Dipping the Toe

Thoughts on faith and life and life in faith

Tell Them They Are Not Abandoned

Several weeks before the girl and I left for Korea, there was one place I knew I wanted to visit.

I had seen the documentary long before and was captivated. So I sent an email and waited. Surely, they would be too busy for a visit from a mother and daughter from Kentucky. Within a few hours I received a reply. Let us know when you get to Korea, they told us. We will schedule a visit.

Today? Today, was that visit. We traveled by subway, then train and finally a short walk up and then down a steep hill. Without any fanfare at all, we came upon the building and might not have noticed it, except that we stopped to catch our breath. It was on a quiet side street, humble looking, barely revealing the mountain shaking work going on behind its front door.

In 2009, Pastor Lee Jong-rak and his wife began a ministry for women who found themselves unable to care for their babies and at the end of finding a place to turn. There is a door that swings open, just up the steps to the left in this photograph. Over it is a sign that asks the woman to stop, just for a moment, and think about her choice, to make sure it is what she wants to do. If the answer is yes, she lifts the door and places her baby onto a soft, heated pad, closes it and presses a doorbell. Within five seconds, on the other side of that door, her baby is lovingly scooped up and the process of caring for it begins. The mothers are not forgotten either. A special room, lovely and peaceful, soft lights and inviting chairs, waits on the other side of the building. Some of the women have just given birth and a clean shower is stocked with soaps and shampoos. It is here that healing can begin. It is here they receive counsel, compassion and a safe place for their hearts to hear about a Lover of their soul that surpasses any fear, any chaos, any condemnation.

We were first greeted by Jimmie, an assistant to Pastor Lee and an interpreter for all of us. We climbed the steps and took off our shoes, a custom of Korea I am only just now getting accustomed to. As with all of Korea that we have encountered, everything was lovely, impeccably clean, organized.

Pastor Lee is waiting for you, said Jimmie, and he led us into a room with couches and chairs. Pastor walked in quietly, smiling softly, his kind eyes peering out at us. We bowed and offered our hands and it occurred to me how many babies those hands had received. I have never felt the presence of such noble greatness, such tender humility. I wanted to cry. I’m crying now as I write this.

I told him that going to Korea had taught me what it felt like to be vulnerable, dependent on others to teach me to ride a subway, to order in a restaurant, to make my way through the day where I was overruled by a lack of the “how to’s” in a strange new world. I imagined, I said, that these young women that come to the Babybox might feel the same way. You get it, he replied, through our interpreter. His favorite verse is John 3:16 because “all” includes the forgotten, the hopeless, the helpless. Every one of us.

Pastor Lee knows himself what it feels like; that crushing hopelessness. His son was born severely disabled. He was in a special hospital for 14 years of his young life. It drained Pastor Lee of his money, his resources, his support system. He was utterly without. It was then he turned to God and found Him to be true. It began what became his life’s work.

He took us to the rooftop of the building and we looked out over the city down below us. It felt like an oasis, a light shining on a hill whispering hope. It was hope extended by a man who knew what it felt like to live without it.

What do you want my friends to know, I asked? “Tell them the babies are not abandoned.” He said that more than once. These women? They want their babies. But life has made it difficult, sometimes impossible for them. Bringing their babies to Babybox is an act of great love. Many of them decide to keep their babies after counseling and we support them with care packages for 3 years. Before the pandemic, people would come to volunteer, to help care for the babies, the mothers, and the handicapped children in their care. COVID has stopped that. He pointed to a small green sign. This is how we can help.

He wanted the girl and I to have a souvenir; pins in a heart shape, a common hand gesture in Korea to symbolize love….”mother and child”, said Pastor Lee.

After two hours, it was time to leave. He wanted to see that we got back to the subway station safely and insisted on he and Jimmie driving us. As we pulled up to the curb he got out and reached for us and gave us a hug. “It is an honor to meet someone with such joy,” he said and my tears caught in my throat. How could I not feel joy? Today we had been in the presence of an extraordinary hero.

“Please pray for us.”

For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” – John 3:16

139: Perspective Without Focus

A few years back, when I felt the urge to write stronger than I felt the urge to hide, I started a blog. I wrote several entries and then held them tightly to my chest for days before I slid them quietly to a trusted few. “Are these alright?” “Am I saying anything?” “Would anyone want to hear my words?” “Is it too much?” “Should I feel this naked?” Maybe I shouldn’t do this. To which my people said….DO THIS. One thing I knew. I had to tell the truth. I didn’t understand the why, except that words made me feel like I was alive in this world; like I had a right to be there. I haven’t felt like that much. Words became friends that made me brave.

I haven’t known true poverty. I’ve never done drugs or felt the weight of addiction. I’m not homeless. Or hopeless. Joy has somehow resided in me for all the “no matter whats” . I still get excited at snow. I love to read children’s books because I can feel how a child thinks. I cried when I saw the mountains in Montana, Old Faithful when it roared to life and when I landed on Korean soil for the first time. I look forward to everyday things like kids look forward to Christmas. I feel it all and I feel it big. Words make me brave. Joy gives me reason.

Here lately, though? Well, here lately, joy got shot in the foot and the limp has left me reeling. Like when you get hit in the head and the world goes all wacky sideways and you can’t get your focus? You grab instinctively for the nearest anchor to hold you up while things stop spinning. Only this time, the spinning isn’t slowing. I find myself feeling breathless and dizzy in the middle of a conversation. I realize then, the spinning is from within me.

The fastest way to make me stop breathing is to scare me. The fastest way to scare me is to make me feel abandoned. It’s different than busy or distracted, not the same as out of town or in a meeting. Abandoned feels like all the sound left the world and it’s really loud; like God closed up shop and you are locked out. Abandoned only shows up from those close enough to leave.

I stop at the coffee shop to get some dinner. Someone sees the sadness in my eyes and asks if I’m alright because I’m always smiling. The question feels painful because I long to be asked but when I am, the tears come. I walk down the street towards home, not even trying to stop crying. I don’t care who sees me. I just need to grieve.

That’s when my friends matter. A message from Colorado, Texas, Illinois, a video of my new grandson, a phone call from across town, a text from my son, a picture from Korea. It feels like hands joining together to wrap around me. I sat across the table from a friend the other day. I told her I felt unnecessary lately. And then she asked the question. “Are you safe?” It startled me, really. I’ve never had someone ask me that before. I thought for a minute. From my actions? Yes. From my thoughts? No. They felt brutal, mean, out to get me and keep me.

Days have been filled with intention. Talking helps. Questions make me engage. Hands reaching out to me make me find my balance, my perspective, even when I can’t focus the lens when the sadness rolls down my face. And, my joy will return because I’m made of it. Just right now my joy is fitting like old underwear, elastic loose and wind flapping through it.

My friends, my sons, though, have held my underwear up the past few days, figuratively speaking. I eagerly watch the horizon for the next adventure, the next message, the next invitation to do life real and messy even with snot running out my nose. I can’t do it any other way. The late Nightbirde, singer Jane Marczewski, had a philosophy. “You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore to be happy.” Man, that rings true in my bones.

As I got up from lunch the other day, my friend, Rachel , looked at me. “One more thing. My favorite chapter is Psalm 139. Maybe you could read it.” I’m fresh out of even wanting to read my Bible right now but…for you, Rachel, because of you….I read it.

“If I flew on morning’s wings to the far western horizon, You’d find me in a minute–You’re already there waiting.” I love knowing someone is waiting on me, someone is looking to be there with me. Thanks, God, for waiting for me.

Life is beautiful and the hardest thing in the world all at the same time. It will be ok. And I will look forward to getting new underwear with strong elastic for the days ahead.

Meeting Sujin and seeing Suwon

We’d met Keira on an online woman’s group and decided after a whirlwind morning in the city to take a bus to Suwon to meet her in person for the first time. Suwon, while still a city, is much older and has that…..THIS is what I thought of when I would picture Korea vibe. The town and its people are mostly older; not the slick fast pace of Seoul. Keira came to the country on her own a few years back and is now a wife to Chanho and a mother to little Ellam. Life is a challenge for them here. Money is hard to come by, jobs that pay the bills are difficult to find close enough to home to make it worth it. Their apartment is small, storage is at a premium and Keira has become adept at finding ways to find solutions.

We put Ellam in his stroller, his little egg cookies in a package to stave off dinner time for a chance to get out and show us around. I find it hard to keep up with my friend and the girl, my eyes hungry to wrap this place around me and have it forever in my mind. It’s hard to walk and look and imagine and keep my balance. My eyes gravitate to the people I see, for there are the stories, the pattern in the fabric. I hear a scraping sound ahead of us and look to see a bent elderly woman making it across the street with her walker one. small. tiny. scrape. at. a. time. Our eyes meet as I come right up to her, to walk past her, her mask hiding the rest of her face. We will never know each other but for that small moment we saw each other at the intersection of Kentucky and Suwon and a lump formed in my throat from the profoundness of it all. Just past her, a weathered little man is making his way up a steep hill, his cane keeping him upright. What have they seen in this life? I long to have a go between sit with us and ask.

We strolled by businesses in spots I wouldn’t have thought anything much could fit, some of them crude and rough looking to my western eyes…..but this is their livelihood, their place in the world. There are men getting haircuts, women picking out fruit, children playing in a small park. Just like us.

We started back to Keira’s apartment as the sun began to set. Little Ellam was hungry and we needed to catch the bus back to Gangnam. The girl stood in the archway of an old fortress once providing safety for this town. I snapped her picture and look at my camera. It felt like a validation. We were here. We saw you. We will remember you.

Tuesday I met Sujin. My friend, Sarah, a transplant from Wisconsin to Misa, wanted to show me her town, the english school she and her husband own and her dear friend. She graciously met me at our subway stop and accompanied me to her area. As we walked up from underground, the blue sunny sky almost sang. We stopped for coffee and started for the park. I could see Sujin from a distance as she waved at us. I loved her immediately.

I asked if I could give her a hug, the American greeting I am so used to. We stared into each others’ eyes….both of us amazed at the miracle of sitting together. I told her my story, she told me hers. Sujin has a husband and two children and a God that she loves. She met Sarah at church. In Korea, older and younger people are not usually “friends”. There is distance there. Sarah, 20 + years younger than Sujin, surprised her by asking to go for coffee together. That was four years ago. And on this day, I was welcomed into that circle.

Sarah , Sujin and I walked across the park to Compassion English School, named after Compassion International, an organization that Sarah’s husband has a particular heart for. They sponsor 50 children with a portion of the proceeds they earn from their school. The pictures of the sponsored children form a heart on the wall of the classrooms. One day they hope to sponsor another 50 more.

Two of her students arrive to class early and they tumble in like little puppies. Sarah has them greet me in their best english. “Hello! Nice to meet you!” My heart melts into my shoes. They pull out a game and sit on the floor. On the walls around them Sarah has placed some of the students’ work and I stand in front of it and love them without even knowing them.

It’s time to head back on the subway and Sarah worries that I will be ok to make it to the station and home alone. Sujin quietly says to Sarah, “I’ll go with her all the way.” She is as bad at directions as I am and yet she is willing. She has never been to my station and hasn’t ridden the subway in quite awhile. We grab hold of each other and giggle our way to the station through all the transfers and stops. We snap a picture victorious and send it back to the girl and Sarah to let them know we made it! “I am so honored to meet you!” we both say at almost the same time. I ask if she will be alright going back. “Yes! Remember, I can ask for directions if I get lost. Remember, I’m Korean!” Ah, yes you are, indeed. I’d forgotten. “We are now friends forever.”

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