“Human beings should be as human beings...”
After trip to Nepal
Picture 1: Author (left) with Pastor KWON Taewoong
Board Member, Human Asia
Adjunct Professor, Chung-ang University
Chairman, Sorak Foundation for Arts and Culture
“Nepal? Why, you don’t even like mountains…” So went my friends every time I mentioned my planned trip to Nepal. My excuse of a response was ‘because I…promised?’ Though annoyed every time, it’s a fair query, and I ask myself why I made this promise in the first place. No doubt the official purpose of the trip had great symbolic significance: to help celebrate the opening of Human Asia’s first overseas office. We were also supposed to engage in some volunteer work, though frankly I did not want to know. After all, I’m just a board member, one of several dozen. So as the departure date neared, I couldn’t help but ask myself again “Why Nepal?”
Happily, the answers came even before the first day had passed, and in two forms. The first was, perhaps obviously, the Himalayas. No photograph or drawing can truly convey the jaw dropping magnificence of the world’s tallest mountain range. The experience of seeing the Himalayas in person cannot adequately be described in words, either, at least not mine. Sitting on a small field of a mountain cottage some 2,000 meters above sea level, we caught our breaths as the clouds cleared revealing the three Annapurna peaks (the most famous of which is the “fish tail”). They stretched out so close in front of us that they appeared to be in our own backyards and we could walk right up to them. By early morning as the sun rose slowly, not a single cloud remained, opening up the entire mountain range that extended far beyond the horizon. I can now say, yes, I have been to “heaven on earth.”
My other answer, less obvious and unexpected, came from our host, Pastor Kwon Taewoong, who had been a missionary in Nepal for the past six years. As I listened to his calm and inspiring narration of his past and how he ended up in Nepal, I knew I had been right to tag along.
Picture 2: Professor Soh and Pastor Kwon with Annapurna in background.
Nepal and Badikhel
As a country, Nepal is far from being “heaven on earth.” According to the 2011 World Bank Report, Nepal’s GDP ranked 162 out of 180, which puts it behind even Bangladesh and Rwanda, making it a heartbreakingly poor country. In choosing his missionary destination within Nepal, Pastor Kwon targeted the poorest of the poor: Badikhel. Located in a valley ten kilometers south from the center of Kathmandu, Badikhel is a village in which 30,000 Pahari people currently reside. A tribe that originated from the Himalayan highlands, the Paharis moved to Badikhel around 250 years ago to look for better life, but was never able to overcome abject poverty, perhaps victimized by Nepal’s caste system in which the Paharis found themselves at the bottom and could not escape. Illiteracy in Badikhel is high even for Nepal, with the first public school established only nine years ago. For Pastor Kwon, Bahdikhel's hardships and desperate conditions were exactly the kinds he sought, for he himself was all too familiar with them.
Life in poverty
Pastor Kwon knows poverty firsthand. His birthplace of Yeongdong in the southern part of Korea during the mid-1950s was not unlike Bahdikhel today, most likely worse. As the second among six siblings, since childhood he had to sell and deliver cookies, among other chores, to help support his household. Due to often heavy workload, he was frequently absent from school and was barely able to finish middle school. High school, much less college, was out of the question. Yet, Kwon could never abandon his deeply held desire for educational advancement, and so unbeknownst to his family, started secretly putting money aside, eventually saving enough to attend night school and earn his high school diploma.
For his military service, Kwon was drafted by the Korean paramilitary – still considered the worst destination among draftees for its tough training and harsh discipline (though Kwon notes that this experience turned out to serve him well in his Nepal duties). After the mandatory three years of military service, Kwon tried his hands at a wedding video business, a novelty at the time that led to some initial success, but was soon overwhelmed by crony competition. Kwon eventually found modest but steady work as a video director at his church, where he began rekindling his childhood dream of becoming a pastor.
In order to turn this dream into reality, Kwon decided to quit his job and enter a divinity school, and despite severe financial and personal obstacles, he managed to earn his master’s degree and fulfill the dream of becoming a pastor/missionary. His first mission was to Japan, which was comfortable but somewhat ill-suited to his skills and background. For his next mission, Pastor Kwon was to choose among China, Uzbekistan, India, and Nepal. Kwon had little hesitation in choosing Nepal, the poorest among the four and 95% Hindu. Arriving in 2006 and after spending a year in language and culture training, Pastor Kwon searched and found Badikhel, the village from his past.
Picture 3: The Badikhel Children Center
Leader of a Philanthropic Enterprise
Pastor Kwon had early on decided that the first order of business in Badikhel was to build a children’s center, and this he did so with great speed and organization. Though first and foremost a Christian minister, watching Pastor Kwon operating the Center conjured up images of a competent business leader, for he approaches his missionary work with a deep sense of pragmatism and efficiency. His “business” is philanthropy and runs his philanthropic enterprise like an experienced and highly competent CEO. As any such CEO would, Pastor Kwon is constantly striving to maximize “value,” in Kwon’s case the value of giving. One of the distinguishing marks of a successful entrepreneur is his/her ability to identify and develop a niche. In Badikhel, that niche was ‘cultural education’ as education in arts and sports had been completely absent. With barely enough resources for the basic classes, the two schools operating in Badikhel simply could not afford to offer arts and culture classes. Seeing this gap, Pastor Kwon established the children center to provide after-school classes in art, music, and sports. After two years of preparation, the children center opened in 2010 with 100 students, surpassing the initial estimate of 50. Today, the Center houses 231 students.
More recently, the Badikhel Children Center has been transformed into a cultural center with expanded programs for youth and even adults. For children and youth aged between four and eighteen, the Center offers classes in music (keyboard, guitar, drums, recorder, and changgu), fine arts, and Taekwondo. The Center also provides computer classes and foreign language classes, including English, Korean and Japanese. For adult women in the village, the Center provides classes in sewing and knitting.
Pastor Kwon’s CEO skills especially shine when it comes to hiring, budget planning and allocation, and programming. The Badikhel enterprise has been sponsored entirely by his host church in Korea, and in deference to the donors, Pastor Kwon makes every effort to ensure that these precious funds are spent in the most efficient manner: minimize cost, maximize value. In that spirit, Pastor Kwon took it upon himself (with the help of a few villagers) to build the Center’s auditorium, where the Human Asia Nepal Branch Office Opening Ceremony took place. Thanks to these multifaceted efforts, he has been able to keep the cost of education at around US$20~30 per student.
Picture 4: Auditorium built by Pastor Kwon and friends
A successful CEO always has a vision and concrete plans to support his/her enterprise, and Pastor Kwon is no exception. In response to surging demand for after-school classes, Pastor Kwon plans to build two additional children centers, as well as long-term housing for volunteers from Korea. Beginning this year, he plans to break grounds for a building complex that will house the Badikhel Center for Education and Culture, which will serve all residents of Badikhel. Construction for the library, the first structure, is expected to begin and be completed this year, pending final approval for funding.
“All souls deserve to live as human beings”
Two common traits found in an outstanding business leader are a strong set of beliefs and an absolute commitment to those beliefs. Pastor Kwon definitely qualifies on both counts. During our introductory meeting at the mountain cottage, we were able to get a glimpse into those qualities as he shared his experiences and background.
I just think it is important to do the best you can, no matter how small or worthless your work may appear. If anything, the smaller it seems, the more important it is to maintain your integrity and heart toward the work. Though I am a man of a particular religion, I do what I do because I have always believed all souls deserve to live like human beings, regardless of religious background or beliefs. I myself have always lived in poverty and so materially, I have nothing to give to the children of Badikhel. But that leaves me with the one thing to give, and that is love.
Without knowing it, Pastor Kwon has put on yet another hat, that of a human rights activist. Of all the things he could have done, Kwon chose to settle down in a world so utterly distant from his own in terms of language, culture, and religion and committed himself to bringing human dignity to that world, a desperately poor and unknown village. Even during the our few days at Badikhel, the impact he and his work has had on the consciousness of the villagers was clear to see; through constant presence and sincerity of his acts, Pastor Kwon earned the trust of Badikhel and provided a window into the possibilities that they could improve better lives and live as true human beings.
The Power of Small: we are all human rights activists
As I reflected on Pastor Kwon and his accomplishments, I felt a special sense of kinship and appreciation with fellow volunteers and staff of Human Asia, who spent several days doing various chores for the village, from fixing up rooms to picking up street garbage. To borrow Pastor Kwon’s last words before parting:
“I am deeply grateful to you, the volunteers, and gratified that you made the trip to this remote place. It could not have been an easy decision, but I can see that you are all here because you truly believe and understand the value of human dignity. There are not many like you.”
For a week at least, our small group representing Human Asia experienced what human rights activism can mean, thanks to Pastor Kwon. No, we did not change Badikhel. At best, we left a small impression on the children of Badikhel. But as Pastor Kwon had reminded us, no job or deed is too small. Indeed, small matters, a lot. When they add up, big things do happen.
Picture 5: Small acts can lead to big things
We cannot solve poverty or the myriad of human rights and social ills afflicting Nepal. In fact, we should not even try, for Nepali issues are best prioritized and handled by the Nepali people. What we can do is to facilitate and implant hope for a new future in their hearts and minds through our small acts of giving and sharing, through regular communications and contacts. The Human Asia Nepal Office provides an important conduit for that goal but it faces many hurdles. Some of these challenges, such as maintaining the constant flow of operating funds and securing additional resources for future expansion, are especially daunting. But none are insurmountable. The light has been lit; it is up to us all to make it brighter.
Picture 6: The future of Badikhel and Nepal