27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…
I’ve known the story since Tina and I started dating, but the reality of Tina’s grandfather being kidnapped and never heard from again hit me especially hard while we’ve been in Seoul.
For most of our time here, we’ve stayed with Tina’s grandmother and aunt, both incredible women.
Tina’s grandmother is regal in her disposition and strength, and stories of her fiery personality are well told whenever the family gathers to reminisce about the past. Halmoni (Korean for “grandmother”) walks gingerly to and fro as she’s advanced in age, but her sustained resolve is apparent whenever she speaks or reads or laughs or tells me what to do.
Halmoni’s 90 now, and it’s no surprise she’s still going strong considering she’s had to endure much in life. Not only is she the product of a generation that felt the crush of Japanese occupation, but she also experienced first-hand the disorientation that ensued thereafter with a War that would splinter the peninsula.
During the Korean War between the communist North and the democratic South (aided each by interested superpowers), families were separated and young men were killed in battle.
For halmoni, her husband was kidnapped and never heard from again. To this day, she knows nothing of his whereabouts.
That was 61 years ago.
Halmoni was left to raise three young daughters in a war-torn country as a single mom. In a male-centered society. Longing, yet not knowing, for her husband’s return.
Tina’s aunt Mi-il is small yet sturdy, gliding and speaking with a grace that immediately touches and welcomes people with unusual warmth. I told a friend the other day that Mi-il is one of the godliest people I know, but not because of how others usually define piety with certain behaviors. It’s because somehow whenever I’m with Mi-il, it’s like I’m with a saint who resembles Christ. She’s a saint who gives generously, smiles, cracks jokes, and embraces. She always embraces.
Aunt Mi-il grew up without a father, the middle of three daughters.
As a young baby during the war, Mi-il contracted tuberculosis which settled in her spine, affecting her voice and body and handicapping her for life.
This setback did nothing but steady her will, as far as I know.
Similar to the rest of the two daughters Mi-il excelled in school too, fighting her way through a country where mostly boys are prized and earning the stripes of a bona-fide leader.
Korea’s not the friendliest place for women, where expectations of wives and women as servants and helpers are the norm.
There are many people I’ve met the past few weeks who refer to Aunt Mi-il as “the boss”. She’s fought odds to be where she is now, more than I will probably ever have to face.
I’ve learned that that’s what Lee women do when pushed against the wall (I include Tina as a Lee woman). They fight like hell, and act like Jesus through the process.
Aunt Mi-il started an organization called the Korean War Abductees Family Union (KWAFU), a non-government organization (NGO) meant to bring awareness and recognition to over 80,000 South Korean Civilians who were abducted by the North Korean army during the Korean War.
Many of the 80,000 were leaders in society as civil-servants, intellectuals, engineers, doctors, etc. The North need an infusion of talent, and so targeted victims were kidnapped and never heard from again, especially as the North has denied these abductions ever took place.
Meanwhile, there are 80,000 grieving families that are proof that loved ones were indeed kidnapped. These abductions left many widowed and orphaned at one of the most destitute times in a nation’s history.
One of those abducted was Tina’s grandfather, leaving a family husbandless and fatherless. Tina’s never met him, but she looks at his picture every so often, a reminder that there is an ever-present ache over something that happened decades ago.
It’s an ache that Mi-il and so many others are trying to urge others not to forget, while finding strength in the common suffering of affected families.
It’s an ache that causes Halmoni to bow her head in prayer trusting God for comfort, just as she has for 61 years as a single mom and now a grandmom.
I have this ache now too, because I love my wife and the heritage of women from where she’s come.
These women shed tears and spur hope out of their tears, especially for those orphaned and widowed.
In so doing, these women inspire men like me to do the same.