The Prostitutes Will Go Into Heaven Before Us

Sr Angela Battung RGS

Sr Angela Battung, RGS has been a missionary most of her life. Now in Canada with older people, she looks back on her difficult years in Korea and the frustrating ministries she was involved in. Strangely enough it was at work with the prostitutes that grace almost became tangible and it was this work which she remembers with joy.

One of my first ministries in Korea was probably the most frustrating in my life. It was at a large American Base. I worked at the Chaplain’s office as a marriage counselor to American airmen marrying Korean women. Actually my work was to prepare the couples for the Sacrament of Matrimony. The women mostly were bar girls or prostitutes who wanted to go to the land of “unimagined wealth and luxury” or they just wanted free access to PX (imported) goods. The men were no better. Mostly they were those who never went to Mass or Services and cursed freely, hanging out at the Air Base Main Gate or the periphery. Some wanted to marry anyone they could use for black market. “We need an Asian, preferably Korean for the family whore house. Korean women are exotic spice for the flesh trade,” they would say. They had a variety of reasons for marrying. Some disgusting, others unbelievable, most were ‘business deals’. They were going to use each other. They both knew it, but who cared anyway? As long as they made money out of the union!

Bogus marriage

I told the chaplain, a tall, kind Catholic priest, it would be a mockery of the Sacrament of Matrimony to marry people who didn’t even believe it. I recommended a sort of marriage preparation course or orientation to the American lifestyle for the Korean women and understanding Korean women for the American men. They could get married elsewhere but not in our church. The priest chaplain and I came to an agreement.

American wannabes

The women, who did not speak English and could barely read and write, came with glossy and expensive American women’s magazines. They showed me pictures of big, beautiful Hollywoodmansions, expensive furniture, clothing, jewelry. They asked me to help them order the goods. I explained that it was not part of my job. I tried to tell them about the dangers of materialism. I also told them the truth – most of the young, almost teenaged GIs were not rich but just ordinary Americans. They would not believe me. I was “a nun and out-of-this-world!”

Consolation in the base

The bright and meaningful moments for me were the daily Masses at the tiny air base chapel or in our school, the communication with the staff at the Chaplain’s office. We were Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, black and white, male and female, priests, nuns, lay persons, military. We accepted and helped each other, trying our best to be Christians in a military base, always on the alert in case war broke out.

Concern for young women

The Good Shepherd Sisters to which I belong have always focused on abandoned women, single mothers and young women in trouble. Korea is no exception and my congregation asked me to change gear and work more closely with this group; similar but quite different from my work at the base. The women I was going to minister to were live-in partners of the GIs and had children calledhyon-no-rah or mixed blood. These children were not accepted; in fact they are rejected by a society that is dominantly Buddhist and a nation that prided itself in its purity and dislike for foreigners. One of our American sisters helped the children get adopted or sponsored by good and caring American families. I took care of the mothers who naturally wanted a secure future for their children but who grieved over having to give them up.

Korean home

We gathered in a tiny room, rented by one of the mothers. It was her home – receiving room, bedroom, dining room, recreation room, guestroom, all-purpose room. A coal briquette burning under the floor called ondol kept the room and the people in it warm, too warm sometimes, during winter. Since I was guest of honor, I was asked to sit right on top of the spot where the coal was burning. Occasionally one of the mothers would rub my hands and feet to keep my blood circulating. I wasn’t used to sitting cross-legged on the floor for a long time.

Eager searchers of God

In a corner of the room, there was a small wooden crucifix, strands of plastic flowers around its neck. A picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary was pasted on the wall. These were gifts from a missionary. Their love and reverence for Jesus and his mother were very touching. They wanted me to tell them about the Good News and tell stories of the miracles of healing and Jesus forgiving sinners. The Holy Spirit was pouring graces upon them and they were open and receptive.

The days following confirmed the presence of the Holy Spirit among them. They were kind to each other, to me, to the Korean police who insulted them and treated them with contempt. They grieved with dignity when a child went off for adoption or sponsorship. They shared with me their hopes, their joys, their problems and their love for God. It was the Church of the Acts of the Apostles all over again. These were called whores and prostitutes. They were rejected, abused, exploited. They knew who they were and they turned to God, sure of His love and mercy and forgiveness. They experienced God’s saving grace and compassion and they were compassionate.

I don’t know if I made a difference in their lives but I am very certain they made a big difference in mine.