Spreading love, warm in the hearthStinky, sooty and old-fashioned. Charcoal briquettes will keep you warm, but most of the nation has years ago moved on to cleaner and more convenient fuels. Although bad collective memories are associated with briquettes ― long hungry winters in a much poorer Korea ― for Korea’s less fortunate citizens, they are still a sight for sore eyes. Meeting their needs, the Reverend Her Gi-bog, 48, is today spreading the warmth and neighborly love that briquettes also symbolize.
In the late 1970s when Mr. Her was a student, his nickname was “Heogijin,” which means “famished,” and sounds like Her Gi-bog. Mr. Her said he was so hungry all the time that he sometimes said the word hungry out loud, as if it were a magic spell.
While attending the Presbyterian College and Theological Seminary, Mr. Her worked part-time as an educational evangelist at a small church, earning just 30,000 won per month. He often worked overtime and walked home because he was too poor to afford the bus fare. He couldn’t afford new shoes either, so Mr. Her made his one pair last by walking home barefoot on the gravel road. “If they were ruined, I would have to wear my mother’s rubber shoes to school the next day,” said Mr. Her, recounting the experience.
His only wish was to finish school. “Please, please let me finish my education,” he prayed to God. “If I do, I will devote my life to people like myself who are suffering from poverty.”
His prayers seem to have worked. Mr. Her finished college and found a position at Mangu Cheil Church in the Mangu-dong neighborhood of southern Seoul. It was a small but stable church, and paid him about 70,000 won per month plus an apartment.
Despite having earned security and support, Mr. Her quit after 4 years in order to fulfill the promise he made to himself in his youth. He put an ad in the newspaper looking for a church that lacked a minister because of financial difficulties, and was introduced to the Uigwan Presbyterian Church in Wonju, 120 kilometers (75 miles) southeast of Seoul.
Through the church he performed charity work such as caring for orphans and the elderly, but somehow it wasn’t enough for Mr. Her. Then one day he saw a homeless man begging for money. “All of a sudden, I felt a pang of guilt. After all, my nickname was ‘Heogijin’ and I have experienced the loathsome pain of hunger firsthand. I felt that because of my laziness there were still hungry people in my city,” he said.
On that day, Mr. Her founded a charity organization called Wonju Babsang Gongdongche (literally “The Wonju Dinner Table Community”), which distributes warm meals to the homeless. The organization officially started in April 1998 with a rice cooker and a signboard posted under the Ssang Bridge in Wonju.
It was a success, and more and more sponsors joined the project. In December 2002, Mr. Her added a briquette charity called Briquette Bank, which began by giving out briquettes to those that came to the Wonju Babsang Gongdongche building for a free meal. For elderly people who have difficulty walking, briquettes are delivered to their houses. The idea was so successful that it spread around the country ― currently there are 16 Briquette Banks nationwide.
Pleasantly, Mr. Her’s charity projects all had humble beginnings, without grand schemes or expectations. The projects began with the bare necessities under a bridge instead of at a media-driven gala event. However, because of his unpretentious approach, Mr. Her was able to gain sponsors for his projects.
For Mr. Her, it seems like one success leads to another. Last week, Mr. Her’s autobiographical book “The Most Beautiful Dining Table in the World” was published by Media Will, detailing his struggles as a young man and the steps he took to make his charity projects come to life.
by Nam Koong-wook, Cho, Jae-eun
To find out more about Babsang Gongdongche, visit www.babsang.or.kr (Korean only) or call (033) 766-4933.