Father Robert Brennan poses for a photo at his office in Donam-dong in northern Seoul, Tuesday. / Korea Times photo by Kim Jae-won
By Kim Jae-won
The plot of Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk’s new work “Pieta,” which won the Golden Lion Award at this year’s Venice Film Festival, is built on how a diabolical loan shark destroys the lives of low-income earners in a redevelopment district in Seoul.
Father Robert Brennan, a Catholic priest from New Zealand, is the exact opposite of the disturbing character in Kim’s movie. He has been working with credit unions, which lend money to those in need at low borrowing costs, as he continues to devote himself to helping families marginalized by the ruthlessness of capitalism.
Brennan, 70, was dispatched to Korea in 1966 by St. Columbans Mission Society, a Roman Catholic sect focusing on overseas missionary work. He studied Korean for two years before being sent to Wonju, Gangwon Province where he met Bishop Ji Hak-soon, well-known for his pro-democracy activities, who was in charge of the local church.
Ji had Brennan working in the eastern coast city of Samcheok and the mining city of Jeongseon, where he spent 17 years until 1995. One of the notable things he did in Jeongseon was to set up a credit union. Nonghyup, the banking unit of the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation, which was the only financial service provider working in the village, was drawing complaints from community leaders for what they saw as excessive interest rates charged to the town’s many low-income earners.
“It was a very very small village, Jeongseon-gun, Bongyang-ri. The entire county was unpaved, very isolated and very poor. “They (Nonghyup) were not good at lending money. If they borrowed locally, the interest was very high,” Brennan said.
“I sent people to Seoul to take a month-long education program about credit unions. I explained to them and finally 30 people were interested. They paid 100 won each, which was worth a lot more in those days.”
It took quite some time for the credit union, which initially set up its office inside the local church, to collect funds of 100 million won. However, once it hit that symbolic mark, the amount grew quickly.
Brennan said that the credit union in Jeongseon now has total assets worth of 40 billion won, more than the Nonghyup branch there has. The success in Jeongseon led to him establishing another credit union in Yeoryang-myeon, more commonly called by Koreans as “Auraji,” and eventually two more in Seoul.
Aside of financial services, Brennan was also committed to providing medical services to poor households, starting in Yeoryang-myeon. This sowed the seed for the establishment of the St. Francisco Clinic established in cooperation with Christ Hospital in Wonju and another hospital in Gangneung, also in Gangwon Province.
“Because it (Yeoryang-myeon) was so isolated and far away, when people were sick, it took five hours to reach Gangneung, the nearest city, by bus. I asked some sisters and nuns to come and start a clinic,” he said.
Housing rights activities
After spending 17 years in Jeongseon, he went to Berkley, Calif. on a sabbatical year, where he earned his master’s in theology. After completing the degree, he came back to Korea and was dispatched to Mok-dong in western Seoul, where he encountered totally new surroundings.
“A lot of people were scattered in Anyang-cheon. People were called illegal residents and were evicted without any conversations at all,” he said.
Brennan fought for the rights of the evacuees, using the local church as a meeting place, and while he ultimately failed to gain government commitment to protecting those people, his actions raised awareness on the ruthless nature of Korea’s redevelopment processes in housing areas.
The experience drove Brennan to other development sites in Seoul, where he educated people. The late Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan sent him to a parish in Samyang-dong, north of Seoul, which covers all the villages in the mountains there classified as Mia 6-dong and Mia 7-dong by the government.
He and the people there, who were evicted by developers, established their own village after receiving some compensation, a result of demonstrations against the government. The authorities were on the side of developers and the rich.
Today, Brennan still lives in the area helping residents with a wide range of social activities from providing free career counseling for the jobless to running a microcredit finance institution which provides low-credit families loans with 5 percent of annual interest rates on amounts up to 20 million won.
Brennan said he got the idea of microcredit finance a few years ago as it became a new trend in Korean society. He did not mention Muhammad Yunus, but his work is reminiscent of the Bangladeshi banker and economist who pioneered the concept.
Yunus received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 along with Grameen Bank which he established “for their efforts through microcredit to create economic and social development from below.”
The 70-year-old Roman Catholic priest may not like this comparison but his passion and life among the poor overlaps with a young Jewish activist who lived together with the marginalized in Palestine 2,000 years ago: Jesus Christ. The New Zealander exemplifies his teachings of love your neighbor as yourself in the rural town of Jeongseon and redevelopment sites in Seoul.