It is a cruel fate anywhere to be blind, and all the more cruel in societies where sightless people are cursed as unlucky and shamed as useless burdens on their families and on society at large. Kim Sun-tae, director of Seoul's Siloam Eye Hospital, knows these degrading aspects of Korean society from bitter personal experience. He has devoted his life to changing them.
Kim Sun-tae was not born blind. For the first ten years of his life, he was the adored only son of a prosperous family. In June 1950, the violent outbreak of the Korean War suddenly rendered him an orphan. Not long afterwards, a mortar shell that he and other boys found while scavenging for food exploded and left him blind. Even his own relatives now treated him like a pariah and a slave. He ran away. Learning to survive as a beggar, Kim gathered strength from the random kindnesses of compassionate Koreans and American soldiers, and from Christian teachings he had imbibed in Sunday school. "God, please help me," he prayed.
Kim persevered and developed an iron will. From the hard life of the streets, he moved to the hard life of wartime orphanages and finally into school. He learned to read Korean Braille and to type. Vowing to become a Christian pastor, he became the first blind graduate of Seoul's Soongsil High School and, in 1962, overcame the resistance of Korea's military junta to enter Soongsil University. A master's degree in theology followed in 1969, a doctorate in 1993.
Meeting hardship with frugality, Kim struggled to form Korea's first church for the blind in 1972. Its seven members worshipped in a borrowed room and a dilapidated apartment. The following year, the Korean Presbyterian Church named Kim director of Blind Evangelical Missions, a new department with a staff of one. He seized the opportunity to build a ministry for blind Christians, visiting church after church, publishing Braille bibles and hymnals, and launching a scholarship program for deserving students. He began to travel widely and, in Japan and the United States, witnessed public amenities and rehabilitation programs for the blind that enlarged his hopes for Korea.
Increasingly, Kim devoted himself to the dream of a hospital dedicated to treating and curing blindness. Drawing support from Korea's business community, in 1986 he led in founding Siloam Eye Hospital, where sight-restoring surgery and state-of-the-art facilities were available free to the needy. In 1996, Kim added a mobile clinic to deliver eye services to the rural poor, prison inmates, and other underserved communities. And, in 1997, he opened Korea's largest rehabilitation-and-learning center to help blind and low-vision people cope with day-to-day life, learn new job skills, and become computer-literate using new Braille- and voice-friendly software. Meanwhile, Kim's voice and esteemed example helped advance new laws requiring safe public spaces and employment for the disabled.
Today, more than twenty thousand people have received free eye surgery and two hundred thousand more have been treated at Siloam Eye Hospital and its mobile unit. There are medical missions to Bangladesh, Kenya, China, and the Philippines. And nearly one thousand students have received scholarships through programs that Kim initiated. Moreover, the church for the blind that he founded thirty-five years ago now has its own sanctuary, four hundred members, and many vibrant offshoots and branches.
As for his own role in all of this, Kim echoes the words of the Apostle Paul, "I can do all things through Him who gives me strength."
But Pastor Kim also has some words of his own. He says, "Blessed are those who never give up."
In electing Kim Sun-tae to receive the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the board of trustees recognizes his inspiring ministry of hope and practical assistance to his fellow blind and visually impaired citizens in South Korea.