Giving books helps pastor deal with loss of his sonKim Soo-yeon was a brash television reporter nicknamed “Bulldozer” for his 100-kilogram (220-pound) frame and aggressive reporting style. But long ago, Mr. Kim gave up the rigors of daily journalism, transformed by a personal tragedy that left him mellowed and put him on a philanthropic course.
During his years at Hanyang University as an English major, he worked as a part-time book salesman. His friends and colleagues admired the way he meshed in groups and persuaded people to buy books. Mr. Kim made a few hundred million won as a book salesman in one year, an enormous amount of money for the early 1970s.
Mr. Kim, now 59 and pastor of Hangil Church, poured his money into stocks, and most of them had 10-fold gains, making him a very rich man. In fact, he even had a chauffeur while working as a “star” television reporter.
He began his career in 1975 working for Chungju MBC and later worked for DongA Television as well as KBS. In 1984 when he was a reporter for KBS, he did an exclusive interview with then-Pope John Paul II when he came to visit Korea in 1984. Mr. Kim later received an award for his work.
But on Dec. 19, 1984, his second, 6-year-old son died in an accidental fire in his home. His wife was at church at the time, and the boy’s death devastated Mr. Kim and tore the family apart. Mr. Kim and his wife divorced, and he began to drink heavily and lead a dissolute life. His friends persuaded him to attend church in order to find spiritual consolation.
He went to Buddhist temples and Catholic cathedrals, but he hated the church, blaming his wife for the death of their son. One day, he went to visit his cousin who had just become pastor at a small church in Dongdaemun. He thought his cousin would be living off the contributions of the churchgoers, but instead found he was living a holy life in near poverty.
Mr. Kim saw the goodness in his cousin’s work, and he started to help by cleaning the bathrooms, the first time he began to do volunteer work for others. A revelation came to him that the unfortunate events in his life were not the fault of others but of himself. He felt humbled.
Mr. Kim then enrolled in seminary school and became a born-again Christian and eventually a pastor. But he wasn’t satisfied with merely giving sermons on Sundays. He wanted to do more for others. So he thought of sending books to isolated, far off areas in the country. He used his own money ― and eventually expended his life savings ― to send books to remote, rural villages in the country so they could build small libraries.
He even took out another mortgage on his home in order to buy books.
“Most people would be suspicious where I got the money to buy the books,” he says. “If I bought a house or land or car with the money, they wouldn’t be suspicious. While other people scrimp and save in order to move into a good apartment, I invest my savings in books.”
During the financial crisis in the late 1990s, his friends and acquaintances told him not to buy books. He refused, saying, “To help others when you’re affluent is a luxury. To help others when things are really tough for you is carrying out the love of Jesus Christ.” People said he was “crazy about books.”
“Why books?” asks Mr. Kim. “Do you know the average number of books that Americans read? Do you know how much Japanese people read? I strongly believe that in order for Korea to become a mentally and economically sound nation, we need to read more books.”
In the beginning, officials in remote towns whom he wanted to help were not that enthusiastic. They kept saying, “Give us cash instead.” When he spent his money to build a small library, a year later he found it had not been taken care of very well. He felt frustrated and disheartened, but he refused to give up.
When a library opened, Mr. Kim usually held a party for people to come eat, drink and receive free haircuts. Children loved him and he gradually won the hearts of the villagers.
Mr. Kim has helped established nearly 50 libraries around the country. He has sent about 3,000 books per village, a figure that now amounts to more than 200,000 books. He mostly bought the books on his own.
So why are books so precious to him? “When my son died, he didn’t have a chance to read one book [because he was so young],” Mr. Kim says, his eyes welling with tears. “So I want other children to read all the books that my son wasn’t able to read.”
by Choi Min-woo