“The Drop Box”: Saving Unwanted Babies, Changing Hearts

“What I didn’t know then,” says filmmaker Brian Ivie, “was that God was planning to save me through the making of this film.”

The Drop Box is a movie about mercy, heroism, and profound hope. It tells the true story of a South Korean father and pastor, Lee Jong-rak, whose love in action has saved the lives of more than 500 babies and has impacted countless others. Pine Creek Entertainment, in association with Focus on the Family, Kindred Image, and Fathom Events, will release The Drop Box in cinemas nationwide for just three days: March 3, 4, and 5 (theaters showing the film are listed here).

The film describes how, because Pastor Lee is known for his dedication to protecting human life and the disabled in particular, one day a disabled baby was dropped off outside his house. But it almost froze to death before it was discovered. “I had a realization,” Pastor Lee says in the film. “If I don’t do something to protect these children, I could be picking up their dead bodies at my gate.”

In an attempt to protect and care for newborn babies that would otherwise have been abandoned on the streets of Seoul, Pastor Lee built a “baby box” at Jusarang Community Church, and made it his mission to welcome unwanted babies. Young, unwed mothers and those fearful of their baby’s disabilities dropped off their children, sometimes in the middle of the night, in hopes that they would live better lives than the mothers could give them.

Filmmaker Brian Ivie read a Los Angeles Times article about the peculiar drop box for babies and says he became “haunted by the image of this man reaching into a box that held a baby.” Ivie says he felt he was “seeing real courage for the first time.” Ivie didn’t waste a minute; he immediately emailed the newspaper’s Korean correspondent, convinced he’d found the story that would make him famous.

What actually unfolds is quite extraordinary; Ivie’s pursuit of fame turned into something radically different. “I had no idea God was planning to save me” he said.

Ivie recently spoke with Catholic World Report to discuss The Drop Box and how the story has transformed his heart and deeply impacted his life.

CWR: The Drop Box is a very unique film about a very unique situation. Would you kindly explain a bit of the back story?

Brian Ivie: It really begins in June 1987, with Pastor Lee Jong-rak sitting in a hospital waiting room weeping. After hours of painful struggle, his wife had given birth to their son. But the boy wasn’t normal. He wasn’t healthy. He wasn’t what Lee had prayed for. That June, Pastor Lee’s son, Eun-man, was born with a massive cyst on his left cheek, and without surgery, he was going to die in that hospital. The doctors told Pastor Lee that if the boy did survive, he’d be severely disabled. But he insisted that the doctors try to save Eun-man anyway.

After the operation, the doctors brought the Lees a child with devastating cerebral palsy, whose limbs would soon jut out at strange angles, leaving him permanently bedridden. The cost to care for Eun-man was incredibly high—just to pay the hospital bills, Lee had to sell his house. 

For 14 years, Pastor Lee, his wife, and their little daughter would essentially live in that hospital ward, waiting for the day when Eun-man would be discharged. But as Lee preached and sang songs in the hallways, he soon developed a reputation as a “lover of the unlovable.” He became known throughout the hospital for his unceasing love for “the boy on his back.” So much so that one day, a woman on the verge of death begged Lee to adopt her own disabled daughter, Sanghee.

So he did. And that’s when the rest of the story began. 

As time passed, Lee saved enough money to buy a small home for his growing family. Over time, he took in several other orphans from the hospital, and word began to spread about his compassion throughout his neighborhood, just as it had in the hospital. One frigid winter night, a woman abandoned her baby with a disability outside the gate of Pastor Lee’s home. The baby girl nearly froze to death before Pastor Lee found her.

In this moment, Lee knew that the children being left on the streets were not safe. … So in December 2009, Lee built a box. He cut into the wall of his laundry room and constructed “the drop box,” fitted with a motion sensor and an alarm. Even after doing this, he wondered if any children would actually arrive in the box. But a few days later, the alarm bell rang for the first time. It’s rung more than 600 times since. 

CWR: How did you get involved in the making of The Drop Box?

Ivie: One morning, I read an L.A. Times article over breakfast called “South Korean Pastor Tends an Unwanted Flock.” It was all about this man in South Korea who had built a depository for babies with disabilities. I couldn’t believe it. … At the same time, I was compelled. I’ve always loved powerful stories and used to watch a movie a day in high school. The images from this story got into my bones the way the best movies did. It was like I was seeing real courage for the first time in my life. Courage displayed on a battlefield that I actually understood: a normal neighborhood. Not Gettysburg, not Iraq. Just someone’s neighborhood. But the stakes were high—it was a matter of life and death.

I immediately sent an email to the L.A. Times and a Korean correspondent got right back to me with Pastor Lee’s personal contact information. I didn’t waste a minute in firing off impassioned emails to the pastor himself. I could see it all in my mind—I was going to take this story and make it into the next Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize documentary. 

In a selfish way, I had to use this story and the people in it to get where I had always dreamed of going. A month later, I got an email from Pastor Lee which basically said this: “Dear Brian, nice to meet you. I don’t know what it means to make a documentary film exactly, but you can come live with me if you want. Sincerely, Jong-rak Lee.”

I responded, “See you soon.”

So on December 15, 2011, 10 friends and I flew to South Korea to make a documentary about saving Korean babies. What I didn’t know then was that God was planning to save me through the making of this film.

CWR: Did anyone question your decision about getting involved with this project?

Ivie: Yes, people questioned the project all the time. Most people would say things like, “You have a savior complex.” They thought that I was only going to Korea because it was exotic and because I was under some burden to rescue South Korean children. But I really didn’t have a savior complex, I had a “Sundance complex.” I just wanted to tell a great story and hopefully be famous.

CWR: Is it true, as has been reported in places, that you were an atheist prior to the filming of the movie and became a Christian during its filming?

Ivie: I definitely wasn’t an atheist. That would have taken some serious consideration and thought. You really have to decide to be an atheist. To purposefully and vehemently reject the idea of God. I honestly thought that I was a Christian. Most people in America think they’re Christians, just because they were born here. I didn’t smoke cigarettes, I went to church on Christmas Eve, and I watched Fox News with my mom. That’s all a Christian was to me. It was decorative.

But yes, I did become a Christian while making The Drop Box. When I first read the article on Pastor Lee, I wanted to know where all the love came from. After spending time in his orphanage, sleeping on the floor with the kids, I came home to my old life, and it felt much emptier than before.

Sitting in my childhood bedroom, on the blue futon where I’d thought a little about God and a lot about girls, I heard a sermon about the cross. It was about how Jesus took my place on that cross. I’d heard that before. I’d heard that Jesus came to die for my sins. But this sermon was different. The message was different and it cut me to ribbons. The pastor that I was podcasting told me for the first time in my life that my heart mattered. That my secrets mattered. That all my secret longings and lustful thoughts and selfish ambitions were sin.

Sitting in my bedroom, listening to this sermon on the same computer that I had been watching pornography on for the previous five years, I broke down. All I could offer was a meager, but real, “I’m sorry.”

That day, I learned that Jesus Christ was sinless, but that he died a sinner’s death. Like a movie through my mind, I watched Jesus take my place in an emotionally abusive relationship where I was the guilty party. My sin became clear in front of that same computer that I’d looked at naked women, in the room in which I’d screamed swear words at my parents. He took my place on the cross, the one place where I didn’t have to go, as long as I let Jesus go in my place.

I hated myself. My sin and shame felt so deep, it was as though I’d run over an innocent child on the highway. But at the same time, I had never felt so beautifully known in my whole life.

It was the Father’s love, the love that still wanted me when I hated myself that changed everything. So I let Jesus into my shame, and now I’m free.

CWR:  Is it true that your brother, the film’s cinematographer, also became a Christian during its filming?

Ivie: My brother’s testimony is different but his timeline is pretty similar, yeah. Three years ago, if you would have told me that my family would be hosting church groups at our house and going to church together because we enjoyed it, I would have laughed in your face.

But God didn’t stop with me. He’s made his way through my family, too.

My brother walked out on the church at 18. He told my dad one morning that he was an adult and could now make his own decisions. After going to Korea, that all started to change. Just like me.

CWR: How long was the filmmaking process for The Drop Box?

Ivie: Altogether, we filmed for about six weeks, over the course of two years and three separate trips to Seoul, South Korea.

CWR: Do any parts of the filmmaking process stand out to you in a special way?

Ivie: Filming Ruri, Pastor Lee’s adopted son, was the highlight for me. He’s missing fingers and toes, but is still incredible at taekwondo. We didn’t really intend to include much of him in the movie. But upon talking to him, we realized that he was [Protestant theologian] J.I. Packer trapped inside a little Korean boy’s body.

He taught me how to sit next to Eun-man instead of stand over him, and that little kids can pray and mean it even if they haven’t read any Christian books. He’s still teaching me.

CWR: Were you present when a baby was dropped off? If so, what was that like?

Ivie: Those moments were like scenes in submarine movies where one of the cadets catches a torpedo on the radar. Red alert. Lots of adrenaline. The alarm goes off upstairs but it echoes throughout the house and immediately everyone goes, “Baby box! Baby box! Baby box!” They run down the stairs, whether in the middle of the night or middle of the day (daytime drop offs are surprisingly common), and we would just follow them to the door.

Pastor Lee, if he’s home, always takes the child out and immediately prays over them. “Father, I pray that this child would live with you his whole life and find a family that will love him.” Something like that.

It’s sad to imagine what the mothers went through to come to this point. But I tend to think those moms are the brave ones. The ones that chose life when it would have been much easier not to. I think of them like the mother of Moses, sending her child down the river to a safer place. Desperate but hopeful and full of love for that child.

The box isn’t a solution, but it’s given these kids a chance at life, many of whom might otherwise have been aborted or left somewhere unsafe.

CWR: What are your hopes for this film?

Ivie: To me, this film is a love letter from the Father to the world.

I hope that people stand up like Pastor Lee did that day in 2009. When he just couldn’t watch them die anymore.

But more than that, I hope that lost people—like me a couple years ago—see something real in Pastor Lee’s sacrificial love for these children. Something that wants to save them.

About Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle 12 Articles

Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle is EWTN television host, speaker, and author of numerous books including Mother Teresa and Me: Ten Years of Friendship, Catholic Mom’s Cafe: 5-Minute Retreats for Every Day of the Year, and The Miraculous Medal: Stories, Prayers, and Devotions. Visit her online at www.donnacooperoboyle.com.