Fr Vincenzo Bordo, chef for love in South Korea
A missionary with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, he has been serving the poor near Seoul for over 30 years, in a highly competitive society that refuses to see the least.
Seoul (AsiaNews) – When he got on a plane for Seoul in 1990, many wondered how an Italian missionary could be useful in South Korea, one of the most advanced countries in the world with an already lively local Catholic community.
Father Vincenzo Bordo and a confrere were the first missionaries of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to set foot on Korean soil, where Catholics today are 11 per cent of the population.
"That day, on the airport tarmac, I sensed that a new story was about to begin,” Fr Bordo writes in his autobiography, “Chef per amore” (Chef for love), recently published by the Centro Volontari Sofferenza.
Even after 30 years of pastoral service, Fr Bordo’s main activity is serving lonely senior citizens, the homeless and the poor at the soup kitchen of Anna’s House in Seongnam, a city just south of Seoul.
When he set off for South Korea in 1992, the clergyman – from Piansano, a small settlement in Tuscia (Viterbo province) – was told that there was no poverty in that country, even the bishop said so.
When he met Fr Pae Pedro, a local priest, he was invited to go to the parish of Shing-un, home to about 5,000 Catholics. "There are many poor people there," Fr Pae told him. “I'll help you fit in it."
The following year, the municipality tasked the parish with running a first soup kitchen, called the "House of Peace". "In the afternoon I joined Sister Mariangela who was doing apostolate in the poor neighbourhoods of the city to understand, learn and know the reality of the poor in the city, and there were, plenty of them!"
Quite simply, South Korean society did not want to see them; for this reason, the authorities did not even see the need to finance the activities of the missionaries. Much of the work was financed through donations from Italy by friends of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
"I realised that in modern, rich and consumer-oriented societies, if a person, in addition to the eyes under the forehead, does not also have a big heart, open and attentive to those who pass by, he will never be able to notice the suffering of others that afflict our cities," Fr Bordo said.
likewise, everyone said that there were no illiterate people in South Korea; but even in this case the missionary's experience with senior citizens proved otherwise.
"Even when I started a dyslexia support programme in 2002, the doctors told me that there were no people with dyslexia in Korea," explained the Oblate missionary, who is dyslexic himself.
Born in 1957, during his years of study in the seminary (first in the minor seminary of Montefiascone and then in the regional seminary of La Quercia), dyslexia was not yet spoken of in Italy.
The only support available to the future priest was his mother’s love, and her urging him to repeatedly read the texts.
Anna's House is also dedicated to a mother. In 1998, Father Vincenzo, no longer director of the House of Peace, found himself out of a job, like many South Koreans, in the year of the Asian financial crisis, which hit the country hard.
Providence brought Matthew Oh Eun-yong, owner of a large restaurant in the city, to his door. "He said to me: 'As you know, the economic crisis is reducing many people to poverty. Every morning I find an endless line of men looking for work. I know you care for the poor. If you wish, I will provide you with a part of the kitchen and provide everything you need.'"
Matthew had only one request: that the soup kitchen be named after his mother, Anna, who fled North Korea during the 1950-53 war, but who even as a refugee always tried to share something with those who had nothing to eat.
And so, for 30 years, the priest (who on his arrival in South Korea could not stand rice and even less kimchi, the spicy fermented cabbage at the base of the Korean diet) put on his apron every morning to cook together with volunteers.
Today, more than 500 people come to Anna's House, 70 per cent to receive their only meal of the day. By the end of 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of patrons reached 990.
But Father Vincenzo's activities do not end here. After noticing some teenagers among the regulars, he became curious and went looking for them on the streets of the city, discovering that in most cases they were runaways from troubled families.
Today, the younger ones find room in family homes, while the older ones are directed towards work reintegration programmes thanks to the presence of a factory that allows them to put money aside because food and lodging are covered by the parish.
In 2019, however, struck by the high number of young people who remained on the street, the priest decided to promote the Azit project, a "bus looking for kids”. "We bought a large bus and started going around from 4 to 12 pm in search of boys and girls who were wandering the streets of the city."
Today Azit provides refreshments, but also a "field hospital to treat open wounds and offer lots of consolation for so many abused young people,” Fr Vincenzo said. “I am deeply convinced that young people, in addition to needing a safe place, need a lot of affection and love."
Fr Vincent's Korean name is Kim Ha Jong, which means "servant of God." "I came to Korea with the sole desire to love Jesus and serve the least."
The City of Seoul seems to have rediscovered this vocation as well. The capital has received several awards for the progressive policies implemented by local administrations with the aim of reducing economic inequalities within society, known for its hypercompetitiveness.
According to Fr Vincenzo, from 1993 to 2022, Anna’s House was responsible for “3,119,137 meals, 20,905 health interventions, 1,060 dental treatments, and 707 legal consultations, but above all a lot of respect and love for the people abandoned in the streets of a very rich but inattentive city."
Now the missionary, who has not yet found another priest to pass on the chef's apron, hopes in fact to see Anna's House close down.
"I dream of a society without social welfare structures because there is no longer a need for them. I also dream of the day when I will go to our House of Anna and since there are no more beggars at the door and in the streets, I will be able to close the doors and throw the key away."
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