Holy ghosts in South Korean pastor story?

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From the beginning, GetReligion has been all about ghostbusting.

Busting holy ghosts, that is. From a journalistic perspective, what are holy ghosts? Here’s how tmatt described them at GetReligion’s inception in 2004:

They are facts and stories and faces linked to the power of religious faith. Now you see them. Now you don’t. In fact, a whole lot of the time you don’t get to see them. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

I bring up holy ghosts because an otherwise highly compelling Los Angeles Times story today is haunted by them. The story concerns a South Korean pastor who devotes his life to helping North Korean defectors find freedom from that repressive state:

CHEONAN, South Korea — Kim Sung-eun let out a sigh as he checked email from a North Korean defector in China. The teenager had been sending the pastor emails for months, begging for help in escaping China.

“I live in despair every day. I need to get out of here, pastor. Please save me,” the email read. Agonized, Kim started to write a reply, his hand resting on his mouth as he selected words to comfort the teen.

Such urgent emails and calls are common for Kim, who has been helping North Koreans find freedom from their repressive Communist nation for more than a decade. Many of the defectors make it as far as China, where they live in fear of being sent back if caught by Chinese police.

As the director of Caleb Mission, a Christian organization, Kim has brought hundreds of people to South Korea who have heard about his works by word of mouth or the Internet.

He concentrates on developing more efficient escape routes, such as by boat. But he not only helps people defect, he also secures exclusive materials from North Korea that he says even South Korean intelligence doesn’t have access to.

Regular readers of  GetReligion already know where this post is headed.

The Times story does an adequate job of covering the basics of what the pastor does and — from a purely humanitarian point of view — why he does it:

When Kim was in his 30s, he was doing well as a businessman. As an ardent churchgoer, he gave his time and money to help North Korean defectors in China.

In 2000, Kim volunteered to visit the North Korea-China border region himself. There, he says, he witnessed a scene that changed his life forever.

“I saw dozens of emaciated bodies of North Koreans streaming down the Tumen River. It was too horrible to watch,” Kim said. “Right there and then, I decided to dedicate my life to defectors.”

But what’s lacking — the holy ghosts, if you will — is any exploration of Kim’s faith or what he believes or whether he wants to save the defectors spiritually as well as physically.

The story ends this way:

“It breaks my heart to know that I won’t be able to help all of the defectors who ask for help,” Kim said. “But I’ve experienced miracles many times over. As long as I don’t give up, I will be able to save at least one more precious life.”

Miracles? Hey, does that sound like a religion word to anyone? Anybody think some holy ghosts might be hiding in that remarkable choice of terms?

Unfortunately, the Times piece ends right there without the reporter — or editors — bothering to attempt ghostbusting.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • The Old Bill

    Yes, Mr. Kim could have been a shoe salesman. Why he felt called to do this work, and by Whom, should merit at least a few sentences.

    The description of bodies floating down the Tumen River reminded me that there are many, many such rivers in the world. And I recalled a gripping news report filed from the Austria-Hungary border by Bob Karasik of CBS during the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He led the report: “Today, I watched human beings hunted down in fields like rabbits.”

    Of a generation before me, he’s gone now. But he was a keenly intelligent man, a careful reporter and an elegant writer. He had a wry sense of humor, and although decades of covering the circus of human folly had made him skeptical, he never descended into cynicism. There are reporters out there now who possess such qualities, and I think we all exult when we encounter them.

  • Julia

    Today’s favorite catch phrase “social justice” seems to be responsible for many holy ghosts. To many Christians pursuing “social justice” for others is a religious undertaking. To the secular press, there are Doctors without Borders, Peace Corps, and various UN agencies who are also promoting “social justice” without any religious mandate.

    I think it doesn’t occur to many reporters to even ask about a religious motivation any more.


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