- 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.
- Electrified by Grandpa Choi’s example, Oh persuaded his parishioners to build a five-room charity house for Grandpa Choi and a few others.
- 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.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his arousing in Korea a compassion for the poor by personifying the scriptural injunction to Love Thy Neighbor.”
“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 Woonglin 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.
Your Excellency, President Ramons; Mrs. Magsaysay; Ladies, and Gentlemen. It is a very great honor for me to accept this award, and I humbly thank you for this opportunity.
Kkottongnae is a social welfare complex that heartily welcomes Korea’s abandoned people, protecting, curing, and guiding them so that they may go to heaven in peace. These are the people who are starving or freezing to death, who are lying sick beside the road or under bridges, who have no place to live nor strength to beg for food. Kkotongnae was established and is being operated by 720,000 donors; annually 200,000 people volunteer for service; and about 300 members of both the Congregations of Kkottongnae Brothers and Sisters of Jesus also serve. In addition, there are the supportive efforts and love from the Korean government. A special source of great power was the love bestowed upon all of us by the Korean Catholic Church, the diocese of Cheongju, and the Most Reverend Nicholas Jung Jin Seok. In accepting this award, I would like to stress that it should be awarded to the above-mentioned individuals.
What of beggars? Beggars know how to beg but not how to give. The reason why there are beggars is due to lack of love, not lack of material things, knowledge, skill, or health. What Kkottongnae must do is to cure simultaneously the causes of human misery and to warmly welcome, protect, and cure those who live in misery. That is, to tech love to all the people throughout the country. When people love each other, never shall the diseased and the weak be cast into the streets.
God is love. Let us love one another. We must make God’s love known to this world.
For more than twenty years, I have been going around churches, government offices, and companies and have visited students all over the country to teach love by preaching and lecturing. After seeing more than 200,000 people from all walks of life visit Kkottongnae every year, practicing and learning love, I decided to launch the Institute of Love. The institute is the very place where love of the people, by the people, and for the people, is taught.
The institute is now under construction and will be completed on October 10, 1996. There we will teach the love of God, which can lead to happy individuals, a happy family, a happy nation, and a happy mankind.
For those who need love most, those who have no place to lean on nor energy to beg, those who are abandoned by their families, and those who are treated with contempt, I live as their servant. I would like to thank all who have given immeasurable love and service to Kkottongnae. On all of their behalf, I humbly accept this award. I am convinced that this award will be of great comfort to help those who are abandoned and need love. I thank all of them. God really loves us.
The story of Rev. John Oh Woong-Jin might as well be the story of postwar Korea in all its complex dimensions, of a nation at its worst and at its best. It is a story of how one man’s love and one man’s will brought hope to his country’s least wanted and most destitute people.
Oh Woong-Jin (the “John” would come later, with his baptism) was born on March 22, 1944, in a small city called Cheongju, a few hours’ drive south from Seoul in central Korea. Cheongju today is an agricultural transport center and a gateway to more scenic tourist destinations in the Korean Peninsula. In 2001, Choongju, another city adjacent to Cheongju, hosted the world’s largest taekwondo festival, but its martial history goes back much farther. In 1592, only Choongju and its garrison stood between the invading Japanese and Seoul itself. Bearing firearms, the Japanese overran the Korean defenses, killed three thousand and soon after took the capital. Korea would suffer some nine hundred invasions over two thousand years.
Japan formally annexed Korea in 1910 and would not let go until the end of the Second World War on August 14, 1945. It was a brutal occupation during which the Japanese did their best to eradicate all traces of a native Korean culture, forcing people to assume Japanese names and to convert to Shintoism, while forbidding the use of the Korean language. Korea’s resources—and thousands of its people—were shipped off to Japan to feed its military appetite.
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