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 me 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?