That is essentially what happened to Chai Kyu-Cher, a Korean Quaker whose face was horribly disfigured in a car accident. He suffered horribly and his life nearly fell apart.
Yet he was able to transform this tragic disfigurement into a "legacy," a gift he shares with audiences throughout Korea and the world, inspiring them to see their challenges in a new light.
I never cease to be amazed at the resilience of the human spirit, and the profound truth of what the apostle Paul wrote: "All things work for good to those who love God" (Romans 8:28).
And I will never forget my experience meeting the amazing man who lost his face....
The Man Who Lost His Face
and Other True Stories
by Anthony Manousos
How would like you to come down to Long Beach," Fred asked, "and meet a man whose face has been disfigured beyond recognition? His name is Chai Kyu-Cher and he is one of most famous Quakers in Korea."
This invitation was hard to refuse, especially coming from Fred Newkirk, one of the most amazing Friends' pastors I know. A graduate of George Fox College, Fred doesn't serve a church; he brings the message of Jesus Christ directly to the streets, to gang bangers and former prison inmates.
For the last seventeen years or so, Fred has worked in the slums of Long Beach. He has ministered to what some would consider the "scum of the earth," and he has helped them to turn their lives around. Fred has accomplished this miracle through the power of unconditional love, and a lot of hard work and dedication, at a safe haven he started called simply Orange House.
Probably the best testimonial to this work is a young African-American man named Nate Redfern. Nate's story appears in a recent book, Face Forward: Young African American Men in a Critical Age, by Julian C. R. Okwu. At age thirteen Nate became a "shooter" in his brother's gang, and was jailed for attempted murder at seventeen. When released from jail, he moved into Orange House and got to know Fred. Defying the House's rules, he dealt drugs and was sent back to jail. Here Nate's story sounds like the parable of the prodigal son:
"After I was released the second time, the first person I wanted to see was Fred. When he came by I just began to cry, and he gave me a hug and told me that he loved me and that he wanted to be my brother. Before that, the last hug I had received was maybe nine years before, from my junior high school basketball coach after we won the city championship. You may never send money to the inner city, but if you come down and work with the kids here, hug them and tell them that you love them and you sincerely mean it-that means more than one million dollars to a young person. That's why I started to channel my energies into something positive."
Nate's chance to do "something positive" came during the L.A. uprisings, when there was a lot of ugly tension between the Korean and African-American community. Thanks to Fred, Nate went on a cultural mission to Korea where he learned about and came to appreciate the Korean people and culture. He came back to Long Beach and started visiting Korean shopkeepers, building good will between them and the African-American community. Since then, he has been named a liaison/public relations representative for the two communities by Donald Gregg, the former United States Ambassador to South Korea, and the New York Korean Society.
When I arrived, Nate and Fred were standing in the narthex of the Long Beach Friends Church-a church that now serves a mainly Thai congregation and is very multicultural. It was not hard to spot Chai Kyu-Cher.
Not only was his face scarred, but his ears had been burned away. He looked like the Phantom of the Opera in a beret. His appearance was, to say the least, shocking.
But when Chai smiled, it was impossible not to smile back. He was clearly at ease with himself. He could even make jokes at his own expense, like calling himself the "six million won man" (that's how much the hospital bills cost after his terrible accident).
He told me that he first heard of Quakers through an AFSC work camp program in 1961. He became acquainted with Ham Sok Hon, the "Korean Gandhi," and was resident director at the Seoul Friends Meeting from 1971-75. He talked cheerfully of the numerous "weighty" Friends he has come to know over the years. And he fondly remembers a 1988 visit to L.A. Meeting, a multicultural group of Friends that included quite a few Koreans.
Fred led us down into the basement, where a couple of dozen people had gathered. Half of them were African-Americans, many of them "street people" who gather there every Sunday night for Fred's Bible study. The rest were Koreans. They had brought lots of spicy Korean food-kimchee and rice and meatballs-and the atmosphere was festive.
After dinner, Chai got up to speak. Despite, or rather because of, his appearance, Chai now makes a living as a public speaker. This is quite remarkable since in Korea (as well as in many other Asian countries), disfigurement is seen not only as repulsive, but also as inauspicious. But Chai exudes self-confidence. He doesn't see his disfigurement as a punishment, but as a gift.
He begins his lecture by talking about Gandhi and Martin Luther King, whom he has translated into Korean. He is a very learned man, and sprinkles his talk with quotations from Emerson and Thoreau. Even the Korean translator is astonished. "How do you know so much?" he asks at one point, laughing.
This mixed audience of Koreans and African Americans-so different culturally and economically-were riveted by this amazing speaker.
Finally, Chai begins telling what we are all eager to know-his own story. When he graduated from college, he taught the children of poor farmers, and then traveled widely in Europe to learn more about development work and educational methods. Returning to Korea, he became involved in farm development work. On a beautiful fall day, he was being driven to a meeting at a Christian center out in the country when the driver lost control, skidded off a cliff, and crashed. Unfortunately, the car was carrying two large containers of flammable paint thinner. When the car turned over, the paint thinner spilled all over Chai and burst into flame.
Third degree burns covered fifty percent of his body. His arms and legs were so badly burned that the doctors considered amputating them. He was given the best treatment that Korea had to offer, and he made remarkable progress in his recovery, but the results were still grim.
"Both eyebrows and one eye were gone," he explained. "My hands and feet were puckered up like a duck. Neighborhood boys might well have called me 'Uncle E.T.'"
Chai lost his face, but not his sense of humor, or his faith.
As he told the amazing story of his recovery, I could easily see why he has become such a popular public speaker. He is utterly without self-pity. He is thankful for whatever has come his way-good or bad. He told us:
"After the accident, I had no face at all. Thanks to the plastic surgeons, I have a face. From nothing to something is certainly an improvement. Plastic surgeons are not mere technicians. They are artists."
He adds, "When I walk down the street, people take me for a beggar or a leper, but I don't think of myself that way. I am the work of an artist, a walking masterpiece of art."
"Sometimes I think of myself as an expressionist painting," he adds.
Thanks to his sense of humor and irrepressible faith, Chai was able not only to recover, but to prosper.
He was blessed with a wonderful, devoted wife who stood by him during this ordeal. She even offered to donate her own skin for skin grafts!
But no sooner was the family back on its feet than tragedy again struck: in 1970, Chai's wife died of tuberculosis.
Chai was stunned and even contemplated suicide. But God once again intervened. A female student that he had taught moved in with him as a caretaker. One thing led to another, and they were married. And have been happily married ever since. They even had a "beautiful" daughter together. ("She must take after her father," Chai joked.)
With his positive attitude, Chai found himself in demand on the lecture circuit. "Sometimes I look back on my life and wonder without the accident, what could I have become? I would most likely be working for a salary in a college or welfare organization. Now as a well-known free-lance lecturer, my income is several times what it would have been."
Chai ended his lecture with words that left a deep impression on his listeners. Many of them had been through difficult times, but nothing like what Chai described. And yet, somehow, he managed to seem cheerful and optimistic.
"Though some may look at me with contempt or pity, I know that I have within me a vital ray of hope that lights up my life. I devote myself to sharing that inner 'light of life' with those whose situation may seem worse than mine."
He then told us that we all had something to leave behind as a legacy-something more precious than money or even great literary works.
"What is the greatest heritage we can leave? It is something that anyone can accomplish, regardless of wealth, power or education. This heritage is a story. A beautiful, inspiring story. The story of one's life, starting with some difficulty or hardship, recounting the pains and struggles, and ending with the conquest of the problem through belief, confidence and religion."
Nate, Fred, Chai-all have amazing stories, stories that they have crafted out of the pain and struggles of their lives. And what of us? What kind of story will we leave as our legacy?