“Please, don’t tell me more.” It’s become a common plea from people choosing to disengage from the seemingly constant car crash that is our politics and culture. Apparently, presidential tweets about war and jokes about mushroom clouds and North Korean Pokemon armies aren’t their cup of tea. Imagine that.
When Fr. Gerard Hammond thinks of the prospect of any kind of military escalation, the word “catastrophe” is the first that comes to his mind.
The Philadelphia native says this as someone who's been to North Korea delivering medicine more than 50 times since he was first sent as a missionary to South Korea in 1960, where he lived and worked for 30 years. Among things he learned there that he never learned in his years of seminary studies: “When you’re hungry, drink water. It will trick your body into thinking you’re full.” That pointer came from a miner, and Hammond has had plenty of occasions to put it to good use.
Fr. Hammond was recently in St. Louis, Missouri, receiving an award from the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic men’s fraternal organization -- an award previously given to Mother Teresa, among others.
The priest describes how in his first years, he didn’t know the language of his Korean flock. But he wanted to teach -- scripture, the catechism, the meaning of the sacraments -- and he learned quickly that action was the way to go. “'They’ll know you are Christians by your love' is a real thing,” he says. “I’ve baptized a lot of people. And you can tell they really want to be Christian because they have seen joy in another Christian,” he explains.
He describes being “overwhelmed” himself, by receiving the KOC award the night before we talked. He said, “at 84 years old,” it is giving him energy ... “because I see people here with deeply committed faith ... that helps me to realize maybe I should do a little more.”
That, of course, is an interview-stopper. When a man who has devoted his life to others, shipped off in the prime of his career, so to speak, to a land completely unknown to him, when a man who has regularly gone on covert missionary trips that put his life in danger tells you he should be doing more! But this, he says, is “the joy of the Gospel” that Pope Francis talks about.
When I protest that I should be doing more -- many who will read this column may feel prompted to consider the same question themselves -- he said: “Well, isn’t that it? We should all do more. But know that you can do more where you are. You don’t have to go overseas to do more.” At another point, he emphasizes how living our lives according to our own vocations, our own roles, faithfully and fully with love, helps people in ways we may never know.
As far as North and South Korea and the prospects of reconciliation between the two countries, his piece of the work is “people-to-people encounter.” Finding out about cousins split by the border who haven’t seen each other in decades, or ever. He has been able to get into North Korea with an American passport because “they know we’re trying to help people that they are unable to take care of.”
He talks about the humbling reality of his work: “People come to you ... and you realize there are problems you have no solution to, but we should listen. At least listen. And maybe that’s all that the person wants you to do, because the problem remains, but at least they were able to have the consolation of talking to you; you were able to bless them and tell them to come back.”
“We’re on this journey together,” Fr. Hammond says, “no matter what. Because the best is yet to come. That’s what we believe. All of us believe the same thing: The best is yet to come.”
And you can hear the assurance in his voice -- he knows this message is not only worth repeating, but needs repeating, because it needs to be heeded. Whether in North Korea or North Dakota, or wherever the latest presidential tweet comes from. Whatever our circumstances, we have in common our hunger for hope.