Fr Donal O’Keeffe: Faith empowering workers

Noel Mackey recalls some of the work done by Fr Donal O’Keeffe in Korea with marginalised workers and vulnerable tenants which led to his Immigrant of the Year Award.

For the past 14 years Korea has been honouring individual immigrants who have made significant contributions to the country declaring them ‘Immigrants of the Year’. Columban missionary Fr Donal O’Keeffe, a native of Bantry, Co Cork was the latest recipient of this honour.

On 20 May 2021, ‘People of the World Day’, Fr Donal was awarded a presidential citation by the Minister for Justice in recognition of his over forty years of dedicated service to marginalised people in Korean society.

When Fr Donal first arrived in Korea in 1976, he spent his first four years familiarising himself with the Korean language and customs as well as getting to know its people and their difficulties. When I asked him why he got involved with the workers apostolate he said that while he was a seminarian in Dalgan he had studied liberation theology.

Then at one of the meetings, organised for newly arrived missionaries, he had listened to an input from a Maryknoll priest, sister and lay person who were working as a team in the workers apostolate. They convinced him that the ministry to factory workers was a necessary and worthwhile one.

Fr Donal O’Keeffe at a Bongcheondong Area Celebration.

In 1980 he moved to Bucheon, in Gyeonggido province, and began working in a team with the Sacred Heart Sisters who operated an ‘open house’ where young workers could gather. There were may small factories in the area where teenagers, who had moved from the countryside now worked. They were only given one day a month to rest. Many of these workers came to the open house where they were able to share the stories of their lives in a safe environment.

They were also invited to participate in courses in self-development, critical thinking, worker’s rights and labour laws. According to Fr Donal, many of the young workers who took those educational courses later became key people in the formation of labour unions in the late 1980s.

Bongcheondong Centre’s 5th Anniversay Mass with Fr Donal and Fr Chuck Lintz.

Having spent ten years in the young workers apostolate, Fr Donal, together with fellow Columban Fr Charles [Chuck] Lintz, became involved in the Archdiocese of Seoul’s Urban Poor Apostolate in 1992.

Living in a shanty town in Bongcheon, Gwanack District of Seoul they became aware of the plight of the tenants who live there. At that time the authorities in Seoul were engaged in a process they called ‘redevelopment’. In essence it involved large construction companies being allowed to appropriate, by fair or foul means, portions of lands on which they would build high rise apartments.

Workers Education Programme in Bucheon 1986.

To procure the land the construction companies paid as little as possible to the owners of houses in the many shanty towns that surrounded Seoul city. While the house owners got compensated, the poor renters were being left on the side of the street with their few belongings. Neither the construction companies nor Seoul’s authorities were willing to assist them in any way.

Frs Donal and Charles gradually got to know people running day-care centres, study rooms as well as a number of Christian church leaders in the shanty town. They began to meet and hold events in the area and they finally formed a Residents Association. Linking up with others active in other similar areas they ran educational programmes to help the tenants become aware of their rights and thus enabled them to demand their rightful compensation during the redevelopment process.

Bongcheondong Meeting in March 1996.

During the presidential award ceremony, Fr Donal got an unexpected surprise. While the Justice Minister Park Beom-gye was congratulating all those that had received different awards he suddenly stopped and politely asked Donal to stand up and take a bow. He then revealed that he himself had actually lived as a “binmin” or a poor person in the very shanty town that Donal had helped establish a tenant’s association.

Fr Donal O’Keeffe bumps fists with the Korean Justice Minister Park Beom-gye after receiving a presidential citation for “Immigrant of the Year” at an award ceremony held in Government Complex Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, May 20. Photo: The Korean Times/Yonhap

In another coincidence, the Minister added that having qualified as a lawyer he had established a workers counselling centre in Bucheon where many years earlier Fr Donal had operated the ‘open house’ for young factory workers. The Minister said that in the Korean language they use the phrase, “when I walk alone I can go fast, however when I walk with others then I can go further.”

In an interview with the Korea Times, Fr Donal said, “If the believers of the different faiths, who together comprise 50% of the Korean population, worked together on ecological issues they could make a huge contribution”. In the same interview he expressed his appreciation of the Missionary Society of St Columban who sent him to Korea and had supported him in all of his missionary endeavours over forty years.

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