We all know that it is not easy to perform good deeds necessary to create a better society for all. Antonio Kwak Byung-eun, who was one of the first graduates of the College of Medicine at Chung-Ang University, has devoted his life to helping patients and the underprivileged. Together with his wife who is also a Chung-Ang University’s College of Medicine graduate, he has established a social welfare community called ‘Kalgurysarangchon’ which facilitates and cares for the elderly and the disabled. Kwak provides treatment without payment for patients who could not afford medical care and has provided free check-ups to many through charity organizations, and has also treated people with disabilities in his clinic. He has run a soup kitchen and shelter for the homeless in South Korea for years that has been praised by many. The Asan Foundation selected Kwak Byung-eun, to be the recipient of its 25th annual Asan Social Welfare Award.
On 5th of February CAH had the privilege of interviewing Kwak Byung-eun at his private office at the Kalgurysarangchon social welfare facility. On the front porch of the building is a wooden sign that has the word ‘Jasungdang’ engraved into it, which means ‘a small dwelling that lets an individual reflect on one self’. When we stepped inside we could catch a glimpse of the life Kwak Byung-eun has pursued in his attempt to carry his own precepts into practice. The interior was nothing like the stereotypical doctor’s office. In this little space there were shelves filled with novels and diaries and an area in the corner of the office was dedicated to calligraphy and the space was decorated with framed works of art he created. You could tell that he kept himself occupied with things he loves to do when he had the spare time.
Then Kwak described how the biggest influence on him from his childhood was his dad, who also dedicated his profession life to being a doctor, running his own hospital, and helping the needy through volunteer service. This is how Kwak developed his dream of becoming a doctor himself and helping others. Kwak followed in his father’s footsteps and, from an early age, actively sought out facilities for the disabled and elderly to provide them free healthcare services. “My grandmother and father played a very influential role in my life. My grandmother was a devout Catholic and she always wanted me to become a priest to do good for mankind. My father was a medical practitioner at Hyeonjeo-dong, which used to be a well-known poor hillside village. I grew up seeing him conferring kindness to the poor people who were not able to afford their medical expenses. As my father was very strict when it came to parenting, seeing the genial disposition that he showed us when he was helping the needy was truly inspirational. Later on when I was deciding what my career path was going to be my father dissuaded me from going to college for medicine, as it was too arduous of a job. However I was eager to become a doctor to help those in need”.
When Kwak was asked what kind of student he was at Chung-Ang University he answered that he was like any other premedical course student when he was a sophomore. “I liked to drink with my friends and would cram for my exams staying up the night before like any other premedical student nowadays”, he added, “I was not really into studying for the classes all the time, but I was interested in learning many other things so I kept busy reading books and learning new languages”. However we could learn about his ambitious spirit when he told us a story. “One time when I was a pre-medical student I was staying up cramming for an exam with my friend at my house. We got talking and questioned ourselves ‘What are we doing with our lives and what kind of doctors are we going to be by just cramming for exams the day before an exam?.’ We were on the same track in our thinking so we decided not to take the test and instead to repeat the course and to learn the material properly. However on the day of the exam a call came to my parents, and my father was enraged at the fact that I hadn’t taken the exam. I was able to retake the exam but my friend, on the other hand, stood strong by his terms and did not take the exam. As a result, he flunked a year and graduated one year after.” Even until this day Kwak has stayed in touch with this friend and in fact they went to dinner together after our interview to celebrate Kwak’s birthday.
His newly released book is called <1.4 million bowls of rice> and is a modern version of the ‘Feeding of the multitude’, which refers to the miracle done by Jesus that is described in the Christian gospels. The title also alludes to the approximate number of meals that Kwak has provided over the years for the needy. This book written by Kwak is composed of journals he had written beginning over 25 years ago when he first opened up his own hospital, and ending with ones he recently wrote when he decided to close the hospital. He explains “I always jot down things that come to my mind and as those little writings have piled up over the last 25 years I wanted to make them into a book. You could say that this book has captured the actual emotions I felt at that time. I wanted to read through the book to think retrospectively about the days in the past 25 years at our hospital and at Kalgurysarangchon. From this year onwards I plan to go on holidays overseas for a month each year.” he added.
After reading Kwak’s book, which is full of anecdotes about his experiences of volunteering service to people in need, CAH was amazed at his perseverance in achieving so many things. When he was asked how he has kept striving to achieve his goal of becoming a doctor with “historical and philosophical consciousness, to see our humanity and society through a broad field of vision”, as he had said as a student at Chung-Ang University, he explains how he has made this possible. “When I was a sophomore in college we were taking the Introduction to Surgery course. On the first orientation Professor Yoon Duck-sun gave a significant lecture that I still remember to this day. He told us that most students at admission interviews say that they want to be like Schweitzer and help humanity. However, he added that not many students keep that will, and when they graduate, they chase wealth and honor. When I heard that this was the case for many students I didn’t want to become sidetracked and lose the values that I held strongly when I first wanted to become a doctor. So I thought about the ways I could keep my will strong to do great service to humanity. I formed a firm conception that I would have to steadily dispense gratis to people in need. I went on volunteer medical service every year with other students from our school in the holidays from then on. Even after graduating when I was an intern and a resident with a busy schedule I still wanted to do volunteer service. So, I visited St. Lazarus Village which is a settlement facility for leprosy patients located in Anyang-si. I was given a nickname, the ‘Saturday doctor’ by the people at the village, as I helped out every Saturday. The Great Dentist Kang Dae-gun, who was recently recognized for his good deeds by Pope Francis, was the ‘Sunday doctor’ that visited every Sunday”. Many other doctors and people kept themselves distant from the facility, as many worried that the disease might be contagious back in those days. It was astonishing that Kwak would devote the little spare time he had as a resident to help these people. He would even help a leprosy patient with renal calculus to have the surgery at his father’s hospital, as leprosy patients were often rejected by most hospitals.
During Kwak’s time serving in the military as an army surgeon in Gangwon-do Wonju, he devoted himself to service at various places including the Love House, which is a nursing home. He would give up the time he had that he could have spent visiting his wife and family in Seoul to do good deeds at welfare facilities. Occasionally he would sit beneath the moonlight and ponder about why he always underwent so much trouble to do good deeds. “I didn’t visit my family on the weekends and instead spent time helping the people in need at these welfare communities. I questioned what volunteer service meant to me. Why was I doing it? I had my children and wife to take care of. When I thought about it long enough I came up with the first answer, which was my piety in Catholicism. It was God’s royal summons to me. However, this didn’t completely answer my question. I attended Sangji University’s Social Welfare graduate school and earned a Master’s degree and Catholic University’s Ph.D. course to be more knowledgeable in the field of social welfare. One of my professors alluded that self-contentment was among my reasons of helping others. I was doing these things because I liked to. However, when I was writing one of the papers, I came across the theory of ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’. It placed the need for self-actualization on top of a pyramid which includes esteem, love, safety and physiological needs, which were placed at the base. I was so excited when I found out this fact I yelled ‘Eureka’!”. “What a man can be, he must be.” This quotation forms the basis of the perceived need for self-actualization. Maslow describes this level as the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be. This need is believed to be the most complex as one has to master the previous needs in order to achieve it. “When I was studying Asian Cultures at Sungkyunkwan University I learnt that the core of Confucianism is humanism. I comprehended that my innate humanism seemed to be a little more prominent than others.” These were the answers Kwak has discovered and he believes that there are more reasons that he hasn’t come across yet.
When he was asked what the most important aspect of volunteer service was, he answered, “I believe your mental attitude is the most important when it comes to helping others.” His story of opening a Wednesday hospital in the Wonju’s red-light district helped us understand his mental attitude. “Every being is equal and it is most cardinal to understand and respect people’s dignity when you are helping others. If you do not possess this attitude, doing service for others does not mean anything.”
Kwak never wanted to let others know about his service and he refused to take any awards or prizes that were offered to him from many organizations. However, the Asan Award was an event to honor him and to give inspiration to a younger generation by illustrating this life-long work he has done. In Kwak’s speech on receiving the 25th Asan Award he attributed praise to his supporters and the workers in Kalgurysarangchon. “The most worthwhile experience of my service is when Kalgurysarangchon feels like a real family. A physically challenged woman whom we have helped since 1991 in our community is still here with us now, and the experience of aging together and seeing the homeless that used to come to our shelters re-structuring their lives is the most rewarding experience. They now come to help others at the shelter. Seeing a family form without realizing it was happening really feels special.”
Reading the list of the organizations Kwak has formed during his lifetime will amaze anyone. He has always persevered even when he faced hardships in making his dreams and plans become reality. Once he has pondered long and deep enough on a decision he makes certain that he stays determined to achieve it. When we asked about his ambitions he says he would like to be an affectionate father and husband to his family. “I would like to keep doing volunteer work and keep thinking about others before myself. Even though students might dislike what I say now, I advise students to take a moment to think about others and to put their concerns before their own. As I have described in my book, it doesn’t take material things and money to help others. It can just be sincerity towards the people in need that makes a huge impact.”
Interviewing Antonio Kwak Byung-eun has helped CAH become more aware of the importance of dealing justly with all and allowing the fruition of sincere hopes. We are pleased that we were able to be introduced to this miracle of obligation to service. Kwak is an inspirational individual that touched our souls and we wish him all the best in the future.< 저작권자 © 중앙헤럴드 무단전재 및 재배포금지 >