The cheese priest matures gracefully
After being ordained as a Catholic priest, t’Serstevens set foot on Korean soil for the first time when he landed at Busan in December 1959. The Korean War had left the country impoverished and t’Serstevens had plenty to do. From then on, t’Serstevens, who adopted the Korean name Chi Chong-hwan, served in small and troubled towns throughout the Jeolla region in the southwestern part of the peninsula.
With the passage of time, Chi’s black beard has grown white and his Korean is fluent enough for him to be interviewed in the language. He is also Korean enough to read the English words “back” as “ppakku” and “Europe” as “gurapa,” like Koreans do. However, he still has the rapid hand gestures and accent that he brought with him from Belgium, and he is humble about his achievements. “I did nothing,” he said as he smiled. “I am just a country bumpkin.”
Many people say Chi is too humble. Former gymnast Take Oh-sun had to give up her career after being paralyzed in an accident and joined Chi’s Rainbow Family. “He changed despair into hope for me,” she says. “He never compromises with his goals. You can learn so much just by being around him.”
Author Park Sun-young has just published a biography about Chi titled “A Rainbow Made of Cheese.” She says the priest looks soft, but his backbone is made from reinforced steel “Father Chi looks like the grandpa next door,” says Park. “But he has this intoxicating and infectious determination to succeed.”
That determination led him to pick up a shovel in Buan County and roll up his sleeves to make goat’s camembert in plastic soap cases in Imsil County. His dedication has often been tested. A crucial failure came at his first parish in Buan. After watching the local residents struggle against chronic poverty, he came up with an idea to reclaim some land near the small seaside town and distribute it to the natives. He paid the natives with bags of flour obtained from a U.S. aid project and reclaimed a total of 208 acres after three years of labor between 1961 and 1964. As promised, he distributed the land to around 100 households in the region under the condition that they settle on their plots and cultivate crops. In 1964, he fell sick with a gallbladder complaint and had to return to Belgium for surgery. After some months away, he returned to Buan and found the farmers had sold their land and left.
“I have to say that I felt quite betrayed,” Chi recalls with a gloomy face. “That is how I lost my first love.”
In 1964 Chi was sent to a smaller and poorer parish in Imsil County. At first, he meant to stay away from ambitious projects and focus on taking some rest. However, he found he could not sit still. The new town was surrounded by hills that were covered with grass, but the people had not found a way to turn their land into a lucrative living.
Disheartened by his Buan experience, Father Chi had made up his mind not to get too deeply involved in village affairs, but a group of young residents would not leave him alone. They kept asking, “How did Belgium become rich? Why are we poor?” Slowly Chi surrendered to their passion and started to look for ways to boost the local economy. One day, while looking at a pair of goats that were being raised by a neighbor, he had his eureka moment. He looked at the animals and then at the grassy hills. He blurted out, “Cheese. You can make cheese.” The villagers replied. “What on earth is cheese?” Father Chi thought for a while then said, “It’s like tofu made out of milk.”
From then on, the long, winding road to cheese making began. Imsil villagers regarded goat’s milk as a kind of medicine to be taken when ill. Without any knowledge of cheese-making equipment or factories, Father Chi started from scratch. He asked his family and friends in Europe to send him money and information. “Father Chi is somebody who has to go all the way once starts something,” says Shin Tae-geun, who followed Father Chi from Buan to Imsil when he heard about the new cheese industry. He formed an association of goat-owning villagers to secure the supply of milk, built a small factory and dug a cavern nearby to mature the cheese.
However, after three months all Chi could see were mistakes, and he felt frustrated. He decided to visit France and Italy to inspect some factories and learn the secrets of cheese making. After an unsuccessful three months of wandering, Chi says he met somebody who gave him a notebook about cheese making. “He claimed that he was a secretary to the chief of the communist party in Italy,” Chi recalls. Although he did not share the man’s politics, Chi was grateful for the help.
Back in Imsil, Father Chi started again, and he and the villagers managed to make Camembert, cheddar and mozzarella cheeses. Father Chi then began to take cheese samples on the 11-hour bus ride to Seoul, seeking customers at foreign gourmet shops and hotels. “I just cannot forget the joy of selling the first consignment of cheese,” Chi recalls.
Hwang Sung-shin, the public relations manager of the Imsil Cheese Agricultural Cooperative Association, describes Chi as “a father figure to the Imsil people.” “If it were not for Father Chi, we would never have dreamed of making cheese, which is now the foundation of our lives,” she says. The Imsil cheese industry has been burgeoning. Hwang says that last year her association saw revenues of around 12 billion won ($13 million) and sales have increased for several years running, making the cheese industry the backbone of the town.
Chi pinpoints 1975 as the time he “started to move away from cheese making,” after years of being known as “the cheese priest.” “I am a priest, not a businessman,” he says.
Chi refused to be forced into idleness by his illness. Instead, he kept himself busy with a different mission ― the democratization movement. He became active after a fellow priest, Ji Hak-sun, was detained for protesting against the Park regime. He spoke out against the military regime’s drive to revise the constitution to extend Park’s power and frequently traveled Seoul to protest.
“I was one of the most wicked priests in the eyes of the Park regime,” Chi says, laughing. During a protest in Seoul, he was taken to the police department and detained. He says it was his devotion to the cheese industry that saved him. “I heard from the police and intelligence officials that President Park told them to save me because of the cheese business I had started in Imsil,” Chi says. “He was also interested in boosting the local economy. But he and I had very different ways of doing things.”
In the meantime, his condition grew worse and he returned to Europe for three years of treatment.
After coming back to Korea, he found another mission ― helping disabled people like himself, creating the Rainbow Family in Jeonju. One strict principle he laid down was that the Rainbow Family help the disabled to become independent.
“I came to understand that my approach in Buan was wrong, because I thought that I was trying to do something for the local people,” Father Chi says. “I should have encouraged the people to do something for themselves, doing things together as a team, instead of telling people what to do.” Because of his age he retired from service in 2003, but he is still emotionally attached to the Rainbow Family and is now learning computer graphic techniques to build Web sites for the disabled. Oh Sun, the disabled former gymnast, smiles and says, “He just never stops.”
What does he think of Koreans after years of living and working with them? He shrugs and says, “There are good people and bad people, like anywhere else. It’s the same in the United States and in Afghanistan.”
Yet there is one question that bothers Chi. “Koreans are now much more affluent,” he says. “But the question is, are they happier? People need to learn to be happy, instead of constantly complaining. There are so many things that we can be happy about.”
So how long does he plan to stay in this country? “Only until I die,” Chi answers, with a playful smile. “I have no plans to go back to the country of my birth. Korea has become my home and it’s where I choose to be buried after my death.”
By Chun Su jin [email@example.com]