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‘God’s chef’ brings cheers to South Korea’s poor and hungry

Since 1993, Italian Oblate missionary priest Vincenzo Bordo has offered food, medical aid, education and shelter to the poor
south korea, priest, missionary, vatican news

Italian Oblate missionary priest Vincenzo Bordo is seen in the South Korean capital Seoul in this undated image. (Photo: Father Vincenzo Bordo via Vatican News)

Published: October 24, 2023 11:47 AM GMT
Updated: October 24, 2023 12:18 PM GMT

When Italian Oblate missionary priest Vincenzo Bordo arrived in the South Korean capital Seoul three decades ago, he found many poor and homeless people did not have enough to eat each day.

In 1998, five years after his arrival, Bordo established Anna’s House, a soup kitchen to offer free meals to the hungry Koreans in Seong-nam on the outskirts of Seoul.

Additionally, it serves as a free medical center for poor sick people who need health services for various ailments.

In the past 25 years, the kitchen has served over three million meals and the center treated thousands of poor people.

Bordo says he wants to use the anniversary as an opportunity to educate the Korean public on the need to engage more in the service of the poor.

"I would like to use this anniversary to remind Korean society of the reality of the poor and to help volunteers grow in this dimension of service to others,” Bordo said.

Bordo added that the anniversary was also an “occasion to collect donations.”

“We live 50 percent from government subsidies and 50 percent from free donations, according to God's providence,” Bordo added.

Since the beginning of his missionary work in South Korea, Bordo has considered his mission as a "work of mercy" and has extended his services beyond food aid.

Apart from the meals, Bordo and his team have been able to provide a host of services to those who approach them.

The center has provided around 21,000 health interventions, performed around 1,000 dental treatments, provided around 6,000 psychiatric consultations and treatments, and around 700 legal consultations.

Bordo feels that the center’s hygiene service and distribution of clothes among the poor have given Seoul’s needy a sense of respect and value.

The center has offered "a lot of respect and love for the people who live on the streets of a rich but often neglectful city,” Bordo said.

Intending to gain more support for Anna’s House, Bordo translated to Italian the book he had published in 2021 in South Korea titled "The Love that Nourishes."

The book has sold around 10,000 copies in five reprints, which prompted the Italian Embassy in Korea to support its translation and publication in Italian under the title Chef per amore (Chef for Love) in 2023.

The unseen poor in South Korea

Bordo pointed out that “the poor need to be seen,” even in a developed country like South Korea.

He points out that the reason the Oblate missionaries came to a developed country like South Korea was because they considered themselves the “missionaries of the poor."

Despite being an economic powerhouse in Asia, South Korea still has a high level of poverty compared to other members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The organization of 38 developing nations reported in 2021 that about 43.4 percent of elderly South Koreans suffer from relative income poverty despite more than 45 percent being part of the labor force.

The poverty rate was more than three times the OECD average of 13.1 percent.

Cardinal Lazarus You Heung-sik who wrote the preface for Bordo’s book pointed out that the poor who exist in the South Korean society are often ignored by the others.

"It is not that the poor are not there, it [is] that the people did not want to see them. [Seeing] the excluded requires a gaze of faith and love. This is the way our Oblates look at our country," Cardinal You said.

Combating illiteracy, homelessness among the poor

Apart from running the food service, Bordo also focused on combating illiteracy.

He founded an evening school for adults who learned to read and write there.

Bordo also began meeting with some of the homeless South Koreans on his initiative and soon welcomed over 200 teenagers to a shelter.

Bordo and his team also began a dyslexia support program in 2002.

Dyslexia is a common learning difficulty that mainly causes problems with reading, writing and spelling, according to the National Health Service, UK.

Despite claims from Korean authorities that a home for street children was a useless facility and there were no street children, Bordo welcomed more than 20 boys and girls into his home in 1998.

He sent them to school, helped them find jobs, and with the help of a team of volunteers and psychologists, tried to ensure their full reintegration into society.

One more reason for Bordo’s success was his ability to involve many volunteers to assist him in his works of charity.

As a result of consistent efforts by Bordo and his team, many Koreans have dedicated themselves to caring for the poorest, taking the opportunity to give themselves to others.

As Bordo explains in his book, the motivation for his actions is to see Jesus Christ himself in every poor person.

"Everyone in need is not just a poor person who needs support, but a sister and brother who needs to be helped,” Bordo said.

“Every person is unique and needs to be welcomed, cared for, and loved. Every person is Jesus," Bordo added.

This report is an edited version of a feature that first appeared on the website of Fides news agency on October 21, 2023.

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