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[Herald Interview] A priest’s journey to sow seeds of hope

For Father Vincenzo Bordo, an Italian-born Catholic priest who has lived in Korea for 28 years, the happiest moment of the day comes at 4:30 p.m. when homeless people start to flock to his soup kitchen.

“Many of the homeless people come a long distance to have the meal -- most likely the only meal they can have for the day,” Father Bordo, wearing an apron, told The Korea Herald during an interview at Anna’s House in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province.

“People think homeless people end up being on the streets because they are lazy. But in most cases, they did nothing wrong. They are just the result of social ill. They were not born to be homeless,” he said. “Anyone could end up being homeless.”

Father Vincenzo Bordo (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Father Vincenzo Bordo (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Father Bordo, who was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1987, founded Anna’s House, a soup kitchen and shelter for homeless people, in 1998 in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis when many lost jobs and ended up on the streets.

At Anna’s House, free meals are served to about 550 people from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. every evening except for Sunday. It offers counselling, medical services and facilities where the homeless shower and get a haircut. It also runs a shelter for people who want to work and stand on their own feet.

When Father Bordo first began operating the soup kitchen, which runs on donations and government subsidies, he had to fight the perception that helping the homeless would only discourage them from getting back into society and result in a rise in homelessness in the country.

“Whether we help them or not, there will always be people who end up sleeping rough because there will always be people who are isolated, ill or less capable of catching up with the fast-changing society,” Father Bordo said.

There are about 11,000 homeless people who live on the streets, reside at shelters or slum houses as of October 2016, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

“It is the government’s responsibility to embrace and help them,” Father Bordo said.

Fascinated by the history of the Catholic Church in Korea, Father Bordo came to Korea in 1990, named himself Kim Ha-jong -- a servant of God -- and decided to devote his life to “sowing seeds of hope.” Suffering from dyslexia -- a learning disorder -- from an early age, Father Bordo said that he had been naturally drawn to people feeling “inferior” to others.

“A tree without roots is easy to tumble when the wind blows. The most important thing we do is sowing seeds of love, hope and courage to help the marginalized grow as strong trees,” Bordo, now a naturalized Korean citizen, said.

The notion led him to reach out to teenage runaways and set up a shelter for them. With the help of volunteers, Anna’s House runs a truck every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday to provide counselling services, emergency medical treatment and refreshments to teenage runaways.

“If we help them now and give them the care they need, we can lead them into the right direction,” he said. “They are walking on the edge. If we fail to rescue them today, they might go downhill tomorrow.”

According to Father Bordo, most of the runaways come from troubled homes. Many of them have divorced parents and are exposed to domestic violence. And they feel there is no one who cares about them and wait for them to come back, he said.

“What they need most is someone who trusts, welcomes and loves them,” Father Bordo said. “If they cannot change a situation or environment they are in, we should help them grow strong enough to get through difficulties.”

Citing modern-day Koreans looking unhappy and sarcastically calling the country “Hell Joseon,” he said that key to happiness is simple -- sharing what he has with others and taking even more with his empty hands.

“People seem to be unhappy because they fear their time, life, money, car and house and so on will be taken away. The meaning of life became protecting what they have,” he said. “Those around them become competitors.”

“But when we give away what we have, our hands will be emptied and we can receive even more,” he said. “Happiness comes from sharing.”