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Preserving humanity in the age of individualism

One priest battles Korean indifference to the destitute

Preserving humanity in the age of individualism

People in the Korean capital hold candles during a rally for victims of the Sewol ferry disaster last month. (Picture: AFP Photo/Ed Jones)

Cristian Martini Grimaldi, Seoul

June 10, 2014

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Groups of protesters have held a series of demonstrations in the wake of a ferry disaster on April 16 that claimed the lives of more than 300 people. On weekends, volunteers have also gathered in the busiest districts of the South Korean capital to collect food for families affected by the disaster. 

On one such occasion last week, a homeless man appeared next to a group of protesters in Seoul's Hongdae district. He sat on the ground holding a lighted candle, perhaps hoping that people passing might spare him a coin or two from what they were giving for ferry victims.

The homeless in Seoul generally gather around the capital’s central train station, but most people pay them little attention – with a notable exception.

On the outskirts of the capital, Father John Oh Woong-jin established a homeless community in 1976 called Kkottongnae, after what he called a providential encounter with a homeless man.

Ten years later, the community became a congregation after being formally recognized by the Vatican and adopted the name Brothers and Sisters of Jesus of Kkottongnae.

Fr Oh visited Pope Francis last year in Rome, and the pontiff will repay the visit during his trip to South Korea from August 14 to 18.

“He met us for 40 minutes,” said Fr James, the superior of the congregation, about his audience with Pope Francis. “That is twice the amount of time he spent with the president of Israel.”

The congregation sends volunteers to the central train station every Tuesday night to gather the homeless, the sick and the disabled from the street and bring them to the Kkottongnae shelter for food and shelter.

Many of the most needy suffer from alcoholism and require treatment for their addiction. Kkottongnae can accommodate more than 200 people at its center, about an hour and a half outside Seoul.

“Modernization has imposed accelerations in the professional world. To keep pace, we need to continuously adapt, and not everyone can do that,” said Fr James.

In traditional Korean society, the social body existed in various spheres – home, family and religion – which were there to forge the identity of an individual. It also served as a social safety net.

In modern society, people create their own social ties and build autonomous identities. This ‘age of individualism’ is a more flexible approach, but it is also more fragile.

“To manage our own lives independently is not an exercise suitable for everyone, and many in this daily struggle end up discarded by the competitive mechanism of modern society. There are no safety nets to protect them, and from one day to the next they can find themselves alone and abandoned,” Fr James said.

The major social division today is not between the rich and poor but between those who can count on family and social support in times of adversity, and those who are abandoned by their family and by society.

The abandoned ones can be found begging on streets or sleeping in shelters located around what philosopher Marc Augé calls “non-lieu”, or nowhere places, such as train and bus stations.

In such places, they have room to breathe but little else. Their life expectancy is only about 45 years. By contrast, the life expectancy in the Central African Republic, which is now rife with sectarian violence and bloodshed, is 48.5 years.

In light of the ferry disaster, one must ask how we define tragedy. 

“The misfortune of the Sewol ferry, off the southwest coast of the Korean peninsula, happened in an area that is geographically distant from many of us, yet close to our consciences,” said Fr James.

“Television news and newspapers talk about it constantly in Korea, and the death of hundreds of young lives affects us all,” he said.

“But those homeless on the streets are physically close to us, yet our consciences do not even get touched by them. We are accustomed to the idea that these bodies – almost lifeless – are left to themselves to rot away in their inevitable fate.”

Standing between the unfortunates and that fate are the volunteers of Kkottongnae. If cared for, restored and placed in a civil environment that restores the dignity of the person, these people who have been invisible in the urban landscape come back to life.

They escape the clutches of alcoholism and return to the work force, rediscovering self-esteem and confidence in their abilities. If given the minimum conditions to flourish, they will flourish. Certainly not all of them, but some do make it back to society. They are able to rebuild their lives and escape a state of total neglect.

Maybe the candle held by that homeless man during the ferry demonstration was not just a shrewd attempt to secure alms, but a sign that despite his impoverished and downtrodden physical appearance, there was still a spirit inside struggling to endure.

And if neglected it could vanish just like a flame in the wind.

Cristian Martini Grimaldi is a freelance journalist based in South Korea

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