Life can change in a moment. South Korean pastor Lee Jong-Rak had such a moment when his son, Eun-man, was born with cerebral palsy and a severely disfigured face in the mid-1980s. Lee sold his home and his family business to pay his son’s medical bills, and moved his small family into the hospital. Eun-man—whose name means “full of God’s grace”—was given only months to live.
But Eun-man was—and is—resilient. He is now 29 and one of the many disabled whom Lee cares for in his home in Seoul, South Korea. Lee’s experience as a father to one disabled child inspired him to become the father of many. He is the man behind the “baby box,” a method of saving unwanted children in Seoul, where hundreds of babies are abandoned in trash cans and public restrooms and on the streets each year, and the subject of a new documentary, “The Drop Box,” just released by Kindred Image and Focus on the Family.
Raising the Story’s Profile
Life can change in a moment. In June 2011, while eating cereal, Brian Ivie, a film student at the University of California, came across a front-page profile of Lee in the Los Angeles Times. Inspired by the story of the South Korean pastor tending an “unwanted flock” and mindful of how fleeting news can be, Ivie determined to bring Pastor Lee’s story to a broader audience. He contacted Lee and asked if he could make a documentary about his work. Lee responded that although he did not know what a documentary was, Ivie could come to his home in Seoul for a visit.
Ivie raised funding for his project on Kickstarter, and six months later, he and a small film crew headed to South Korea.
“We need stories like this one…to assert truth, that there are miracles, that heroes exist, and that love endures even amid daily tragedy,” he told his funders. Little did he know how deeply Lee’s story would touch him. Ivie set out to make a short documentary film contrasting South Korea’s culture of physical perfection with Lee’s care for the physically defective, but he became a Christian along the way and began to produce instead a feature-length film on how Lee’s care for disabled orphans is a reflection of God’s love.
Dignity, Love, and Beauty for All
This month, “The Drop Box” was screened for three nights at over 800 theaters in the U.S. and Canada. (If you missed it in theatres, it will soon be available on DVD.) The second film in Focus on the Family’s “Reclamation” series, “The Drop Box” is a story of hope, highlighting the dignity of every human life, no matter how unwanted, and the beauty of every human body, no matter how broken.
“The Drop Box” chronicles Lee’s life and work. Lee, the pastor of Jusarang Community Church in a working-class neighborhood of Seoul, has been taking in unwanted infants since 2009. Lee built his “baby box” after getting a call early one chilly autumn morning. “In front of the door,” said the voice on the other line. When he and his wife went to their front door, they found a baby, cold to the touch, in a cardboard box. Lee worried about what would have happened had they not found her until later.
So he got out his tools and built a heated box on the side of his church, lining it with blankets, rigging it with a bell, and affixing to it a sign that reads, “This is a facility for the protection of life. If you can’t take care of your disabled babies, don’t throw them away or leave them on the street. Bring them here.”
He did not expect people to use it, even praying, “God, please don’t let any baby be abandoned in the world. Only if the child’s life is being threatened. Or if the baby box is their last hope.”
As it turns out, the baby box is the last hope for many. In the past several years, South Korea has seen a rise in infant abandonment, the result of a culture that shames physical deformity and stigmatizes single motherhood, as well as an unintended consequence of a law passed in 2012 requiring mothers to register births and restricting international adoptions.
Since 2009, Lee’s baby box has saved 600 children, some of them deposited there only hours after birth. Lee and his staff generally have up to 20 children in their care, and he and his wife have adopted ten (the maximum number of children South Koreans can adopt). They receive a new child through the box every few days, provide initial care for the child, then hand him over to the police, who help place the child in an orphanage.
The film consists of interviews with Lee, his staff, and other key voices in the conversation about child abandonment and adoption in South Korea, as well as footage of the many sweet children under Lee’s care—an elementary-school-aged boy with deformed fingers who becomes class president, a toddler with Downs Syndrome whom Lee describes as “full of grace.” Most of the film is in Korean (with subtitles), so at times, it is slow; and some of the production elements are overly sentimental. But the story it tells is powerful.
‘A Modern-Day Mother Teresa’
Pastor Lee has literally changed and saved hundreds of lives through his “baby box” and his ministry. He is, in the words of Focus on the Family’s director of community outreach, Kelly Rosati, a “modern day Mother Teresa,” humble, sacrificial, sincere.
Rosati tells me that Focus on the Family hopes to raise a million dollars through the film, to support both Lee’s efforts in South Korea and their own domestic adoption efforts in the United States. There are currently 150 million orphans around the world, and 100,000 children in foster care and eligible for adoption in the United States.
Rosati says she has already been hearing stories of “The Drop Box’s” effects. Some viewers have told her that they had been contemplating adoption and the film confirmed that they should adopt; others have told her that the film has inspired them to support adoptive families.
“The Drop Box” is a poignant portrait of “the least of these,” those that society deems dispensable. Yet, as Lee says of those in his care, “They’re not the unnecessary ones in the world. God sent them to earth with a purpose. Disabled children teach many people, change many people, and help people reflect upon themselves, which is why they are the educators of society.”
“The Drop Box” reminds us that out of the deepest places of hurt come hope, that every life has dignity, and that it is what we make of the life-changing moments that determines how they shape our lives. As the father of a severely disabled child, Lee could have become resentful and isolated. Instead, Eun-man’s life catalyzed him to serve and love other disabled children in South Korea. His story reminds us, as Ivie said, that there are miracles, there are heroes, and love endures. Someday, perhaps we will live in a world where baby boxes are not needed. Until then, we need stories—and examples—like Pastor Lee’s.
To support Lee’s ministry and adoptive families, visit www.thedropboxfilm.com.