“Everyone dreams of a good life,” says Father JOHN OH WOONG-JIN. And in today’s South Korea, many can achieve it. Yet as some are swept up into Korea’s surging prosperity, others fall to the side and live needily on its fringes. And what of them, he asks? What of Korea’s abandoned children? What of the poor who beg for food, who dwell in squalid makeshift shelters, who die by the roadside? Father OH says the answer lies in the simplest moral dictum: We must love them.
Born in August 1945, OH witnessed as a child the cruelty and suffering of the Korean War. He determined upon a life of service and, inspired by a Catholic priest who aided poor children, chose the Church.
In 1976, as a newly assigned parish priest in the town of Kumwang in south-central Korea, OH noticed an old, ragged beggar limping past his church. He followed him to a nearby hovel and watched as the old man shared his food with a destitute family. Once prosperous and happily married, Grandpa Choi—as OH came to know this remarkable old man—had many years before been conscripted, tortured, and forced by the Japanese military to toil in the frigid Hokkaido coal mines. Physically and mentally broken, he later settled under a bridge in Kumwang. Now, at seventy, Choi begged food for others too weak to beg and performed countless other deeds of kindness—clearing shards of broken glass from the playgrounds and, despite his own severe infirmities, rescuing homeless drifters from winter’s killing cold.
Electrified by Grandpa Choi’s example, OH persuaded his parishioners to build a five-room charity house for Grandpa Choi and a few others. As word of OH’s little project spread, other homeless people began to arrive. Rejecting local fears that Kumwang might be overrun with undesirables, OH decided to dedicate himself wholly to helping the needy. To do so, he founded a new congregation of religious men and women and, enlisting the support of Korea’s Catholic hierarchy and thousands of contributors, established in 1983 a sanatorium for beggars: Kkottongnae, or Flower Village.
Like the Biblical loaves and fishes, Kkottongnae quickly blossomed with additional residence halls and services for Korea’s have-nots: in 1985, for the mentally ill; in 1986, for tuberculosis sufferers; in 1987, for the homeless elderly; in 1988, for alcoholics; and, in the early 1990s, for physically and mentally handicapped adults and children. In 1988, a 140-bed charity hospital also rose at Kkottongnae.
Today, more than 2,700 people live in Kkottongnae’s two-hundred-hectare hillside campus, where they are cared for by religious brothers and nuns and by hundreds of lay volunteers who arrive daily by the busload. Father OH has also launched two new Kkottongnae complexes, one in the north, another in the south, each one designed to care for thousands more.
Although Father OH has received a few large donations and assistance from government and the army, most of his endeavors are funded by scrupulously-accounted-for contributions from 700,000 individuals, each of whom pledges a small sum each month. Indeed, OH limits the amounts of regular gifts so that as many people as possible can “experience the happiness of helping others.”
Love, says OH, is the root of happiness. In its absence, the weak are left to fend for themselves, families collapse, societies degenerate. But with it, decency is restored to human relations. Some people say that Kkottongnae is a miracle. Yes, says fifty-one-year-old Father OH, but a miracle of a special kind. “Only those who practice love will understand it.”
In electing JOHN OH WOONG-JIN to receive the 1996 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the board of trustees recognizes his arousing in Korea a compassion for the poor by personifying the scriptural injunction to Love Thy Neighbor.