Across the Divide: Missionaries In Their Own Land

By Fr. Sean Conneely
November 23, 2010

Three Korean couples, who have been friends of mine for years, came to visit me while I was on holiday in Ireland a few years ago. As I was showing them around my own area in Conamara one day I said to Thomas that I didn’t think the place was as beautiful as Seurak mountain in Korea and that the little village of Doire Choill where I came from was so small and the scenery not as good as other places.

Fr. Sean Conneely

Fr. Sean Conneely

Fr. Sean Conneely lives and works in Korea.
Read more about Columban works in Korea

Thomas raised his hand and did not allow me to finish, and he began: “You don’t know how blessed you are. For the last two days you have shown us the primary school you attended and the church you attended since childhood. We just dined with your three sisters and brother-in-law in the house you were born in, and we met people of your village that you have known since you were born over 60 years ago. You don’t know or appreciate how blessed you are. Look at me— I left home at the age of 18 and never got to say goodbye to my parents and family. In the 57 years since I left, I never had the chance to visit the house or village I was born in. I have no relatives or friends from childhood. That’s my plight and the plight of many people who escaped from North Korea in 1950. You are blessed; you have something better than gold. Nothing can replace the gift of family and homeland and long-lasting friends.”

Thomas is one of the many North Koreans who left their homes in the North to escape the Communist regime in the late 1940s until the 38th parallel border was set in 1953. Many were luckier than Thomas, and they came with all or some of their family. In Thomas’s case, he left home one morning in December 1950 because he heard there was an American army cargo ship leaving from Wonsan for Busan in the south. He was one of the luckier ones who got on the ship and reached Busan safely.

Thomas was the eldest son of a large family. As he left that morning, he never imagined that he would not see his parents or any of his brothers and sisters again. For him, it was going to be a safe journey to escape his duty in the Kim Il Sung Youth Brigade. He was sure the war would be over in the spring, and he would be back home with his family to plant the rice in a united Korea with the help of the American and U.N. armies. All of that is history that didn’t happen.

Sixty years later, Korea is divided at the 38th parallel with armistice talks going on every day in Panmunjom at the Freedom Bridge Crossing. And no civilian crosses from either side. Sixty years in the Orient is the full circle of life. In a person’s age, it’s called the Hwangap, the ripe old age when a person is honored for one’s accomplishment.

This year in Korea conjured hope for awhile that something new would happen, that maybe people might come together. There was hope that the cold ice of hostility and resentment might melt and that people might be able to return home freely to visit their native land and pray at their families’ gravesides. Together northern and southern relatives would join together and sing and dance with their great old song Arirang. As I write this, the cold ice is not melting. In fact, the two sides seem further apart now than during the last two years due to the serious incidence in March when a South Korean naval ship was blown up supposedly by a North Korean torpedo. The Hwangap fullness of time will not be this year unless God intervenes in some special way.

Yes, Thomas was right about how blessed I am to have a family, home and a local village to visit. Thomas later related to me the many trials he has endured since coming south. He sought freedom from communism in the south, but because he came on his own he was suspected of being a spy at first.

Even when he passed the exam to join the South Korean air force, he wasn’t trusted to fl y a plane in case he would fly north. When he arrived below the parallel, he had no friends or family. When he reached marriage age no family wanted to give their daughter in marriage to a man without family, an orphan so to speak, no permanent job and no house or prospects. Yet Thomas was lucky to meet his wife, Regina. They have been together more than 50 years. He was welcomed into her family, and they in turn cared for her family. Together they built one small business after another and raised and educated four children. Thomas didn’t have any religion when he came south but through meeting Regina he was introduced to the Catholic Church and was baptized.

Though his new family and business made it possible for him to survive in the south, Thomas’ heart was always in the north with his family of origin. For years, he wrote a weekly letter to his family at home that he could never mail although he published some of those letters in a book a few years ago. In those letters, Thomas recorded the sorrow and the pain of losing a family and not being able to make any contact with his loved ones across the border in the north, less than a hundred miles away. He wrote about not knowing if his parents were alive or dead, and his shame, guilt and sorrow as the eldest son not being allowed to pay his dutiful respect to his aging parents or care for them in any way.

Thomas also wrote about his anger at those who were keeping him apart from his family. Life can be difficult for anyone but to have to carry this pain makes life even more burdensome.

As Thomas looks over his life with all its highs and lows, one of the high points that he identifi es is his and his wife’s introduction to and involvement in Marriage Encounter. Shortly after the Korean language Marriage Encounter weekends started in Korea in 1977, Thomas and Regina participated in a weekend program.

They then went on to be presenters on weekends and became the National Representatives in 1980. They not only presented at weekend programs in Korea but also in the U.S., Canada and Mexico for the Korean Diaspora. In 1982, they also presented various enrichment programs in parishes and schools across the country. I had the privilege of starting the Choice Enrichment Program for Youth in Seoul and other dioceses in Korea with them. At an age, 80 years, when many other people have put up their feet to enjoy a quiet retirement, Thomas and Regina started what they call The Evergreen Program as a support for retired couples.

As we were discussing his life and involvement in Marriage Encounter one thing began to become clear: that through Marriage Encounter his great passion and love for his own family and the families of others must be connected in some way unconsciously and spiritually to his desire to care for his own lost family of origin. Through this ministry, Thomas gains the family he lost and a sense of belonging for himself. Whatever the unconscious motive may be it is clear that God has called and guided Thomas in family ministry to share God’s love in his own family and to help thousands of families over the years to enjoy the fruits of the sacrament of marriage.

I look on my life and calling as one of a missionary from Ireland to Korea, but by meeting and working with Thomas I see that God calls other people to be missionaries in their own land. The Korean War was a tragedy and its aftereffects still are, but out of this tragedy, sorrow and grief God has called people like Thomas to give their life in a special way to others.

Those who sailed south past the demilitarized zone were called to give life, hope, faith and joy to other people broken by the war and its aftermath. The power of the human will and spirit joined to God’s spirit is greater than all tragedies.

This article originally appeared in Columban Mission.