His friends are those most in needCaring for the less fortunate requires, at the minimum, an awareness that they exist. Religions teach that people have a moral duty to care for the poor; economists say we do so because it is in our best interest.
Mother Teresa personified the former argument, and Adam Smith preached the latter. Each of them continues to have an impact across the globe.
It appears that when lending a helping hand, motivation is secondary to the act, and for the Reverend Choi Il-do, leader of the Dail Community, a Seoul welfare agency, the motivation is not only secondary, but also quite simple: friendship.
“Receiving public attention for my actions, being honored for what I’ve done, it’s all good. But what gives me true fulfillment is becoming friends with sinners, when the lowliest of people call me their friend.”
Dail Community, which was founded in 1989 by Mr. Choi, a Presbyterian minister, provides assistance to the homeless, the elderly and prostitutes in Cheongnyangni, one of Seoul’s poorest neighborhoods. The Dail’s food bank, located across the street from the area’s red-light district, is open six days a week, handing out free lunches and spiritual nourishment.
On a muggy, rainy day, more than 20 people have lined up to receive a meal in Dail’s small building. Inside, a hundred or so people are already eating, staying clear of a leak in the ceiling. Some of the people are soaked, a few others are wrapped in sheets of clear plastic to keep dry, others stow cardboard boxes, that were used as umbrellas, near their seats.
The aluminum serving trays hold kimchi, steamed eggs, anchovies, rice and chicken soup, delights that are gobbled more than eaten. Some of the elderly men shovel the food into their mouths with their hands. The trays return sparkling. Not a grain of rice is overlooked.
Some of the diners request seconds, but the supervisor of the lunch program makes an announcement: “Due to a lack of volunteers today, we won’t be able to serve you twice. Instead, ask for extra helpings when you receive your food.” Grumbles of discontent jump from the tables.
Today’s lunch crowd consists mostly of elderly men, but a few middle-aged men and several women are sprinkled about. All are poorly dressed.
In the movies, loose-fitting costumes are used to make actors look older or poorer. Fantasy aside, clothes can tell a lot about a life, as can a face. There is a common visage in this room, one marked by weariness, forlornness and suspicion. Some of the people are threatening in posture, glaring at anyone who dares to make eye contact with them. The lunch fortifies, but it does not disarm.
For all of these diners, the food provided by the center is a rare treat. Shin Hyeon-gyun, 51, one of the volunteers, says, “These folks tell us that our food is the best you can get in the entire city. They can get a solid meal when they come here.”
About 10 volunteers, all of whom are members of Dail Church, are preparing food, filling the trays and keeping order. Until a few months ago, one of the volunteers, Kim Tae-woo, 39, was himself jobless, coming frequently to the center for a free lunch. But he says an epiphany changed him, and now he spends every day helping out here.
“I spent my whole life living for myself, and I just don’t want to do that anymore,” he says. “I’ve repented my past mistakes, of living recklessly. I’m going to spend the rest of my life helping the homeless and the elderly.”
Considering the number of people streaming through the door, the room is cramped. Mr. Choi sighs and pauses a moment before booming out, “Tell this to the district office. We’re still fighting the authorities to expand the building, but it’s not easy. This building is on public land so we can’t build a new wing without permission.”
Mr. Choi looks tired. He reveals that he was in the hospital for a few days recently, wracked by exhaustion. He has just returned from a trip to the United States, where the Dail Community opened a center in Atlanta.
“The first Presbyterian missionary to Korea came from Atlanta nearly 120 years ago,” Mr. Choi says. “Now that we have established the Dail Community in New York, we are reverse-exporting the gospel to where it first came from.”
In Chinese, dail means “many and one.” Mr. Choi started using the word when he began his babper (Korean for “giving food to”) movement, which reflects his belief that providing the down-and-out with the necessities is the beginning of all good work. “Dail seeks variety in unity, pursues reconciliation and accord among the classes, creeds and all kinds of people,” he says. “In other words, the Dail Community is a social crusade to help those people who are living in the worst conditions.”
At its outset, the center provided little more than a cup of ramen for the needy. Today, its activities are much more diverse, including campaigns to raise money for the poor. Last December, the group established Dail Angel Hospital, a free health clinic, in the neighborhood with an initial donation of 475,000 won ($400) from prostitutes in Cheongnyangni.
Presently, the Dail Welfare Foundation has more than 16,000 sponsors, according to Mr. Choi, with pledges ranging from 1,000 won to 1 million won. He also gives lectures, makes appearances on television and radio and preaches on Sundays at the Dail Church nearby.
Mr. Choi is a symbol of the movement to help those who have been visited by misfortune. In books he has recently published, he speaks candidly of the events that changed his life: the homeless man who gave him the resolve to help people living in dismal conditions; his love for and marriage to a former Catholic nun and the hardships he himself has endured, such as the time his wife sought to divorce him during the early years of his crusade, when he was handing out rice on the streets purchased with his own money.
For those tempted to liken Mr. Choi to Mother Teresa, he declines to be placed in that galaxy with the saint from Calcutta.
“She was in a league of her own, having devoted her entire life to the poor and leaving a profound impact on the lives of countless people, whereas I have just reached my mid-40s. I feel I’ve only lived the first half of my life. It’s way too early to judge me.”
Mr. Choi’s high profile has made him the target of some stinging criticism. “As long as I can help a neglected person by voicing my concern and raising awareness, the barbs won’t bother me,” he says.
Mr. Choi’s Evangelicalism has driven him to take his outreach program abroad. He has helped open Dail Community centers in Vietnam and China. By the end of this year, he hopes to open additional centers in Cambodia and Bangladesh.
Mr. Choi is also disturbed by the spate of suicides that have shaken Korea recently. He sees them as stemming from society’s failure to provide its members with adequate sustenance. “What saddens me the most,” Mr. Choi says, “is that there are too many of us taking our own lives. From credit delinquents to jaebeol, ours is becoming a death culture. It’s our duty to become a life-giving culture.”
by Choi Jie-ho