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[Eye Interview] Italian priest feeds souls of the hungry in Korea

Even at height of pandemic, Anna's House didn't stop serving free meals to those in need, but Father Kim dreams of the day when his soup kitchen is no longer required

May 18, 2024 - 16:01 By Shin Ji-hye

Father Kim Ha-jong, also known as Vincenzo Bordo, originally from Italy, poses for a photograph near Anna’s House in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, on April 30. (Lim Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

It was only 3:40 p.m. on a Tuesday, but at Anna’s House, dinner was ready. The meal of the day -- braised half-dried pollack, seasoned bean sprout salad, kimchi, kimchi soup and rice -- was neatly arranged in big containers.

Father Kim Ha-jong gathered around with a group of volunteers and they all recited a prayer in unison.

“We are grateful to serve those in need … happier when giving than receiving.”

After the prayer, priest Kim, who was born in Italy as Vincenzo Bordo, announced the start of the day’s meal, saying, “Let’s serve with loving hearts.”

Outside, about 100 guests were waiting in a long line. Kim later explained that most were homeless or older people living alone.

“For humans, love is more important than food,” the father stressed, as he bowed at a 90-degree angle to greet the day’s guests as they came in to enjoy the free meal.

‘A miracle every day’

On average, about 500-600 people eat at Anna’s House, located in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province. Some travel from distant places, while others start waiting in the morning, the father explained.

Since its foundation in 1998, the soup kitchen has provided one meal per day to anyone who comes, except on Sundays.

Running the kitchen requires significant financial resources and daily effort from volunteers. However, there has not been a single day when a guest was turned away without a meal.

“We experience a miracle every day,” said Kim.

Even during the worst days of the pandemic, the kitchen never shut down.

Officials from the municipal government came and told Kim to shut down Anna's House, to comply with social distancing rules, but he resisted. Kim told the officials if people couldn't get proper meals, that would be a bigger threat to them than the virus and would make them more susceptible to it.

As most other soup kitchens closed, the number of people coming to Anna’s House reached 1,000 a day.

“I prayed every day that none of the staff would contract the virus, as a single case would force us to close for a week,” he said. And, in the end, none of the staff members caught COVID-19.

Kim said he is grateful for the volunteers who make this daily miracle possible, supporting the work both physically and financially. During the interview, a couple of doctors visited to offer their services as medical volunteers.

Among the many supporters, he recalled a child who donated 2,000 won ($1.46) a few years ago, with a wish for the money to be used to serve meals to those in need. A year later, the child donated 20,000 won with the same wish.

Kim recalled another supporter who visited him a few years ago. The middle-aged woman got by working as a dishwasher in local restaurants. Wanting to contribute to the work of Anna’s House, she offered her gold ring and necklace as donations.

Father Kim Ha-jong talks with a woman near Anna’s House in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, April 30. (Lim Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Helping those left behind in Korea

Kim came to Korea in 1990 at the age of 33. He was given honorary citizenship and naturalized as a Korean citizen in 2015.

Before coming here, his knowledge about the country was largely derived from his studies of Eastern philosophy during his master’s program and from learning about Andrew Kim Taegon, the first Korean-born Catholic priest.

Back in Italy, he always wanted to help those in need. He had volunteered in many places starting from his teenage years, including at nursing homes, orphanages, facilities for the handicapped and prisons.

"I have dyslexia," Kim said. "Because of my disability, I suffered from an inferiority complex and mental distress, but that shaped me into a person who can understand the suffering of others."

The first thing Kim did upon his arrival in Korea was to register his will to donate his organs and body after death and adopt the Korean name, "Ha-jong," combining the first syllables of two Korean words meaning God and servant.

Then, he dedicated his time to learning the Korean language and establishing the House of Peace, where he ran a study group for low-income teens during the day and provided meals for older people at night.

In 1998, Kim started Anna’s House, keeping people without homes and jobs in mind.

Aside from the kitchen, Anna’s House provides shelter for 30 homeless people and operates a workshop that makes shopping bags.

Homeless people can stay at Anna’s House, eat for free and work at the workshop, earning approximately 2 million won to 2.5 million won per month. Staying and working at Anna's House for up to one year, a person could save around 20 million won, the father said.

In Korea, it is estimated that there are approximately 100,000 homeless people.

When asked why some could view providing free meals to homeless individuals unfavorably, especially in a country where some believe that jobs are available for those who want them, Kim said, “The reason (people might) become homeless is due to psychological, mental, social, personality and economic problems,” Kim said. “When we consult deeply with them, we find that most were abandoned or abused in their childhood. Lacking proper love, attention and education from their parents, they (may) also lack confidence and social skills.”

"Here, they can receive counseling, food, showers, haircuts and clothes for free, allowing them to live as human beings," he said.

Over nearly three decades, many have overcome homelessness with the help of Anna’s House.

A few days ago, Kim ran into a man in his 50s, who was neatly dressed and greeted him on the street. Kim soon recognized the man, who had once lived on the streets after his business went bankrupt. The man now operates a fishing spot where customers pay to fish.

The father also runs a separate shelter for teens who find it difficult to live at home.

“When they receive help, they can grow into respectable adults. Without help, they may end up living on the streets,” he said.

Kim recalled a boy who was sent to the shelter, as his parents could not afford to look after him.

“We discovered he was very skilled with his hands,” he said. “Unlike other kids, he wasn’t interested in computer games but was engrossed in creating exquisite objects using only a box cutter, glue and wooden chopsticks.”

With the support of Anna’s House, the boy was able to participate in several competitions at home and abroad, gaining recognition, and he is now employed by a jewelry firm. Kim proudly displayed a photo of a silver necklace crafted by the boy, his joy evident as he spoke about him.

Has Kim ever regretted the work he does?

“Yes, a lot,” he said, still with a smile.

A few days ago, while he was wiping a table in the kitchen, a homeless person approached him, swearing. The man said, “You do it for recognition. You are not interested in me.” Kim tried to avoid the person, but an hour later, the man was waiting outside the kitchen. He again shouted at Kim, saying, “You’ve made a lot of money because of me. You have become rich,” and continued to threaten him.

Kim said his accusations were not true because Anna’s House receives only 400 won per person it feeds per day in subsidies from the government.

For 500 people, this amounts to 200,000 won per day from the government, which is not even enough to cover the cost of rice, Kim said.

Such incidents are frequent, he said.

“(Coming to) Anna’s House is not good,” he continued. “We started by providing meals for people who are homeless, but now there are many older people in their 70s and 80s living alone who come to eat here.”

Seeing older people queuing from 11 a.m. and waiting for four hours for meals deeply saddens him, he said.

“They should be able to have meals safely and deliciously at home. Having to come all the way here to queue and eat for free is not right. This situation exists because families fail and the country fails. Ideally, they should be taken care of by their families and the government."

“I hope one day to come in the morning, find no one waiting in line and throw away my key (to the kitchen),” he said.

"I dream of a day when there are no people in need."