He is a man with a mission — a mission to save abandoned babies. He is Pastor Lee Jong-rak of Seoul, South Korea. The documentary film The Drop Box tells his story.
In 2009, after a mother left her baby on his doorstep one cold night, Lee created a system to safely receive abandoned babies. He installed a drop box equipped with a bell on the side of his home. The sign above the drop box reads, “Please don’t throw away unwanted babies. Please bring them here.” It is a message reminiscent of the words of Mother Teresa who said “. . . please don’t destroy the child, we will take the child,” while speaking about abortion in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Since its installation, Lee and his wife, Chun-Ja, have received 600 babies. They have either adopted or become guardians of 15 abandoned disabled babies.
Lee’s drop box has been a source of both praise and controversy. Some critics think the drop box enables mothers to abandon their babies, while others think it interferes with social programs that provide counselling for mothers, making them aware of other options and of the consequences of abandonment for both mother and child. There are concerns about the anonymity of the drop box; children without birth records do not officially exist and are vulnerable to abuse and trafficking.
Lee’s drop box, like many other well-intentioned charitable works, is indeed a Band-Aid solution to a social problem. This, however, does not invalidate its important role in preserving lives. To draw an analogy between the story of the child who throws one starfish back into the ocean when there is an entire beach of starfish that she cannot save, Lee’s drop box makes a difference to those babies whose mothers choose the drop box over abandoning them on the street where the possibility of death is very real.
Faith is at the heart of Lee’s story. He clearly feels that God has called him to this task, a task he executes selflessly, without counting the cost. Lee suffers from sleep deprivation, diabetes and high blood pressure. Then, there is the emotional toll of his ministry, which comes through poignantly when Lee talks about Hannah, who was born with brain damage and died unexpectedly at age six. Lee’s lingering sense of loss is palpable, as is his concern about the future of his children when he can no longer care for them.
The inspiration for Lee’s drop box came from his son, a severely disabled 26-year-old who was hospitalized for 14 years. Lee admits that accepting his son was difficult and prompted serious existential questions. “Why did God give me this child? I wasn’t grateful for this baby.” Through his struggle to find answers, Lee came to see in his son the preciousness of each human life. He named him Eun-man, which means “full of God’s grace.”
Lee’s devotion to the disabled reminded me of the work of Jean Vanier, who founded the first L’Arche community for developmentally challenged adults more than 50 years ago. Vanier, who sees and accepts imperfections as part of being human, has said, “The weak teach the strong to accept and integrate the weakness and brokenness of their own lives.”
This may be the purpose Lee alludes to when he describes Eun-man as his teacher, and when he says of the disabled babies that others would throw away, “They’re not the unnecessary ones in the world. God sent them here with a purpose.”
Mother Teresa, Jean Vanier and Pastor Lee have a message that is critically important for our time: every life has value and purpose. As a society, we struggle with this message. It contradicts the parallels we draw between human dignity and quality of life with bodily vigour and intellectual vitality.
Vanier wrote in Becoming Human, “As soon as we start judging people instead of welcoming them as they are — with their sometimes hidden beauty, as well as their more frequently visible weaknesses — we are reducing life, not fostering it.”
In the process, we reduce our own humanity.
Trail, B.C., resident Louise McEwan is a freelance writer, religion columnist and catechist. She has degrees in English and theology and is a former teacher. She blogs at www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.ca. Reach her at email@example.com