Catholic community. The pastor, Father Pablo Kim, is one of more than 100 Korean missionaries in Latin America.

After decades of receiving missionaries, South Korea now has so many native-born priests and women religious that it is sending them to other lands. Many work in remote rural areas, such as Peru's northern Amazon basin. Others, such as Father Kim, minister to Korean immigrants who are making a place for themselves in their new homes.

"A priest is a missionary, so coming to Latin America was a natural thing," Father Kim, 37, told Catholic News Service after celebrating weekday Mass for a handful of parishioners.

Ordained in 1998, Father Kim came to Lima two years ago. Arriving at night, he thought the city of 8 million people looked bright and clean. In the morning, he said, reality struck.

The streets were chaotic, nothing started on time, and he was not accustomed to the physical contact that is part of everyday life for Peruvians.

"For me, it was a culture shock," Father Kim said.

That made him a better pastor, he said, because he understands that his parishioners are going through the same thing.

Lima's South Korean population is small. Father Kim estimates that up to 20 percent of the South Koreans are Catholic, and about half of them, 80 or 90 people, attend San Andres Kim Church. Some work at the Korean Embassy or international companies, while others have settled in Peru. At the same time, turnover is constant.

Because language and cultural differences make it difficult for newcomers to feel at home in Spanish-speaking parishes, San Andres Kim offers a place for them to practice their Catholic faith and maintain their Korean identity.

Integration into Latin American culture is also a challenge for missionaries, according to Father Kyungsu Son, a Korean-born Maryknoll priest and chaplain to Korean missionaries throughout Latin America.

Father Son was studying in a diocesan seminary in Korea when a Maryknoll priest suggested that he pursue an advanced degree in the United States. The young seminarian was hesitant. It meant learning English, and "at the time most people thought the best place to study theology was Rome, not the U.S.," he said.

After arriving in the U.S. in 1971, however, he felt called to mission, and in 1976, he said, "I came to Peru to try it out."

"After 30 years, I'm still trying. It's the best decision I ever made," he said.

Early missionaries to Korea worked in secret, and St. Andrew Kim was one of many Catholics martyred in the 1800s. In 1984, they were canonized in Seoul by Pope John Paul II, who urged the Korean church to share its faith with the world.

Because of a steady stream of vocations in South Korea -- more than 100 priests a year have been ordained in the past decade -- some 600 Korean men and women religious now work abroad. About 120 are in Latin America, with the largest numbers in Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia.

To provide support, in 1998 Father Son helped found the Association of Korean Missionaries in Latin America. As president of the association from 2003 to 2007, he traveled around Latin America, providing pastoral care to the caregivers. As he learned more about the missioners' needs, the association began to organize retreats and conferences.

At first, many Korean missionaries' stints in Latin America were too short for them to learn the language and adapt to the culture, he said. As more congregations have allowed missionaries to make longer commitments, Father Son has seen a change.

"They know the language, they know the culture and they are more confident," he said.

Sister Paulina Ahn, a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Most Blessed Sacrament, knows the ups and downs of mission life well. When she arrived at the Maryknoll language school in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 1989, she not only struggled to learn Spanish, but she was unable to communicate with the other students, all of whom spoke English.

Her first assignment, in northern Peru, was difficult.

"I was sad for almost three years," she said. But she was determined to help her congregation establish a mission in the department of Amazonas.

"The culture is very different, but the people have big hearts and a great deal of patience," she said. "They have accepted me."

Sister Paulina now works in Callao, a port city adjoining Lima, where six young Peruvian women are considering joining her community. They will eventually be sent to South Korea to study, but will return to serve in Peru.

When she returns home to visit, she finds the pace of life too frantic.

"I couldn't live in Korea anymore," she said. "I am like a Peruvian now."

For Father Son, that conversion is at the heart of missionary life.

"I thought I came here to save souls. I came to give, but I'm receiving. I've been enriched by these people. They deepened my faith," he said. As a result, "I am a better Christian, a better man and a better priest."