had recently completed a degree in sociology at Gwangju University. I was looking not just for a job but for my way in life. I had participated in the student protests in 1980, as had many of my companions in the faculty of sociology. I had witnessed the slaughter of hundreds of fellow students by government forces. Seeing my companions mowed down by guns held by other young Koreans–my own people–left me feeling shattered and struggling to make sense of life.
I got a job with a welfare agency run by a religious organization but did not like it as I felt pressured to embrace their religion. After a month or so I left that job and my sister, who had gone to Ecuador as a lay missionary in 1978, introduced me to Columban Fr. Noel O’Neill. Fr. Noel had just begun work with the intellectually disabled. At that stage he had no funds to pay staff, so we worked as volunteers.
At that time, Korean society did not recognize nor address the issue of the wellbeing of the intellectually disabled. Fr. Noel fi rst began work with those who had been institutionalized by the state and lived caged like wild animals. We knew others lived with their families who were ashamed to admit they had disabled members and hid them.
With a very simple survey form we went about the locality looking for these hidden people. One of the questions on the survey was, “If you knew your baby would be handicapped, would you terminate the pregnancy?” Most said that they would, but Buddhists tended to say that they would not, as they have much respect for all forms of life.
I had already been quite disturbed by seeing our military and police shoot my fellow students as if their lives had no worth. It did not take me long to grow into the conviction that it would be worthwhile spending my life at the service of people whose lives were accorded little or no value by society. Stark experience challenged me and led me to the conviction that life is both precious and sacred, regardless of whether or not it is productive.
In 1985 I joined a lay association called, “Apostolic Auxiliaries,” which works in coordination with the local bishop. We commit to a celibate life, but each member finds his or her own way in life. We do not live in community, but we meet regularly for prayer and study and an annual retreat. At some stage of our lives we spend two years at our international formation center in Lourdes, France, to focus on deepening our relationship with Christ.
This lay association continues to sustain me in my work with the mentally disabled. It has helped me discover and live by the values that matter to me. I feel that I have grown as a human being by focusing my energies on the wellbeing and growth of some of the weakest and seemingly insignifi cant members of society.
If asked now what advice I might offer a young person embarking on life’s journey, I would say something like, “Do not simply take on board what society may be pushing. Be wary of building your life around the quest for money, fame or power. Do not allow personal, physical beauty to become an obsession. Rather, discover your true values and through them fi nd your own way to be fully human.”
In the course of the past 30 years, I have done many jobs with the mentally disabled. I also did further studies and completed a Master’s degree in social welfare in a university in Seoul as the course I wanted was not available in Gwangju. I have also lectured part time in a number of universities on work with the mentally disabled.
At present I am director of the Emmaus Workplace, which provides a variety of jobs for the intellectually disabled. Our basic goal is to do what we can to enable them to feel that they are part of society. We help the disabled integrate in society as best they can. Most, if not all, have been treated as rejects, and we want to welcome them as members of society.
In the area of work, we have jobs for three categories and do all possible to help them move into the fi rst category, which means they are able to do full time work and receive the legal minimum wage. In this center there are eleven men and women in this category at present; there are fi fteen people in the second category, which means they can work for six hours a day and receive one third to one sixth of the legal minimum wage; in the third category there are ten people in programs for about six hours each day, which are designed to help them cope with the basics of life and work a little. They receive pocket money.
What we do may be like the grain of sand on the seashore, but it’s the grain of sand that we offer.