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Honourable Wound: What’s the difference between a hero and a warrior?

January 30, 2019 One Comment

by Jennifer Ackerman

Their first meeting took place in Unit 4 during a game of ping-pong.

Michael Meszaros grew up in Regent Park, back when it was Toronto’s roughest neighbourhood. A life of gangs, crime and drugs followed him to Regina at age 12. And now he was doing time at the Paul Dojack Youth Centre, a facility for young offenders.

Fifteen years old and paddle in hand, his smile was met by another as Padre DJ Kim walked into the Unit. The padre made his way towards him almost immediately.

The unlikely pair played ping-pong for a while and then sat down to chat. For reasons he can’t explain, Meszaros found himself able to talk to the padre in ways he had never been able to with anyone else.

During his time in Dojack, Kim would come see him twice a week. Meszaros finally had someone who was there for him no matter what. For the first time, he shared his life story without fear of being judged. He didn’t know why he trusted the padre so much. Perhaps it was Kim’s positive energy. He was the only person to truly accept Meszaros for who he was despite his crimes.

Six years later, Meszaros sits in a non-contact visitors’ room at the Regina Provincial Correctional Centre, an adult facility. He is three months away from finishing his latest in a string of sentences.

“I’ve spent eight plus years of my life in jail and no matter what, he never turns me down. He’s always there for me,” says Meszaros. “He makes me want to live for something.”

So for Meszaros and many others who grew to rely on the Kim, it would have been a surprise to hear that a few years earlier, a particularly dark thought had entered Kim’s mind as he stared at his reflection in the mirror.

The world would be better off without me.

From Gang Member to Pastor

Like many of the people he now helps, Kim had a difficult life. Born in Taejon, South Korea in 1969, Dongjoo Kim was one of three children. After his mother died when he was very young, he bounced back and forth between relatives and group homes. His father, a military man, was seldom around and never really got to know his children.

“Whenever I think about my childhood… there are some good memories, but mostly just painful memories,” says Kim, today a solidly built man with black hair peppered with bits of grey.

He had to grow up fast as the hole left by the absence of family was replaced over time with a growing feeling of anger. Realizing he needed to find a way to cope, Kim trained in martial arts. He put everything he had into those classes. But, still yearning for a sense of belonging, his extra-curricular activities took a different turn.

At age 16 he became a member of the White Snake gang. There he found a brotherhood and a bond unlike anything he’d ever experienced and would ever experience again. He rose in the ranks quickly, eventually becoming what they called a “hit man”—not killing, but challenging rival gang members to one-on-one fights in a territorial war. But as time went on, he realized life as a gang member would eventually end in one of three ways.

“Number one, you’re going to have a good sleep, six feet down,” says Kim. “Or you end up being a vegetable.”

Option three? Life in jail. So two years after becoming a White Snake, he got out while he still could. He worked various jobs as a cook until he was drafted for his three mandatory years of military service at age 20. He served as an infantry soldier in the demilitarized zone—241 kilometres of highly fortified, heavily armed land bordering North and South Korea. Despite thousands of horrible experiences during his time in the military—which he is legally bound not to talk about—he said his military training taught him some of his greatest lessons.

“It taught me to be a man, taught me endurance, discipline, and at the end of the day they made me the kind of man who never gives up on anything,” says Kim.

His time in the military, and the terrible experiences that came along with it, led him to ponder life and death and what kind of life comes after death. Seeking spiritual guidance he began to speak with the army chaplain and his life was transformed as he became a Christian and found his calling.

In 1985, three years after leaving the military he married and began building a new life. With his wife Miji’s support, he studied hard to earn a degree from Korea Baptist Theological University/Seminary in 1992. He worked as a youth minister for some time, but after a lifetime of being on the front lines in one way or another, he found he wasn’t happy in the church.

“There was always some kind of deep hole in my heart,” says Kim.

He began visiting low-income factory workers and volunteered as a chaplain at a youth correctional centre instead, acting as more of a social worker than a church minister. But his faith in God remained an important part of his life. In the early 90s, he discovered the German theologian Martin Luther. Falling in love with Luther’s ideas, Kim sought more. With no Lutheran seminary in Korea, he left for Canada on a student visa in 2003, leaving Miji and their four-year-old son behind.

“When I look back at those times, I would say they are one of the very painful times, because I missed them just horribly,” recalls Kim.

After three-and-a-half years apart from his family, Kim graduated from Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary and got his first call to a congregation. The family was finally reunited when Miji and his now nine-year-old son joined him In Canada. They spent the next 15 years at Trinity Lutheran Church in Neudorf, Saskatchewan, population 281.

Back to the Streets

It was fun for a while. They were surrounded by good people. But there was still a part of him that felt empty—a void longing for the right thing to fill it up.

Write a sermon. Visit a few people. Get a paycheck. Repeat.

This is it, DJ? This is the reason you wanted to be a church minister? You’re happy?

“My life has always been kind of frontline guy, which means I have lived with real people in the street, being a gangster, being a street fighter, being a frontline soldier,” says Kim. “What I really missed—a bond, a brotherhood.”

In 2007, someone asked if he would be interested in joining the Royal Regina Rifles as a padre. He took it as a sign. Leaving Neudorf for Regina and a new mission, he was in his element again. He started out helping broken soldiers who had come back from Afghanistan, then expanded his reach to police officers who were struggling with the trauma of attending suicides and murders, and then to inmates like Meszaros, many of whom suffered horrible childhoods.

He became the one thing he wished he’d had when he was in their shoes—someone to simply say, “I understand you. I care about you.” He wasn’t there to convert them. He was there to hold their hands. To listen. To laugh. To cry with them. To be there when everyone else has turned their backs. People are not their actions, he made a point of saying. Everyone deserves some unconditional support.

As a chaplain for the Regina and Moose Jaw police services, and a frequent visitor to Dojack and the Correctional Centre, Kim’s unconventional “congregation” grew and his Lutheran Church title changed to ‘missionary at large.’

It wasn’t easy. He didn’t have a traditional congregation to help fund his work and the church was only able pay him 60 per cent of a standard salary. Miji managed a small restaurant in a local food court 365 days a year for over three years to help them get by while Kim pursued his calling.

“Even though I support it, didn’t mean it was easy,” says Miji about Kim’s work. “It’s very difficult.”

Rev. Thomas Prachar, President Emeritus of Lutheran Church–Canada’s former Central District, recognizes the unique challenges of Kim’s mission.

“We have to support him as best we can knowing… the people whose lives he does touch in many cases don’t have the money or the resources to help,” says Rev. Prachar.

The financial pressure was one thing, but the emotional toll was another, perhaps bigger, hurdle.

The Mask Breaks

Nightmares. Withdrawal. Loneliness.

The weight wore on Kim right from the start, but a carefully constructed mask hid his struggle from the outside world. He had made the switch from the church to the street, again. He was back where he belonged—on the front lines, helping the “broken people.” But the trauma of others wore on his spirit and his mind.

Irritability. Anger. Depression.

Still he listened. A police officer recounted a violent murder. A war vet described holding his buddy’s hand, attached to half a body, the other half blown up by a roadside bomb. A gang member recalled years of child abuse.

How can humans do these kinds of things to other humans?

The question circled Kim’s mind as he talked with, cried with, and sat with one broken soul after another, year after year. His number one goal was to be the best padre, the best caregiver. He excelled at it, but that pursuit turned him into something else at home.

“I started re-experiencing their experiences and then I found myself almost becoming a monster,” recalls Kim.

The mask he wore at work—the one he used to convince people he was the same happy, positive Kim they had all grown to know and love—came off the moment he walked through the door at home. He distanced himself from Miji. By not talking about his work and the affect it was having on him, he believed he was shielding her from the trauma.

But then it bottled up inside. His temper flared.

“You’re nasty to me, sometimes too much,” Miji said. “This is not you.”

She urged him to get help. He didn’t listen. One night, about three years after Kim began street ministry in Regina, they got into a big fight. It started over something small, but as pent up feelings burst out into the open like rushing water through floodgates, things got out of control.

“I never ever laid a hand on my wife,” says Kim. “I just destroyed everything in the house.”

The next thing he knew, the police were knocking at his door. An unmasked Kim stood before their eyes. Shame and indignity overwhelmed him. Miji left. Now home alone, he stared into the mirror in the basement of their home. This is it. You lost your dignity, your self-pride and you’re just about to lose your love, your wife. He found himself trapped in a dark box, feeling unbearably alone.

“All the sermons I was preaching to people, ‘Praise to God, God is the strength, God is the rock of strength, God is a fortress.’ All bullshit. All gone,” thought Kim.

He lost faith in God. He lost faith in humanity. He lost faith in himself. And the idea of suicide, something he never fully understood until this moment, was suddenly calling.

The world would be better off without me.

Hero or Warrior

“What’s the difference between a hero and a warrior?” asked psychologist Dr. Dennis Arbuthnott.

It’s a question Kim will never forget. It’s the question that saved him.

At first the answer seemed obvious. A hero and a warrior? They are the same. They are willing to die for their beliefs and the rights of others.

Yes, replied the doctor, but there is one important difference between the two. A hero dies on the battlefield and he ceases to be of help. A warrior knows when he is wounded and when to retreat and heal.

“So DJ, it’s going to be our journey together,” Arbuthnott told him. “This is my job, helping you be able to switch from your hero mode to the warrior mode. You are here. You are wounded, badly wounded. This is time for you to recover from your wound and then once you are healed you can go back to your battlefield.”

“It had a very profound effect on him and I think that was one of the things that had him say, ‘This man understands me,’” says Arbuthnott three-and-a-half years later. He has been given permission by Kim to share some of their sessions.

A veteran psychologist, Arbuthnott spent more than 30 years of his career working with police officers and members of the military. Like DJ, he was familiar with the kind of trauma his patients suffered and he understood the weight it burdened DJ with — a burden that materialized into symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder through secondary trauma.

Dr. Nick Carleton, a psychology professor at the University of Regina, specializes in operational stress injuries including PTSD.

“Indirect exposure is receiving increasing attention in the literature because of growing amounts of evidence that in fact you don’t necessarily need to be actually there… in order for you to have difficulties,” he says.

While there are many factors that impact something as complicated as mental health, Carleton says there are four broad symptom groups associated with PTSD, whether through direct or indirect exposure to trauma: Re-experiencing trauma through dreams or intrusive thoughts; avoiding stimuli related to the traumatic event; negative thoughts and mood, including being more likely to believe negative things about yourself; and hyperarousal—irritability and hypervigilance.

While Kim attempted to hide his struggles from the world, not everyone was fooled.

“People were talking and saying that padre’s not really himself,” remembers Shane Zess, regimental sergeant major with the Royal Regina Rifles.

Michael Meszaros also noticed a change. “He seemed really stressed out and that’s when I kind of stopped talking about my issues. I started listening to his issues,” he recalls.

Taking six months off work, Kim saw Dr. Arbuthnott once a week. Through a combination of medication, cognitive behavioural treatments and mindfulness he slowly began to heal. He learned how to open up to his wife and he found ways to cope—a work out at the gym, the unconditional love of his dogs Heinz, Annie and Simba. Now when Kim sees a sign of stress he recognizes it as a red flag. It’s a signal to retreat from the field and take care of himself.

Recognizing a need for more support, Lutheran Church–Canada’s Central District set up a local committee to meet with Kim at least twice a year, more if he feels the need. The church now fully funds his mission.

“I used to believe that my role was helping people—not asking for help,” says Kim. “But now I can say if I need help, I never hesitate asking.”

He said these words just after a scheduled surgery. An ankle replacement would have him off his feet—and off the job—for at least six weeks.

Before the surgery, he went to Dojack to tell the boys he’d be away for a while. It pained him to think about not being there for them if they needed it.

“What?!” they yelled. They were angry.

“I am so scared because I’ve never ever done this kind of major surgery,” Kim admitted to them.

“You’re scared?” they asked.

“Yeah,” he answered. “So I’m going to ask you guys, pray for me right now.”

And they did, 12 street-toughened youth in the maximum security wing of the Paul Dojack Youth Centre, home to the most violent offenders. They gathered around Kim, each placing a hand on him. One of them said a prayer. The professional preacher was outdone by a boy.

“So you may ask why I keep on doing this,” says Kim. “Because of that love.”

“It’s a fact of my life as long as I’ve been in this type of ministry—having nightmares, bad dreams, some emotional crashes,” he says. “Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m happy.”

“Why? Honourable duty, honourable wound.”

Jennifer Ackerman is a journalist with the Regina Leader-Post. This article first appeared in the Fall 2018 of The Crow, and is reprinted here with permission.

Editor’s Note: In 2018, The Crow (a publication of the School of Journalism at the University of Regina) published a profile of Rev. DJ Kim, a Lutheran Church–Canada Missionary at Large who serves as a chaplain to police in Regina and Moose Jaw and provides street ministry. Pastors are called to administer spiritual care to their flock. But what happens when the pastor is the one in need of spiritual care?

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