Fr. Vincenzo and his team with the bus
In February 2020 some eighteen priests and Sisters participated in the Mission Education Program for Korean missionaries going overseas at our Center House in Seoul. It was directed by Columban Fr. Thomas Nam Seungwon and the staff at our Mission Center in Seoul. The program was initiated in 1989 as a response to the feedback of Korean Missionaries returning home for vacation. They had a simple message – while they were enthusiastic, and Gospel-motivated for mission, they were not prepared for the struggle of learning a new language, of adjusting to a new Church and a new culture. In response to this the Columbans invited members of different congregations to examine the possibility of developing a short preparation course. This led to the first program being run in 1999.
The program is a series of modules focusing on the challenges of mission today with a healthy mixture of the theoretical and the practical aspects. In these practical modules sharing the stories is key – stories of adjusting to new cultures, different churches, climates, languages and of course coming face to face with human suffering.
This year in the program I spent two sessions with the group where they were reflecting together on how we respond to very concrete situations of poverty. One Sister related an event which happened to her a few weeks previously. She was walking in the local market with a friend when they passed by a man hunkered down who was asking for a handout. She passed by and for some reason she glanced back and her eyes met his and she felt a stab in her heart and thought “I should go back,” but being with another person she just continued on her way feeling guilty. I think many of us can relate to this experience as we see more people falling through the cracks in our society ending up unemployed, often homeless and sleeping outdoors.
The group had various suggestions coming from their own expereinces: “stop and ask the person would they like coffee;” “get a ticket for a meal in the nearby market café and give it to him;” “say hello and see how the conversation would develop.” All agreed that it was fundamental to acknowledge the person, to stop and exchange a greeting! A powerful image here is that of Jesus in the Gospels always acknowledging the other especially the marginalized like in Luke 18:40 where He stopped to talk with the blind begging man. Jesus always took the time to recognize people on the fringe. The group agreed that the response is to “begin with a greeting and take it from there.” But all realized that what an individual could do was limited so the imperative is to get a wider group involved which will lead to sharing more ideas, resources and ultimately a more comprehensive response.
I shared from my own experience concrete examples of what missionaries did and can do in the face of similar challenges. In Korea the Italian Oblate missionary priest, Fr. Vincenzo Bordo, working in Seong Nam city often encountered teenagers who had run away from home were homeless. In 2015, with the help of the Oblate Congregation and local Catholics, he got a bus and set up a mobile clinic which goes out three times a week (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday) at night from 6 p.m. to 12 p.m to meet, dialogue, and help the boys and girls who live on the streets. They offer the young people food, counseling, clothes, medical care, and games. They meet an average of 900 boys and girls on the street each month (70-80 on any night). Since the bus is too small for so many riders, they erect two tents beside the bus to cope with the numbers. It is just one practical way to be with street children, supporting them, gaining their trust and helping them start a new journey. On each Tuesday his team visits the high schools in the city with an education program related to the problems of teenagers running away from home.
Korean Columban Sisters Julietta Choi Yoojin and Bernadetta Lee Hyun-kyung started working with a community of adults and children living in a cemetery in Manila. They discovered that many of the parents had been born there and now they were raising a new generation of children. Deciding early on that education was the key to breaking the cycle, the Sisters with the help of benefactors set up study programs to encourage the children to stay at school. And the result in 2019 for the first time ever, two students were accepted into the National Police College – the cycle of poverty had been interrupted!
Irish Columban Fr. Noel O’Neill in Gwangju, Korea, confronted the reality of young people with special needs being shunned and locked away in holding institutions. He introduced the group home concept revolutionizing the whole approach in Korea to persons who are differently abled! The stories of such initiatives begun by missionaries like themselves give hope and courage to people starting on the missionary life. But an even greater gift is the whole experience of spending a month together sharing their dreams, hopes, fears, and doubts. The solidarity experienced and the relationships established become firm foundations for a missionary life.
Columban Fr. Donal O’Keefe lives and works in Seoul, South Korea.