Thoughts on faith and life and life in faith

Author: Tamara Belanger (Page 1 of 72)

Mama of six grown kids, Nana to a magical little girl and a lilttle boy destined to climb mountains, divorced and broken for a purpose. An unabashed follower of Jesus. A social introvert, lover of all things travel and photography and cultures different than mine. I thrive on pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I love chocolate and wildflowers. I enjoy cooking and hiking and would live outdoors if I could have a claw foot bathtub with hot soapy water at the end of the day

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

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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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Walking the Flower Road

25 years ago my son was born in Seoul, South Korea. He came to our family by human courier and was delivered into our world by a plane. I knew intellectually he was Korean. His beautiful almond eyes, his skin a color different from my own, his black shiny hair told me that. But in my heart, it was hard to grasp what being from Korea meant. It felt like missing fingerprints. I longed to know who he was, what his DNA story told, where he had been created.

24 years later I sit in the Gangnam province of Seoul in an air b and b and look out the window, surrounded by a sea of people that look like the son I raised. I can smell the food, hear the language, feel the heartbeat of the city. This, I think, is what my son would have seen and heard.

When my girl decided to accept an internship in Seoul we knew this was my chance. I began to read and watch everything I could find on Korea, hungry to learn. I have always loved to see the eyes through other people, those in my neighborhood and those in other parts of the world, to remind myself that my way is not the only way to live a life, that the world and it’s people are an amazing place to walk among.

We landed on Korean soil after a long and tiring 24 hours and immediately felt the throng of people; those in the immigration line, the customs line, the COVID testing line and finally the traffic teeming through streets reflecting the setting sun and the bright city lights. There was a settled patience, in the middle of the swarm of fast trains, fast subways, as if the multitude of people had taught them to not resent the wait; to just keep going.

We’d made friends through online resources ready to meet us, eager to show us their country or, in Sarah’s case, her adopted country. Sarah came here from the heartland of America to teach and eventually met her husband, a Korean man, and has settled here for the distance. She is kind and giving and loves the people around her well. She and her husband sow into the beautiful children they have been entrusted to teach with intention.

She came to collect me on our first day in country and helped me navigate the subway,to take me to church and introduce me to the people already familiar to me through the magic of the internet, having skyped into their world for several church services. They welcomed me with bows and waves and homemade cake by one of the pastors, complete with chopsticks to eat it with. We walked down the street after the service, several of us, to a Vietnamese restaurant and ate together. I had no idea how to order, what to order and the usual rhythm at home?… going to a restaurant and knowing just how it works?… was replaced by dependency on my group to lead me. This is their life; this view, this food, this cadence. I am honored to be a part of this snapshot of time and take a picture in my mind. Wendy and Hannah and Laurie and names I’ve now forgotten…..all have stories, hurts, joys, losses and gains and I stand beside them and wish I could “read” their books.

Steven was born in Korea and found his way out of poverty as a child into a well respected profession and position as a legal counselor in a large company. He works long hours without complaint and strives to provide for his wife and children. He is dignified, diligent and kind. He introduced me to Korean fried chicken and patiently answered all my questions. It was fun to slow down and learn to understand one another; to make room and time in our lives to sit across a table and see one another. We walked along the streets together, the young people streaming toward and around us like tumbling fish, and I marveled that two people a half a globe apart, strangers just 7 months ago, now shared a meal and a walk in his country.

It’s a marvel, really, that God, the creator of us all, in so many shapes, sizes, colors and languages share this globe together. There is a Korean phrase….Let’s walk the flower road, a lovely way to say “Let’s walk on the road filled with happiness and success together.” How beautiful it would be if all of us could spend time with strangers and make friends, to celebrate what is the same and what is different, to see and hear each other and learn to walk the flower road together. <3

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