What is the meaning of suffering, what is its purpose?
From the dawn of mankind, this question has resonated in the anguished hearts of philosopher, prince and peasant alike. No one is spared, and each one must work out the answer to this question alone. Lucky are those with an ethical and spiritual framework that supports the search for meaning, but desolate are those who exist in a system that views their suffering as justified punishment or condemns them as outcasts.
Kim Sun-Tae, 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Public Service, has known the desolation of rejection and despair as well as the transcendence of hope and redemption. From the crucible of adversity he forged not just a will to live, but a mission to extend himself in selfless, Christian service to the visually disabled.
Born in 1940, Kim was an only son who basked in the love, attention and material comforts of a prosperous family. But at the age of ten, in one horror-filled day, his sunny existence collapsed.
In the pre-dawn darkness of Sunday, June 25, 1950, the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA), numbering over 100,000 troops and backed up with tanks and aircraft, crossed the 38th parallel, the border between North and South Korea. Its destination – Seoul, the capital of South Korea, only about 50 km. south of the 38th parallel. Within three days Seoul fell to this massive assault. Ten days after the surprise attack, Kim left his parents’ home after breakfast to play; when he returned a short while later he discovered his home completely destroyed by bombs, and his parents missing. In the twinkling of an eye he was transformed from a carefree child in a loving and comfortable home to a terrified, homeless orphan in a war zone. His descent into a living hell had started.
With no close relatives in Seoul, he joined seven other orphans, begging and scavenging for food in the ravaged city. Foraging for fruit in a field one day, they chanced upon a mortar shell in a field; while examining it, the shell exploded, immediately killing his companions and blinding Kim.
Blind and near starving, Kim nevertheless was able to make his way, despite many obstacles, to an aunt’s house in the city of Yang-Ju. His arrival was most unwelcome. His relatives were very superstitious; they considered him a bringer of bad luck and, throughout the five months that he stayed with them, he was subjected to verbal abuse, harsh beatings, and hard manual labor. As a result of one beating, his ear drum was damaged. He was hidden from neighbors, and given little food.
Throughout this ordeal, he was sustained by his Christian faith, learned in the Sunday School he had attended. Twice he attempted to take his own life; and twice a strange voice commanded him to endure, assuring him that he would survive. Finally, in December of 1950, he overheard his relatives plotting to kill him. Falling on his knees, he prayed to God, promising that if God allowed him to live, he would be a great person and live his life for those who, like him, were blind. He successfully escaped his relatives’ home and made his way to Seoul, where he became a beggar. His existence was brightened by acts of kindness from compassionate Koreans and American soldiers, and recalling these kindly acts would revive his lagging spirit. Despite the horrors of being a child beggar during wartime, his faith never wavered; he would bring other child beggars to church, bribing them with food.
More than two years of his life were spent in this existence, during which he endured rotten food, illness, and lacquer poisoning. Eventually the government started to round up child beggars, and Kim was placed in an orphanage. Determined to have an education, he chose an orphanage which would allow him to study and to attend church services. Although he was treated with kindness by some teachers, he still endured bullying by other students and other teachers. He learned Korean Braille, but having felt the calling to be a Christian pastor, he knew that he would have to attend regular schools to attain his goal. He applied to, and was accepted, by the Soongsil High School, where he was the only blind student among three thousand students. Since there were no Braille textbooks, he relied on the help of kind classmates who read the textbooks to him as well as blackboard notes.
By the time of his senior year, a military junta had taken over the government. Under the revised educational system of this administration, disabled persons were no longer allowed to enter college. Undaunted by his initial rejection by the Department of Education, Kim applied thirty-two times to enter college. On his thirty-third attempt, desperate, he brought a knife to the Department of Education and charged at the head of the department. The ensuing newspaper attention made his a hero, and he was finally allowed to take the entrance exam at the Soongsil University.
His four years at the college were spent not only in pursuing a degree in philosophy, but also in training himself in spiritual discipline to prepare for a life of service and material poverty. While at the seminary he had determined that his ministry would be to the blind, and towards this end, started working with various institutions for the blind. While at the seminary, also, he met the woman he would eventually marry, Jung-Ja, who would be his invaluable companion and support throughout his ministry.
He graduated from Soongsil University in 1966; he subsequently obtained a master’s degree in Divinity in 1969, and a doctorate in 1982. In 1972, together with the help of another pastor and a blind person, he established the United Church for the Blind, the first church to minister to blind people. At first they held services in a room of Chungmu Church, then in a dilapidated apartment. Eventually a church was built, and as the church and community grew, Korean Braille Bibles were published and distributed to churches in orphanages.
Being pastor of a fledgling church entailed many hardships, not only for Pastor Kim, but also for his wife and two daughters. Money was lacking; he remembers with a pang his inability to provide them with warm clothes during winter, or simple pleasures like ice-cream. His wife, however, was unflagging in her support and care, unhesitatingly quitting her better-paying job at one time to follow him in his pastoral assignment.
In 1973, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Korea established the blind Evangelical Missions within the Evangelical Department and invited Kim to be the director. Under his stewardship, not only were Bibles distributed, but scholarships for the blind were also established, for various disciplines as well as for those called to the ministry. Jobs were provided for students at institutions built for the blind. His responsibilities expanded; in 1972 he became the social welfare organization representative for the visually disabled and from 1972 to 1976 the director of the Blind Evangelical Mission. He also became the director of the Asia Missions Conference for the Visually Disabled.
In 1977, his work for the blind expanded from spiritual ministry to the medical mission of restoring sight to the blind. He received a donation of $8,000 from a lady professor who asked that it be spent on an operation for restoring sight to a blind person The operation undertaken because of that donation was a success. Thus encouraged, the Mission Association for the Blind embarked on more activities to enable more eye operations. The success of these operations generated widespread newspaper attention, and became known as the “Miracle of Siloam” after the Gospel narrative of the blind man cured by Jesus.
At one fund-raising concert sponsored by the Association of Siloam Mothers, the audience was moved by the accounts of blind persons whose sight had been restored by the operations. One of those in the audience, the CEO of a large corporation, was inspired to discuss with Pastor Kim the possibility of setting up an eye hospital. Donations started to flow in; and with the help of the business community, Pastor Kim was able to inaugurate the Siloam hospital in 1986, the 100th anniversary of the introduction of Christianity to Korea. From 1994 to the first half of 2004 the main hospital has provided more than 23,000 free consultations and almost 4,000 free operations.
In 1986, the Siloam Mobile Eye Hospital was established to help people living in the rural areas and remote islands. The mobile hospital has greatly expanded the scope of assistance of the Siloam hospital; from 1995 to 2005 a total of 119,032 free treatments and operations have been performed.
The activities of the Siloam Eye Hospital are not limited to Korea. Medical missions have been sent to Bangladesh, China and the Philippines. In September 1999 the Siloam Eye Center was opened in Yang Ji, China, to provide medical care to the ethnic Koreans and native Chinese in that area.
In 1997, Pastor Kim opened Korea’s largest rehabilitation and learning center to help blind and low-vision people cope with life and learn new skills. He has also been instrumental in the passage of laws requiring safe public spaces and employment for the disabled.
Pastor Kim’s remarkable life has inspired countless individuals. His fortitude and tenacity in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles have given hope to the disabled and powerless, while the example of his untiring, selfless ministry have inspired others to give with generosity of themselves and their goods. But ultimately, the meaning of his life and his work can be found in the narrative of the Pool of Siloam, in Jesus’ reply to his disciples’ question – who had sinned, the man or his parents, for him to have been born blind? None of them, Jesus had answered; he was born blind so “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Like the blind man at the pool of Siloam, it is God who has displayed his works in Pastor Kim.