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Blessings amid the Korean War

Sixty years have passed since North Korea launched a surprise attack on its other half and shook the nation with sheer terror.

During the three-year-long war, more than three million people were killed, including 54,000 Americans. Ten times as many people lost their homes. Many books have been written about the evil of the war and the destruction it caused in a faceless country in the Far East six decades ago.

But looking back, I, a Korean-American, am compelled to realize that the almighty might have had a special plan for some people, including our family.

About this time of year in 1950, Pusan, my hometown off the Pacific coast, had turned into a boiling pot as the South Korean government moved in and promoted the area to the temporary capital of South Korea. All school buildings were confiscated by the government or the military. Our elementary school moved to a mountain slope where no roof protected us from rain or the merciless sun, while the military turned our three-story school building into a makeshift hospital.

So many refugees were pouring into the port city that the government ordered all homeowners to make room for refugees in their homes in the spirit of sharing the national tragedy equally. Our parents accepted two families, three adults and two children, and they moved into our large traditional Korean home surrounded by a brick wall. But some nights, strangers invited themselves into our courtyard rather than sleeping on the street. Fights broke out among them, and our shoes, clothes from the clothesline and any edible things from the kitchen were stolen.

The Pusan Catholic dioceses cried, too, asking churchgoers to please help shelter homeless religious men and women. Our parents, devout Catholics, decided to help the diocese, probably to secure their tickets to heaven later on, rather than tolerating thieves and trouble makers. They might also have thought that their four boys and three girls would be safer with religious folks instead of the war-battered refugees. The refugees were quickly replaced by two priests and six nuns in civilian clothes.

At age 9, I had no clue that a simple home could turn into the temple of Jesus, but that was exactly what was happening.

Workers came in and pounded nails into the walls of the front room, making it into a chapel with a wooden crucifix. Furniture from Father’s office was transported to the storage room, which turned into a rectory after new straw mats were laid onto the floor. The sisters settled into Father’s office that was now empty except for a stack of sleeping mats my mother had provided for them.

Then came what I’d call spiritual shock.

We kids were ordered to attend one of the Masses celebrated by the two priests every morning before going to school. We had thought walking 40 minutes to the mountain school was an ordeal, without mentioning the condition of the school on bare dirt. But now, we had to sit through a Mass celebrated in Latin first. But at the time democracy was not yet introduced to us, all we could was obey our dictators.

Confessing sins every week was worst of all that I endured as a child.

Once the priest lectured me to tell Jesus only what I’ve sinned, instead of telling the sins of my numerous siblings.

How could I have sinned without them? They made my life absolutely miserable.

Sometimes, feeling pressured, I made up sins, but the priest always knew what I was fabricating. He’d chuckle and say, “No, you didn’t steal money from your teacher!” or “You couldn’t have kicked the neighbor’s dog that’s bigger than you!” Our mother, who had an extraordinary ability to hear every little noise in the house, must have heard my confession, because she said that not telling the truth to Jesus was sin itself.

But as the story goes, God must have known what he was doing.

While we girls sang hymns with the sisters at Sunday masses, my three brothers served as altar boys, jabbering in Latin, ringing bells at the right time, pouring the blood of Christ into the chalice, and sometimes finishing the leftover wine from the chalice when the service ended.

Two Christmases and two Easter Sunday Masses were celebrated in our home church, and some neighbors joined us instead of walking to the parish church two miles away.

A decade later, my eldest brother took the vow of priesthood and the three girls, including myself, became professional musicians.

For many years afterwards, our mother took pride in telling people that, in the midst of the devastating war, God blessed us abundantly, turning our home into his temple.

I still wonder about it.