A few months ago I hosted a delegation from North Korea which included the Speaker of their National Assembly, Choe Tae Bok. During the visit each member of the delegation was presented with a DVD celebrating the life of a remarkable Korean who has become known as “the Albert Schweitzer” or “Father Damian” of Sudan.
I chose the DVD because it says nothing about the fierce hostility and enmity between North and South Korea and I chose the DVD because it celebrates the story of a remarkable man whose heroism and self sacrifice should unite the people of the north and south, both in admiration and pride in the life of John Lee Tae-Sok.
I also chose the DVD because Catholic priests have been banned from North Korea for 60 years and John Lee Tae-Sok was a Catholic priest, a Salesian, and a medical doctor. Perhaps the DVD – “Don’t Cry For Me Sudan” — will help the North Koreans to see the Church and the work of its priests in a different way. The Sudanese he helped christened Fr John “Father Jolly” because of his winning smile and gentle humour.
The story of his life has certainly had a phenomenal impact in South Korea, where newspapers reported that audiences have been leaving the cinemas in tears, having been so affected by Father John’s outpouring of love. Three hundred thousand people have now seen the film.
Father John was born into a poor Catholic family in 1962, the ninth of ten children – another of whom has also been ordained. John’s father died when he was aged nine and John would also die at too early an age – succumbing to cancer of the colon in 2010.
After his father’s death John’s mother brought up the family by herself, counting the pennies earned from her work as a seamstress. They lived in the St Joseph Parish of Song Do in Pusan: a parish built for the poor and needy of Pusan, after the Korean War, which had left many Koreans destitute and unemployed.
John was helped through his studies by his mother who encouraged him to read medicine. On qualifying, he practised as a surgeon in the Korean army but repeatedly he felt the call to be a priest. His mother felt she had already given one son to the Church – his brother is a Capuchin friar – and initially she tried to deter John from entering the priesthood but ultimately gave her blessing. He was ordained in 2001.
It was while he was training for the priesthood that John visited the Salesian mission in southern Sudan. It was the first time he had been in a colony of lepers – men and women with Hansen’s disease. He was so disturbed by the rotting limbs and squalor that in a state of shock he went off into the bush to get the disturbing encounter out of his sight and mind. The Salesians working there did not expect to see the young army doctor again.
They were wrong.
On his return to Seoul the memory of the lepers never left him and in 2001 he announced that he would “be a better missionary among the lepers than anywhere else.” Alarmed that he should want to go to Southern Sudan – where two million people had lost their lives during the civil war waged by Khartoum’s despotic government, his mother and family were deeply distressed but once again they finally accepted and endorsed his decision.
Arriving at a place called Tonj, Father John began the arduous task of erecting a medical clinic. Using the same hands that would treat 300 patients daily, he personally constructed the building to which desperate Sudanese would bring their illnesses. In his jeep he went out searching for the lepers.
A memo written by Lee Jae-hyeon, a policy director for South Korea’s Environment Ministry, who visited Tonj while working for the United Nations, and who was one of Father John’s sponsors, graphically described the working conditions in the village:
“The heat wave was deadly. It was 55 degrees Celsius. I didn’t realize thermometers had more than 50-degree markings until the priest showed me. I felt like my clothes were burning. The river in Tonj was a muddy puddle. Children splashed in the water, and instead of dabbling in it, they gulped up the water.”
After the clinic came classrooms for a school and other facilities. In the absence of anyone else to do it he would teach the children maths and music. A gifted musician, Father John persuaded Korean friends to send a crate-load of instruments and uniforms and he founded and trained the Don Bosco Brass Band.
News of his work spread and a South Korean film maker came out to make a documentary. Following Father John on his rounds they recorded the social developments and the health programmes which he had initiated.
This phenomenal outpouring of energetic love and commitment inevitably took its toll and it was during a short break in 2009 that cancer was discovered. In Seoul he underwent chemotherapy but on January 14, 2010, aged 47, his life came to an end.
This, however, was not the end of the story.
The film-maker, Koo Soo-Hwan, returned to Sudan and interviewed many of the families of the Dinka warriors whose lives had been so profoundly touched by Father John’s humanitarian work. The film that emerged was “Don’t Cry For Me Sudan” – taking its title from the Dinka boys who weep as they carry a picture of “Father Jolly” through the village of Tonj as they hold their own funeral in his memory. They are members of Father John’s brass band. Not much given to public displays of emotion these young people and their families are tearful as they describe the acute loss they experienced in learning that their priest and doctor would not be returning to them. A copy of the Korean movie has now been made with English subtitles and extracts may be seen on You Tube .
The film’s director recently came to see me in London. He had been intrigued to learn that I had given a copy of his movie to the visiting North Korean delegation. What had I hoped to come out of this? “An appreciation that one man’s life can change a world, and that all Koreans should be inspired by and celebrate the life of a remarkable and truly wonderful man.”
David Alton is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the House of Lords in the UK. This review has been republished with permission from his blog.