About thirty years ago the Columban Fathers decided to facilitate young people who were interested in being part of our mission, but who had no wish to become priests or Sisters. Since then, hundreds of young adults, both women and men, both married and single, have joined us in living out their baptismal call as Columban lay missionaries. Like Columban priests, they too live in another country, learn a new language, and give witness by their way of life to God’s concern for the poor and forgotten.
One such young adult was Han EunSook, who had been born into a Buddhist family in South Korea. At the age of eight she was baptized, together with several other members of her family, and given the name Genovia. While still a young adult, her father’s premature death left her with the challenge of supporting the younger members of her family. In order to do this, she set up her own math tutoring service for children, which she turned into a successful enterprise. However, some years later when her siblings had completed their education and become independent, she decided to pursue her secretly cherished dream of becoming a Columban lay missionary. After participating in a year-long orientation program in her home country, she was assigned to Japan, where she quickly embarked on studying the language and learning about another way of life.
Today, fourteen years later, Genovia continues as a Columban lay missionary, ministering daily to the poor and forgotten in a slum area of Tokyo. The district of Sanya is where large numbers of homeless people live secluded from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis. Their loneliness is often compounded by a deep sense of rejection by society, alcohol abuse and gambling.
Within such a bleak world, Genovia’s gentle manner and warm smile are like radiant beams. She has become a familiar and trusted presence as she serves lunch in one of the many houses of hospitality in that district, or cycles the streets to personally deliver a snack to a woman who has found a secluded spot under a bridge where she can sleep with some ease.
Yet, Genovia is adamant that “being a lay missionary is not primarily about what I do. It’s about my relationships – my relationship with God that allows me to see Him in the least of my brothers and sisters, and then my relationship with these brothers and sisters that helps me to come to know God in so many amazing ways.” Through her care and concern, she wants to help the forgotten men and women discover their true dignity as children of God.
Genovia is one of hundreds of Columban lay missionaries who, over the past three decades, have ministered to outcasts in Tokyo and Lima, in Chicago and Manila. The majority of these lay missionaries are women who not only provide us with a fresh understanding on the role of the baptized in the mission of the Church, but also share with us a woman’s perspective on various issues in the Church and in society. Furthermore, in some of our mission countries where strict cultural rules governing relationships between men and women also apply to priests, female lay missionaries have more opportunities to interact with local women and their families.
Like many other Columban lay missionaries scattered throughout the world, Genovia’s faith and compassion brightens up the bleak world of the poor and forgotten by living as a beacon of hope.