In the kitchen of Hanulmaru, Sister Ahn Hyun-jung and volunteer Kim Yoon-ja prepare red bean porridge to distribute to poor people. (Photo courtesy of Catholic Times of Korea)
At the entrance to St. Vincent’s Sharing Center Hanulmaru in Suwon-si city in South Korea, a catchphrase greets visitors: “If we empty ourselves, God will soon fill it for you (Saint Vincent).”
The words of the French Catholic saint, popularly known as the “father of the poor,” embody and inspire the mission of mercy for the poor being carried out by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul for the past 10 years.
The two-story center is a home of compassion that offers food, clothes, shoes and daily necessities to poor families who are not listed for state or non-state social welfare schemes.
Once a week, the nuns share food and essential items such as eggs, cooking oil and red pepper paste with the poorest and most marginalized people, whose numbers have continued to grow during the Covid-19 pandemic and harsh winter season. Most of those who flock to the center have no income and no food to eat.
The first floor of the building serves as a storage place for daily essentials such as rice, flour, cooking oil, canned food and ramen. Some were bought by the congregation but most were donated by generous people. The second floor houses the kitchen for cooking food.
On the day of distribution each week, Sister Ahn Hyun-jung (Sister Barbara), who oversees the kitchen, starts work with her volunteers at 8am to serve needy people.
They prepare Dongchimi (a kind of kimchi) with Pat-jook (red bean porridge) in two large cauldrons after peeling the skins of red beans the day before. Sticky rice is made from new grains. Then the rice and porridge are put into lunch boxes with a tag and a piece of donated chocolate as a snack.
The number of weekly beneficiaries has increased by 100 to 400 during the pandemic. Member registration is done though a visit interview after receiving a recommendation through the local community center, parish or acquaintances. Once someone becomes a member, it continues without a time limit.
Once the food is packed, a team composed of Sister Cha Hwa-ok (Yuliedda) and volunteers start the task of delivering food to households.
Kim Gwang-seon, 69, compares the center to a church. “It is like a church that welcomes people from lower classes. I will share what I received with my neighbors,” Kim said.
Hanulmaru was set up in 2010 but the inspiration behind the service dates back to 2004.
The nuns who visited the poor to respond to their spiritual and physical needs found they badly needed philanthropic support the way St. Vincent de Paul did.
The sisters set the framework for more efficient and sustained activities, such as setting up a home visit team and a dedicated manager. They purchased and remodeled the current building and named it Hanulmaru.
Three nuns oversee the services of the center including collection of donations, storing and arranging items, and cooking and sharing food and daily essentials.
Sister Go Jun-ok (Matthew) has been with Hanulmaru since 2016 and is proud of serving poor and hungry people.
“It is a place to reach out to those who live in the lowest places in the world and share food evenly so that no one is hungry. It's a place where you feel proud,” the nun said.
From the beginning, Hanulmaru has received support from numerous volunteers and benefactors. It has 30 volunteers divided into three groups to serve people once a week. They lend their hand in storing items, preparing food and visiting needy people to deliver items.
Elderly volunteers play their part too. Kim Yun-ja (Christina) is 80 and has been looking after the kitchen from the start. Visiting team leader Choi Boo-young (Clara) is 79.
Many locals who are unable to join volunteers save money and offer monthly donations for the center in various forms — food like rice, bread and vegetables and various household goods, anything they can.
Covid-19 has hit the capacity of Hanulmaru. While the number of volunteers and donors has decreased, those seeking help have increased. This changed scenario has put pressure on a small army of volunteers who have increased their working hours.
Due to health restrictions, volunteers are unable to talk to members face to face to know about their real-life situations. However, the nuns are still determined to carry on their services despite difficulties.
“I hope that with inspiration from St. Vincent, the founder of the congregation, it will always be a place where the poor and needy can come and go,” said Sister Cha Hwa-ok. “Hanulmaru is a place where God's glory will continue to be revealed.”