A Few Spoonfuls of Soil from South Korea

In 2004 I attended an international meeting of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Inchon, South Korea. I spent a month there with about 40 Notre Dame Sisters from all over the world. It was a wonderul experience.

But before I left for the meeting, a friend of mine, Sister Regina Marie Zeleznik, asked me if I would do her a big favor while in Korea. Her older brother Jim had been killed in South Korea in 1952. He was only twenty at the time. She was fifteen. She asked if I would bring back some Korean soil for her. “It would mean a lot to me and my family,” she said. I replied, “I would be honored to do that for you.” Anticipating my yes, she quickly produced a small plastic bag and white plastic spoon. I tucked them into my suitcase. (Note: Jim was killed on October 24, 1952; his funeral was January 10, 1953. I can’t imagine the pain of waiting that long for his body to come home).

Once in Korea I was busy with meetings most of the time. But one day we had the unique privilege of visiting the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the 155-mile border between North and South Korea. The zone is a “no man’s land” about two miles wide and is supposedly the most heavily fortified border in the world. (I wrote about my DMZ experience in my book, In Steadfast Love, chapters 19 and 20.) I thought this place, a visible reminder of the terrible conflict between the two Koreas, would be the perfect place to get my soil.

After eating lunch with the other sisters, I went off by myself and near some bushes I stooped down and scooped up a few spoonfuls of soil, praying for Sister’s brother as I did. As I was sealing the bag, a young Korean Sister noticed me and, curious, asked me what I was doing. I explained. As I told her the story, her eyes welled up with tears. So did mine. I thought: this Korean Sister wasn’t even born yet when the Korean War started. I was only 6. Yet here we both were, profoundly moved by the story of this one casualty of that war. (U.S. casualties were 36,516 deaths and 8,176 MIA. Total casualties on both sides including civilians is an estimated 2,000,000!) As someone has wisely said, “You can’t appreciate the ocean until you have experienced a single glass of water.”

On the bus ride back to Inchon, that same sister asked for the microphone and, in halting English, announced something like this: “We Korean Sisters know that some relatives of the American Sisters fought here during the war. And some of those relatives died here. We Korean Sisters would like to say ‘thank you’ to all the Americans who helped us preserve our freedom, the freedom we still possess today.”

When I gave Sister Regina the small bag of Korean soil, she kissed it and thanked IMG_1697me over and over again. Regina died of cancer three years later, reunited in eternity with the brother she loved so much. Today when I reflect on this story, these thoughts come to mind:

A few spoonfuls of soil…from a country on the other side of the world…This small bag of earth…seemingly insignificant, but not so, not so….A dear brother killed in war decades ago…but still remembered, missed, and treasured by his family—especially his “teenage sister”…For her these few spoonfuls of soil from the country in which he died, somehow bring him closer to her. The soil erases the years; it eases some of her pain…Korea, a country still divided today… And wars still being waged in other countries today…And loved ones still being carried home in flag-draped coffins…O God of Peace, help us!  Help us to learn how to make peace rather than make war. Help us to learn that soil is meant not to bury our dead before their time; but soil is meant for sowing…for growing…for life. Amen.


What are your thoughts and your prayers?

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  1. maggie moore ssj on January 28, 2013 at 10:11 am


    • Melannie Svoboda SND on January 28, 2013 at 2:12 pm

      Hi again, Maggie! All soil is precious, isn’t it–especially if you live (as you do) in a town called Paradise! Melannie

  2. Nancy Duke on January 28, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    I have begun sharing Sunflower Seeds with those that will benefit. Thank you for your great insights in the little things. Nancy

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on January 28, 2013 at 2:10 pm

      And thank you, Nancy, for sharing my blog with others! God bless you! Sr. Melannie

  3. mary james on January 28, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    How beautiful! Thanks so much! Brings back poignant
    memories of my brother, brothers-in-law–all part of
    the Korean conflict.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on January 28, 2013 at 2:10 pm

      Dear Mary James, This “war” (never really declared a war) is sometimes called the “forgotten war.” When I was a small child, if my father tucked me into bed at night, he always made me pray for “the soldiers.” Years later I realized he was referring to the Korean Conflict. Thank you for writing again! Melannie

  4. Mary Day on January 28, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    What a lovely tribute to Sr. Regina Marie and to peace. Sister Regina Marie was my oldest son’s principal when he began first grade at St. Michael School in Independence. Your thoughts remind me of her kindness to him and my family. Thank you for using words that help me treasure the memory of loved ones.

    Blessings to you,

    Mary Day

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on January 28, 2013 at 2:07 pm

      Dear Mary, I’m so glad you knew Sister Regina personally. Yes, she was a kind and gentle woman, yet strong. We are both richer for having known her. Thank you for responding! Sr. Melannie

  5. Larry on January 28, 2013 at 3:52 pm

    Sometimes we need to speak peace. Sometimes we need to show peace. And sometimes we simply need to be peace. I too was moved to tears by the story and the wonderful connections it acknowledged. May peace continue to flow through the hearts of all who reach out in love to others.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on January 28, 2013 at 4:42 pm

      Dear Larry, I appreciated what you said so well: speak…show…be peace. I always loved those words in that beautiful song: “let there be peace on earth and let it begin with ME….” I might have said this before on my blog, but the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, said when he first became involved in the 60’s “peace movement,” he began by closing doors more softly….Thanks again, Larry! Melannie

  6. Joan Campagna on January 28, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    Thank you Sr Melannie. I am really enjoying your stories and insights. I can just picture you gathering that soil for your friend and packing it away in your luggage. That must have meant alot to her.
    My dad was in the Korean “War” and I was always fascinated my his stories and pics. Unfortunately we still are having problems with N Korea. May there be peace there one day.

    Joan Campagna

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on January 28, 2013 at 8:21 pm

      Dear Joan, God bless your father for his service in Korea….You also remind us that the current situation with North Korea is something for all of us to pray for. Thank you! Sr.Melannie

  7. Mary Ellen beebe on January 28, 2013 at 7:43 pm

    I look forward to every Monday morning. Sister your words and reflections touch my soul…they give me a great deal to meditate on.
    You truly share the peace of Jesus.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on January 28, 2013 at 8:19 pm

      Thank you, Ellen. I’m glad my simple reflections can somehow resonate with your soul….Melannie

  8. Patti Shea on January 30, 2013 at 6:03 pm


  9. Pat Sylvester on January 31, 2013 at 3:56 pm

    Thank you Melannie for this touching story and also for the remembrance of Regina Marie. I think of her so often and having lived and ministered with her we shared much together. My love and admiration of her continues to deepen. I can still picture her beautiful smile and can imagine the look of gratitude and love on her face when you gave her the soil. Thank you for too for “moving heaven and earth” and making such meaningful connections in so many ways!

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on January 31, 2013 at 4:02 pm

      And thank you, Pat, for your affirmation of Regina Marie’s goodness (which resembles your own!) Melannie

  10. Bridget Holy on February 5, 2013 at 10:12 pm

    Very good. I know I did not get this emailed to me I would have remembered. next Monday I will make an extra special look for “Sunflower Seeds” if I do not get it I may have to sign up again.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on February 6, 2013 at 7:24 am

      Yes, Bridget, if you don’t get it, try signing up again. Then let me know if that doesn’t work. Thanks again for being persistent! Sr. Melannie

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