For women: a noodle place with a missionIt’s got everything a stylish restaurant in Seoul should have: A long, lavish hallway decorated with modern paintings, a terrace overlooking a creek, an upscale whiskey bar and a location in Pyeongchang-dong, one of Seoul’s wealthiest neighborhoods, surrounded by modern art galleries. On top of this, the restaurant offers fusion cuisine, which is a license to fancy dining in Korea.
Noodle In House, Gallery In Cafe is on the posh side, but the charity that it supports, called Nazareth, is not. The profits from the restaurant fund the Sacred Home shelter for battered women and runaway teenagers. But unlike many for-profit businesses run by religious charities, Nazareth is determined to provide professional service rooted in the spirit of welfare.
It’s not the first attempt at entrepreneurship by Lee In-bok, Nazareth’s founder, a retired literature professor and author, and her daughter, Shim Mee-young. For years, they ran a small teahouse in Gugi-dong, which eventually closed due to poor management.
“To really make this work, I stressed the importance of business investments right from the beginning, with everything from interior decoration to the quality of the food,” says Ms. Shim, who oversees the restaurant management and the shelter. “We had to find some other ways to pay for the growing number of women at the shelter.”
Nazareth opened for business last month in Pyeongchang-dong, not far away from Gugi-dong, where their old business and shelter used to be. The restaurant and cafe can serve up to 100 people, but so far customers are scarce during the day. Set courses on the menu are under 15,000 won ($13).
Nazareth has a long way to go before it can fully support its four restaurant employees and the new shelter, which accommodates about twice as many people compared to the old home. It is likely to take months before the restaurant makes enough money to support the current facility. But both Ms. Shim and Ms. Lee are determined to break even within the next six months.
Long history of civic service
Ms. Lee, 67, is a distinguished figure both in and out of the Catholic church in Korea. For over 30 years, she was a professor of Korean literature at Sookmyung Women’s University. She served on the jury for the Korea Performance Ethics Committee, the current Media Rating Board, which screened films and performances.
She was also a newspaper columnist and a literary critic. She has written and translated more than 20 books on spiritual healing, death and biblical analysis. One autobiographical essay, “Joy Where There is Sadness,” was translated into English.
After starting a shelter in her private home in 1980, Ms. Lee has been lecturing at religious retreats and general public meetings, raising funds for domestic abuse victims, teen mothers, ex-convicts and former prostitutes.
But long before she became prominent, she worked as an assistant nurse at a brothel in Bupyeong, which was used by soldiers during the Korean War. The experience led her closer to women suffering from physical abuse and inspired her social mission.
“I really feel like they saved my life,” says Ms. Lee, referring to sex workers she met during the war. “I grew up seeing all these men half undressed coming out of brothel tents. It was a harsh environment. And if these women hadn’t protected me, I would have not been here today. I feel like I am finally paying back my debt to these women.”
For the past 24 years, she has been committed to providing women with a place to feel safe. Now, she’s doing it on her own. Even though it is a Catholic organization, Nazareth has no direct relationship with the church. It welcomes people of all faiths.
To describe the shelter’s work, Ms. Shim prefers the term “social welfare organization” rather than “charity.” “In Korean,” she says, ‘jaseon’ has the negative sense of simply giving handouts. We’re doing more than that.”
There are roughly 16 Catholic groups in Korea that provide shelters and counseling services for battered women. Many of them are affiliated with district parishes that run on church funding or collections from fund-raising meals or charity bazaars by church volunteers or clergy.
But Nazareth is the first charitable organization within the Catholic ministry that began a full-scale business, mostly because other sources funding were scarce. As one of the few Catholic charities run by non-clergy members, Nazareth has received encouragement from local parishes but no financial support, even though it is registered as a Catholic welfare facility in the church directory.
“There is a subtle wariness in the way the church looks at organizations that are founded by individuals who are not directly connected to parishes or run by nuns or priests,” says Ms. Lee. “But we are based on different notions of spirituality, rooted more in social welfare. The system within the church makes it hard for us to promote ourselves and request for funding at parishes.”
The construction of the five-story Sacred Home is viewed as a miracle among charity organizations because it was entirely funded by Ms. Lee and her husband, Shim Jae-kee. The shelter receives some funding from the city government, used to pay the salaries of the center’s employees and services for the shelter’s residents. But the money for construction, 3.3 billion won, came from the couple’s pensions and bank loans.
A chance to recover
The new Nazareth shelter offers a modern facility for women to reorganize their lives in a forested neighborhood. It can accommodate up to 70 people and has lecture halls and equipment for women to undergo training needed to find jobs.
Each floor has at least eight units, with a shared living room, kitchen and bathroom. Some rooms are larger to accommodate families, mostly for mothers who arrive with children. In most cases, women get rooms of their own, but sometimes those who come alone will share a room.
For safety purposes, the entrance of each floor has a digital lock. The third floor is mainly for women who were led to the shelter through hotlines after being threatened by their husbands. Others are referred by a church.
So far, the shelter hasn’t experienced any problems or complaints from neighbors, mainly because the founders didn’t publicize its arrival. If a shelter resident is found by a disaffected spouse, the woman would be guided to other shelters right away.
One of the shelter’s long-term projects is to build an alternative school in the building. Ms. Lee hasn’t set up any strategic plans yet, but last week the charity received donations of 10 computers.
Ms. Shim, a theater major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, also hopes to open theater classes as part of therapy for abused women, giving them a chance to express themselves. But both Ms. Lee and Ms. Shim agree that education is a secondary concern to women’s emotional stability.
“I want to see these women stop being treated like non-humans,” Ms. Lee says. “For now that’s my mission. I call that a women’s liberation day.”
by Park Soo-mee
Noodle In House, Gallery In Cafe displaying paintings by Seo Jeong-ja. The restaurant, in Pyeongchang-dong, is located next to the S-Oil gas station near Seoul Arts High School and across from the Hankuk Ilbo building. For more information, call (02) 391-1058. English spoken.