A young man (right) enjoys dinner with two Jesuit priests at Babjip Allo restaurant in Seoul on Jan. 6. (Photo: Catholic Times of Korea)

Jan 24 2022

Priests offer counseling and share food with young people to help them tackle difficult situations in life

On the cold evening of Jan. 6, two Jesuit priests — Father Giovanni Park Jong-in and Father Andrew Lee Sung-gyoon — waited for visitors in front of Dream Tree Village, a four-story red-brick building in the Eunpyeong-gu neighborhood of South Korean capital Seoul.

Soon afterwards, one young man approached the entrance and the priests greeted him gleefully. For some time they talked over a range of issues regarding his personal life and various challenges in their counseling room.

Then, the priests with their guest headed to Babjip Allo restaurant, a small soup kitchen, on the third floor of the building. They talked more, made fun and laughed as they enjoyed traditional kimchi stew, egg rolls, stir-fried anchovies, sesame leaves and pickled garlic — all prepared by the priests in advance.

“If you want to eat any other food, let me know. I’ll make it next time,” Father Lee said with a smile amid the warmth of the yellow light in the restaurant.

The happy young man took his leave by thanking the Jesuits for their wonderful company for hours. He promised to revisit the center soon.

This has been a common scene at Dream Tree Village for weeks since the center opened its doors to young people from Seoul and other areas of the country. Most visitors are poor or orphans who are former and current inmates of state and church-run children and youth welfare facilities.

Above all, it is a comfortable and enjoyable place, like home, where you can meet and interact with friends

Supported by the Joy Sharing Foundation, the Jesuits initiated the service last November and started welcoming young visitors from the end of December. It is open every day except Monday.

The restaurant opens in the evening. Visitors can have dinner by paying a token fee of 1,000 won (84 US cents) or enjoy it for free. They can even rest up in the center if they want.

The priests offer valuable life lessons to young visitors who are in desperate need of help due to financial and emotional problems as well as loneliness. They also receive guidance on how they can become self-reliant and independent one day in a friendly environment.

Tackling the psychological and emotional issues of adolescents and youth is vital in South Korea where studies show a rising number of young people suffer from mental health issues like depression.

Data from Statistics South Korea in 2020 showed that one out of four South Korean teenagers suffers from depression due to academic pressure and stress.

It reported that 25.2 percent of middle and high school students aged 13-18 experienced depression. Depression was higher among female students at 30.7 percent compared to 20.1 percent male.

Andrew Ahn Won-sik, 21, has visited the center several times already. He says he loves the place, the priests and the food.

“On the first day of the new year, we made rice cakes and soup together and learned life skills such as cooking from the priests. The soup was delicious. Above all, it is a comfortable and enjoyable place, like home, where you can meet and interact with friends,” he said.

Father Park says it provides great satisfaction when young people gather and eat together.

“It gives the feeling they are not alone and the Church is with them. They gain the courage and energy to become independent by overcoming difficult situations in life,” the priest said.

The feeling that I have a friend can give strength to them to live in difficult situations

Father Lee says he is happy to play a small role for young people by cooking food and befriending with them.

“The feeling that I have a friend can give strength to them to live in difficult situations,” the priest explained.

The center is recruiting volunteers to help prepare meals and assist priests in providing counseling to young people.  

At Dream Tree Village, the Jesuits continue to pray to God and St. Aloysius Gonzaga, a 16th century Jesuit who is the patron saint of young people, for the well-being of all young people in the country.

* This article uses material from a Korean-language report published by Catholic Times of Korea on Jan. 16. – UCANews