What it’s like to be a missionary in North Korea

Washington D.C., Aug 9, 2017 / 06:17 am (CNA/EWTN News).- What can a missionary in North Korea do to preach the Gospel in a Communist dictatorship? Simply care for the sick patients he is there to help, says one priest in that situation.

“We are the message of the Gospel, and we try to imitate it,” Fr. Gerard Hammond, M.M. of the Maryknoll Missionaries told CNA of his work in North Korea ministering to multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis patients.

“How did people recognize the first Christians?” he asked. “Well they recognized them because they saw their love and concern for themselves and the small, tiny community.”

“If you can just show a little love and concern, say, for the multi-drug-resistant TB patients in North Korea, you are fulfilling what the early Christians did.”

Fr. Hammond was honored by the Knights of Columbus with the Gaudium et Spes Award last week for his missionary work in North Korea treating those suffering from multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis.

The Knights of Columbus is an international Catholic men’s organization with over 1.9 million members worldwide. The Gaudium et Spes Award, named after one of the four constitutions of the Second Vatican Council “on the church in the modern world,” is the highest honor given by the Knights and is “awarded only in special circumstances and only to individuals of exceptional merit.”

St. Teresa of Calcutta was the first person to receive the Gaudium et Spes Award in 1992. The award includes an honorarium of $100,000.

Fr. Hammond entered the seminary for the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers in 1947 and was ordained a priest in 1960. “I had always wanted to become a priest,” he told CNA.

He was assigned to Korea as a young missionary. “It was never said in my mission assignment ‘north’ or ‘south,’” he said, adding that same is true of assignments given to “the nuncios that come to Korea,…the Church is always thinking…not North or South, it’s Korea, or the Korean people.”

However, when he first received his assignment to Korea, Fr. Hammond realized the challenges that awaited him.

“My spiritual director said to me two things. One, he said your trust in God is weak, which is true. Another thing is to know your limitations.”

He recalled his father telling him, “Well, I don’t know what you’re going to do over there, but you can hardly screw in a lightbulb. I don’t know how you’re going to live there.”

“Thanks for the affirmation, it makes me feel good!” he laughed.

He boarded a cargo ship at San Francisco, which made the trek across the Pacific Ocean to Korea. “But as I went up to the top deck and I kept looking at San Francisco. The lights got dimmer and dimmer and I got more panic-stricken, turned around (and) there’s nothing but darkness in front of me,” he said.

“So as a human I had a lot of tears in my eyes. ‘Well, I guess I’m in involved, I guess it’s too late, I can’t swim back’.”

Yet when he arrived, he experienced the aspects of mission life in a foreign culture that can be overwhelming. “You really know your limitations when you’re in a foreign environment. You have to get used to the food, the way people think – it’s everything, it’s different. Especially in Asia,” he said.

Yet, he also felt “the romance of a mission.”

“When people are in love you notice it right away,” he said.  “And a missionary has to fall in love somehow with the people he came to serve. And one way to be able to do that is learning the language.”

Learning the language takes time, Fr. Hammond said, with a few humorous anecdotes of when he mixed up words that sound very similar to each other but have vastly different meanings.

Once in the confessional, he said he told one young person after another to pray a decade of the rosary as their penance. Yet because of how he pronounced his words, their literal translation was to go have a beer.

“So you go through the anger and frustration, all the things that any human person does, and then all of the sudden a Korean comes along and they help you say a few words, you gradually work into it,” he said.

To be a missionary is “to be like the bamboo tree,” he said, “because what’s important about the bamboo tree is they put their roots down deeply and they’re usually in a grove together. And that’s what I think a missionary is – we must put our roots in deeply, but it takes time. You can’t do it overnight.”

There are two languages missionaries must learn, he said – the language of the people they serve, and “the language of the heart.”

“I have to say this prayer every day when I get up: ‘Lord, make my heart be like a Korean’,” he said.

For decades, Fr. Hammond has served in Korea. He makes trips twice a year, in the fall and in the spring, into North Korea with the Eugene Bell Foundation to treat persons suffering from multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis. Over the course of three weeks, the staff visits 12 tuberculosis centers in four provinces in the western half of the country.

Since 1995, Fr. Hammond has made 50 trips into North Korea to treat patients. “Not one of them [the trips] has ever been the same,” he said. “There’s always some difficulty or something that you don’t expect. But I like to think of them sometimes in a more spiritual way, God loves to send us surprises.”

Many people in the area test positive for tuberculosis, which is contagious through the air and can lie dormant for decades and attack when a person’s immune system is weak, Dr. Stephen Linton, founder and president of the Eugene Bell Foundation, said.

In North Korea, “virtually everyone over 20 has had a brush with TB,” he said, and several hundred thousand people per year are treated for it by the United Nations.

However, a particularly serious strain of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis is able to withstand the normal six-month drug treatments, and around 4-5,000 people develop this disease per year in North Korea. Those suffering from it have “failed treatment multiple times” and are “critically ill,” Dr. Linton said, and will die within five years unless they receive the medication necessary to treat it. The international cure rate is only 48 percent.

The foundation treats around 1,200 patients per year for 18 months, at a cost 100 times that of treating regular tuberculosis, Dr. Linton said. The work must be done outside to prevent the airborne spread of the disease within an enclosed space, which means the work is sometimes done in the rain or in the North Korean winter.

“I just happened to be with people who, as our Holy Father Francis is saying, go to the peripheries,” Fr. Hammond said of his mission work. “And I think that’s where we should be, simply where suffering is.”

“That doesn’t mean everyone should or must go to North Korea,” he said. “To me, it’s very practical that anybody can be a missionary, as long as you’re not centered on yourself, but centered on ‘how can I make myself better and spiritually strong’.”

He cannot proselytize in a country where freedom of religion is ruthlessly suppressed. Yet Fr. Hammond shows the love of Christ simply through risking his own health to treat seriously ill patients.

The Korean War of 1950-53 never technically ended, but only stopped with a truce. A 2.5 mile-wide de-militarized zone separates North and South Korea, heavily armed and manned with soldiers. “Peace” between the two countries, and not just a truce, is “desperately needed,” he said.

“The result of not having peace is a catastrophe,” he said. The capital city of Seoul, South Korea, has 10 million inhabitants and stands within artillery range of the DMZ. Any military conflict between the two countries would result in a “horrendous” number of civilian casualties.

“What are the ingredients, in one sense, for peace?” the priest reflected. “Reconciliation between the peoples of the North and the South. That the people come together.” Both countries, he said, have “the same language, the same culture” and the peninsula “was never divided as a country” until the 20th century.

Families are divided as well. “There are (family members) that they’ve never heard about,” he said, “there’s no communication.”

“Dialogue” between the countries is also key, he said. “They use the word ‘dialogue’ often, but also it means people-to-people contact. So that it can be done with sports, young people meeting up, professors on a non-political area, history teachers, teachers themselves, the young people meeting each other.”

Although he has served in Korea for decades, he does not plan to stop soon. “I hope in the remaining years of my life to be, in a sense, an apostle of peace, an apostle of hope to the people who have no voice,” he said.

“I’d like to be able to die there, because these are the people I baptized,” he said of South Korea. “These are the people I’ve buried, so why shouldn’t I be part of that?”

 

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