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A life of sharing, service and modesty

Retired bishop Kim Soung-soo continues his work for disadvantaged

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Published : 2013-03-29 20:48
Updated : 2013-03-29 20:48

Kim Soung-soo, retired bishop of the Anglican Church of Korea, is like a godfather to the disadvantaged in Korean society, especially the mentally disabled.

These people have been his lifelong partners. He served as headmaster of St. Peter’s School, a school for the intellectually challenged. In his later years, the 83-year-old retired reverend heads a community of mentally disabled people.

Nestled in his quiet rural hometown on Ganghwado Island, Incheon, the village is home to about 50 people.

That’s where Kim and his wife moved to after he retired as president of Sungkonghoe University in 2008. He is chief of the village, called Urimaul, where he carries on a life of love and service with modesty.

Choosing priesthood

Born in 1930, he enjoyed ice hockey, basketball and geomdo and attended Baejae Middle and High School.

But diagnosis with late stage tuberculosis at 18 was a turning point. He had to give up on his dream of entering university as a student athlete.

“It was a long time ago. I suffered from TB for about 10 years,” Kim said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald in his office in Urimaul. 
Kim Soung-soo, retired bishop of the Anglican Church of Korea, speaks during a recent interview with The Korea Herald at Urimaul, a community he built for intellectually disabled adults to lead a self-reliant life, on Ganghwado Island, Incheon. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

“As I was convalescing, my mother told me that I would not be able to do anything (valuable to society) without a university diploma. So I studied and entered Dankook University.”

After graduating from Dankook in 1957, where he majored in political science, he worked at the Suwon office of a company related to his father. At that time, he rented a room in an Anglican church that also cared for orphans.

“The caregivers to the orphans there would often tell me, ‘We would like you to become a priest.’ At that time, I was a good-for-nothing fellow who hung around playing sports. Hearing their wish repeatedly, I became interested. So, half willingly and half on their prodding, I took an admission test for a seminary, and passed it first time. That was the start of my way to priesthood.”

His family was also involved in the church. His father and grandfather were Anglicans and one of his distant uncles was a priest on the island.

Experience of laborer’s life

When he attended Saint Michael’s Theological Seminary, which later became Sungkonghoe University, he landed a job at a coal mine to directly experience the life of a menial laborer.

“Rev. Reuben Archer Torrey III, who headed our seminary then, was a well-known labor activist. He would often say that though it is important for a father to hold a Mass, it is more important to get involved in poor people’s lives. So, I worked in the pits in Gangwon Province. In doing so, I keenly felt how hard life was for downtrodden laborers at the bottom of society.”

“In Bucheon near our seminary, there used to be a community of patients with Hansen’s disease. I saw a professor bring a middle school student from there and raise him like an adopted son. I learned from the experience that experiences that a church should not be within its own fence but that it should be in people’s lives.”

He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1964, then bishop and archbishop in 1984 and 1990, respectively. He retired from the Anglican Church of Korea in 1995.

Friendly, modest president

Kim was appointed president of Sungkonghoe University in 2000 and served as president for eight years.

He was far from authoritative and was popular among students.

“I pondered over how to make students live a happier life on campus. The first thing I did was to give them roses. Especially during an exam period, I would make them cotton candy personally. They liked it very much. I used part of my official expenses to buy a dozen meal tickets and gave them to students waiting in line at the campus cafeteria.”

He also tried to make memorable events for pupils by hosting birthday parties and going to recitals or plays with them.

When he left the university, he turned down officials’ persistent suggestions that they hold a retirement ceremony for him. The presentation of a book written by bishops, priests and professors in his honor took the place of the ceremony.

A year after retirement in 2008, he moved to Urimaul.

A life of giving

He has been involved in many activities for the less fortunate, not only as an Anglican clergyman but also as head of welfare bodies, including the Community Chest of Korea and the Purme Foundation. The foundation, which he has chaired since 2004, is a nonprofit organization seeking to build a rehabilitation institute for the physically disabled.

He served as the first principal of St. Peter’s School, the nation’s first school for students with intellectual disabilities, from May 1974 to May 1984.

He believes that his philanthropic spirit was embedded in his life when he was a little boy.

“I was affected by my mother from early in my life. I grew up, often watching my mother feed beggars and also seeing poor people help each other. When I suffered from TB, I may have gained a sense of mission unknowingly that I should live a life of helping those in need,” Kim said. “After being ordained a priest, I started to serve them in earnest.”

He tried to be modest when talking about his lifelong service to the disadvantaged.

“Regardless of religion, or believers or not, many people help the underprivileged neighbors without getting noticed. It is important not to boast of what one did. As Jesus said, when you do merciful deeds, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand does,” he said.

“But in some cases, at the end of the day the right hand gets to know what the left hand does even though you have no intention of it. The society needs to find unnoticed philanthropists and help them do more good deeds.”

He made a cutting remark on the haves who are parsimonious in giving because they believe they are still badly off. “As a jest says, an eager churchgoer always walked watching the sky to look for the gate to the heaven. He then fell into a manhole because he did not look down,“ he noted.

“Man should not be covetous. That’s why we need to pray.”

He added: “It takes a personal experience of a poor life to serve poor people. Had I chosen a career as an athlete, I might have neglected calls for sharing or service. In retrospect, my life turned its course after the hardships I had experienced due to my illness and my first-hand experience of the life of miners.”

Gratitude and faithfulness

He also touched on the desirable attitude of those who are serviced.

“An act of accepting alms or assistance is not a disgrace. But, as a person receives more and more donations, he tends to forget gratitude. At first he is grateful to a 10,000 won or 100,000 won donor. As the amount rises to 1 million won or above, he regards a small donation lightly. They should never think that way.

“Too many things given for nothing can make people lazy, so the advisable way to give is to give a recipient as much as he deserves. Man should never covet more than his merits.”

He advised youngsters to go along their chosen way faithfully not to regret their life later.

Young men should do their best in learning when they are students. When they work, they should try hard to perform their jobs faithfully. That’s what the young generation today lacks, he said.

“If man disregards his given duties, moral and work-related, looks for something off his path and gives in to self-indulgence, he is destined to commit wrongdoings, which he will regret later.”

By Chun Sung-woo (swchun@heraldcorp.com)

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