written by gkim
Recently, I had the honor of meeting OckJeong Lee, chief director of the Magdalena House, who has been running a shelter for trafficked women located in Yongsan, Korea for the past 28 years. She has dedicated her life to serving God by caring for vulnerable women who have been enslaved into brothels. The Magdalena House was first created in 1985 in a wayward shelter by OckJeong Lee as a place of refuge for prostitutes who were seeking a way out of the sex industry. The name was derived from the biblical Mary Magdalene who was persecuted and cursed for being a prostitute however transformed herself through the love of Christ and became one of the most beloved by Jesus. The hope is that these prostitutes will also find and know Christ and have their lives transformed by God as Mary Magdalene did. In 2005, it became a government-funded organization through the Catholic Social Work Coalition. Currently, there are 24 women who are part of the staff at Magdalena.
OckJeong Lee says that she never imagined she would be serving God in this way. She was an insurance broker working in Yongsan back in the eighties when she became witness to something very disturbing. An older man was trying to sexual molest a five year old girl who was sleeping on the floor outside the train station. So she contacted the police immediately, and when they came, the girl’s mother who was a prostitute working at the station’s neighboring red light district, scolded OckJeong Lee for interfering with a stranger’s child. This mother was obviously concerned with the fact that she could have been arrested and jailed for prostitution. Conclusively, the authorities reprimanded the mother for leaving her daughter in the street rather than charge this man with child molestation. OckJeong was dumbfounded at how things panned out after she tried to do, what she believed, was the right thing. This is how she began her service and journey almost three decades ago.
When starting the Magdalena House, one of the primary goals of OckJeong Lee was to discover what the specific needs of these women were and to provide for them as Christ does for us every day. She did not have any intentions of impelling or converting them with her personal religious beliefs of Catholicism. Moreover, she took an open approach to the religions of all of the women, who were mostly shamanists, while dutifully and privately serving under God’s umbrella in her heart. At times, she would even participate (only on the surface) with the shamanistic rituals the pimps and the women would observe such as hiring a shaman to come to a brothel with a pig’s head in order to idolize or worship this object by bowing or praying to it. These rituals were very costly–almost 20,000,000 KRW–and the women were obligated to pay for them. Of course, with her hidden agenda in tow, OckJeong Lee would casually drop lines to the pimps and recommend that they may try a cheaper ritual such as hiring a Catholic priest who could come with food for days at the cost of just 30,000 KRW. Due to her tireless efforts, openness, and dedication, a lot of women have actually ended up finding God and meeting Christ on their own will over the years.
The initial method she implemented in her shelter to meet her objectives in saving these women was to dine together and become closer with them through the nourishment of food. She says that to serve someone food which is well prepared and delicious, in a courteous manner, and to dine together, is a sign of equality and joy amongst human beings and a symbol of respect for one another. The purpose is to give these women a sense of self-worth, completely opposing the protocols of the brothels where the women were forbidden to eat with the pimps as they were seen as too dirty and worthless to
share food with at the same table.
Magdalena also provides medical, legal, and life counseling. Not only do the women who come through have the option of receiving formal training for skill sets that they can utilize in the workforce, but they are also cherished and surrounded by laughter and joy while living in this shelter. OckJeong Lee says that these women are fully aware that their choices to work at these brothels are not moral or righteous. However the last thing that these women want to hear is confirmation of this very awareness. So instead, she tries to instill a sense of stability as well as fond memories while they are being rehabilitated in her shelter. She does whatever it is to create an atmosphere of homeliness so that these women who sometimes return back to the brothels for whatever reasons, know that they can always come back to a safe house where they will be protected, cared for, respected, nourished, fed, and treated with love. Basically, they start off socializing with each other and eating together. One of the games they play is “go-stop,” which is a popular Korean card game comparable to poker. Due to the extensive eating and socializing, some outsiders have expressed skepticism and had misconceptions of this shelter saying that all they do is eat and play. However, OckJeong Lee says that one must not forget her underlying objective which has not wavered once in the past 28 years, and that is to create a safe, comfortable haven for these women, gain their trust, hinder them from digressing back to prostitution, and create a sense of stability. She says that these baby steps taken by eating and socializing is something that is imperative in obtaining the ultimate goal to liberate these women from the strongholds of sexual labor. Some women go back to these brothels because they are scared. It is all they have known. They have no other life experiences and feel inadequate and unfit for society. Some others who try to earn an honest living end up going back because the money they make is meager compared to what they earned as a prostitute. Even when some of the women do end up going back to the brothels, OckJeong Lee will tell them to make a lot of money and bring back some good meat to share at the dinner table, hoping to instill a reason inside them to return to Magdalena soon. By doing this, she also means to emphasize the equality of income between them all and clarify to the women that their money is not dirty and other people’s money is not any cleaner or better than theirs. Although there are setbacks and digressions through all of these women’s journeys in and out of the Magdalena House, many do end up leaving the brothels for good and enduring their rehabilitations until the end where they become fully ready to move on.
Once the women have spent enough time in this shelter, and they get through a year or so of not returning to the brothels, they become ready to find work and fit into mainstream society. The Magdalena House offers training in different fields of work. There was even a group of brothel workers who volunteered in the Magdalena House’s Field Worker Program in the Philippines. They traveled with OckJeong Lee to aid with the sex trafficking there. She says that there is no woman who can counsel a prostitute better than an ex-prostitute. A few of the current staff members and counselors at the Magdalena House are ex-prostitutes who have turned their lives around and are now guiding others into doing so, too. OckJeong speaks of how these women have cried and framed their first “real” paycheck stubs after being employed at the Magdalena House.
Although there are many successful stories, there have been many outcomes not so positive as well. Some of the women who have gone in and out of the Magdalena House have committed suicide by jumping off a bridge into the Han River, have been struck and killed by venereal diseases, have gotten into accidents, or have even been burned alive in fires ignited by customers with evil intentions. When these types of incidents occur, the Magdalena House contacts their families. Most of the time, their own families try to deny them. Some of these women did not even get the chance to finish elementary school because their families come from poverty. Some were raped in day care centers. Some come from broken homes. The list goes on. When ultimate tragedy strikes and family members are nowhere to be found, OckJeong Lee conducts funerals for these women along with the staff members and the brothel workers. The funerals are handled with so much devotion and care that the brothel workers often tell OckJeong Lee that when they die, they wish to have funerals such as these as well.
Currently the new focus of the Magdalena House is to clear any types of criminal history on public records for these women. The women who have been arrested by policemen have usually been jailed as violators of the law rather than victims. There is a shortage of prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation within the country for victims of the sex industry. There is also a huge discrimination for their pasts. When companies conduct background checks and find out that the job seeker was arrested for prostitution, they refuse to hire them. These ex-prostitutes work hard to become self-sufficient in the shelter—then society ends up rejecting them. OckJeong states that everyone must help them become full-fledged members of society. Just as Jesus accepted us, we should accept them. She says she hopes that just as she got happily “stuck” doing this work for God, she hopes that all of us get happily “stuck,” too. God Bless OckJeong Lee and the Magdalena House!