A Man Who Does More for the Korean People than Just Worry

A North Korean man sits on an oxcart near the town of Sinuiju on the Chinese border, 2012. (Reuters photo: Aly Song)
Meet Father Gerard Hammond, a missionary whose pluck and charity leave little room for anxiety.

‘Please, don’t tell me more.” It’s become a common plea if not a refrain as I encounter more and more people choosing to disengage from watching the seemingly constant car crash that is our politics and culture. Apparently presidential tweets about war and joke responses about mushroom clouds and North Korean Pokémon armies aren’t their cup of tea. Imagine that.

When Father Gerard Hammond thinks of the prospect of any kind of escalation, the word “catastrophe” is the first that comes to mind. And his heart and mind immediately go to the sorrow of the Korean people — a people who are of one language, one culture, and ought not to be divided. Peace is what they need, he tells me.

The Philadelphia native says this as someone whose been to North Korea more than 50 times, delivering medicine, since being sent as a missionary to South Korea in 1960. For 30 years now he has been a pastor. From the people there he learned much that he never learned in his years of seminary studies and formation: “When you’re hungry, drink water. It will trick your body into thinking you’re full.” That pointer came from a miner, and Father Hammond has put it to good use.

The Korean people, he says, especially the Christians, always tend to ask, Are you hungry? “And when I asked it,” Father Hammond remarked, “I could bring them flour, for one thing.” He learned quickly: “You can do a lot of things with flour if you have a little oil. You can put it in a frying pan, put some grass in there for energy, like a pancake. Little spices and things like that. But it’s very easy, at least it satisfies people’s hunger in that sense.”

Fr. Hammond was recently in St. Louis to receive an award from the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic men’s fraternal organization — an award previously given to Mother Teresa, for one.

The Maryknoll priest describes how in his first years he didn’t know the language and his people didn’t know his. And he wanted to teach — Scripture, the catechism, the meaning of the sacraments — and learned quickly that you do that most effectively through actions. “‘They’ll know you are Christians by your love’ is a real thing,” he says. “I’ve baptized a lot of people. And you can tell they really want to be Christian because they have seen joy in another Christian.”

For people overwhelmed by anxiety-heightening news, Father Hammond, like the good, tender father he appears to be for his people, may help them to stay calm and to focus. He describes being “overwhelmed” himself at receiving the Knights award the night before we talked. “At 84 years old,” he said, it is giving him energy. “I see people here with deeply committed faith. . . . That helps me to realize maybe I should do a little more.”

‘They’ll know you are Christians by your love’ is a real thing, says Father Hammond. ‘I’ve baptized a lot of people. You can tell they really want to be Christian because they have seen joy in another Christian.’

That, of course, is an interview stopper. He has devoted his lives to others, shipped off in the prime of his career, so to speak, to a land completely unknown to him, where the language and the culture are foreign. He has regularly gone on covert missionary missions that could put his life in danger. When he tells you he should be doing more . . . ! But this, he says, is “the joy of the gospel” that Pope Francis talks about.

When I protest that I should be doing more — many who will read this column may feel prompted to consider the same question themselves — he said: “Well, isn’t that it? We should all do more. But know that you can do more where you are. You don’t have to go overseas to do more.” At another point he emphasizes how living our lives according to our own vocations, our own roles, faithfully and fully with love, helps people in ways we may never know.

As far as North and South Korea go, and the prospects of reconciliation, his piece of the work of “dialogue,” he says, is “people-to-people encounter.” Finding out about people’s cousins who haven’t been seen in decades or ever. He wants to see all kinds of people meeting and sharing their similar stories and sorrows — athletes, young people, and professors and other teachers. He has been able to get into North Korea with an American passport because “they know we’re trying to help people that they are unable to take care of.” And their deference to the elderly doesn’t hurt, he shares.

He talks about the humbling reality of his work: “People come to you . . . and you realize there are problems you have no solution to, but we should listen. At least listen. And maybe that’s all that the person wants you to do, because the problem remains, but at least they were able to have the consolation of talking to you; you were able to bless them and tell them to come back.”

“We’re on this journey together,” Father Hammond says. “No matter what. Because the best is yet to come. That’s what we believe. All of us believe the same thing: The best is yet to come.”

And you can hear it in his voice: He knows that it’s not only worth repeating but that it needs to be repeated, because it needs to be heeded. Whether in North Korea or North Dakota or whatever the latest presidential tweet. Whatever our circumstances, we have in common our hunger for hope.


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Into the Abyss: A Scenario for the Next Korean War

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