|Ven. Jino from Maha Buddha Temple in Gumi, North Gyeongsang Province, is sun-burnt and carrying a stroller containing his daily necessities of foods and clothes during his 5,255-kilomter fundraising marathon from Huntington Beach in Los Angeles, California, to the United Nations headquarters in New York City. Courtesy of People Making Dreams Come True|
By Ko Dong-hwan
Venerable Jino, a Korean Buddhist monk, could have been one of the exceptional athletic talents to run from Los Angeles to New York City ― over 5,200 kilometers. Unfortunately, the challenge, which began Feb. 7 from Huntington Beach in Los Angeles, California, ended after 39 days in Oklahoma due to the coronavirus pandemic that started sweeping the United States. This persuaded him that his goal of reaching the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan was no longer a viable proposition.
With his charity mission to raise $1 for every kilometer he ran put on indefinite hold, he returned to Los Angeles, flew back to Seoul March 19, and self-quarantined for two weeks as required for all inbound travelers from abroad.
"As I headed east, I kept learning from the news that COVID-19 was getting worse in the U.S.," Ven. Jino, 57, who practices under the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism at the Maha Buddha Temple in Gumi, North Gyeongsang Province, told The Korea Times. He read news online on his smartphone using Wi-Fi at motels he lodged at throughout the journey. "I began to think I wouldn't be able to make it to New York City," he said.
The worsening situation of the pandemic in the U.S. sometimes put him in awkward positions as he ran day after day on empty desert roads. One day, a police patrol car stopped him near the New Mexico-Oklahoma border after receiving a report that a COVID-19 patient was running away from some location. He was wearing a mask because of the local temperatures that shot up and down sharply between morning and afternoon, and because he was monitoring himself to prevent getting sick. After explaining to the police officer that he was running to raise dollars to help people in Vietnam ― to finance his project of building 108 clean toilets for schools there ― he said the officer stopped being alarmed and became friendly.
He attracted the attention of another patrol who stopped him after receiving a report of possible child abuse. The report arose because of the baby stroller he was using to store water, food and clothing items.
"For Americans who were passing by and saw me running from six in the morning until five in the evening with the stroller, they must have thought I was lost with a baby," Ven. Jino said. "When running for days without seeing anyone, even encountering a policeman and talking to him in English was heart-warming, and especially more grateful when some of them donated a dollar bill."
He chose the United States to run because of the many Vietnamese immigrants there whom he wanted to express his apology for the atrocities committed by soldiers from South Korea, an ally of the U.S., during the Vietnam War. These included the murder and rape of Vietnamese civilians as well as the destruction of their homes. For the past decade, he has run in Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Germany, Japan and South Korea to raise money for Vietnam. The total distance he has travelled so far has reached about 5,130 kilometers. And he has built 60 fully furnished bathrooms in Vietnam so far.
In his latest challenge in the United States, his goal was to finish the 5,255 kilometers in 108 days ― to do that, he would have had to run 50 kilometers a day.
|Ven. Jino on America's Route 66 poses with a banner for his fundraising marathon that bears the flags of South Korea, the United States and the symbol of People Making Dreams Come True, a philanthropic establishment he founded to help migrant workers in Korea. Courtesy of People Making Dreams Come True|
Throughout the run, most of the areas he visited were deserts with almost no signs of human habitation so he saw no danger of becoming infected with COVID-19 ― he also didn't meet any patients with the disease.
At the end of his curtailed trek, Ven. Jino collected $325 from strangers on the road who donated for his dollar-a-kilometer campaign, and $5,450 from Buddhist members of the Jogye Order's western American temple. He spent $325 on buying and sending school supplies to students in Vietnam. The $5,450 was going to be used to build toilets in Vietnam ― but he changed this plan after the American Buddhist donors suggested he buy protective face masks for foreign migrant workers in Korea who often couldn't get the masks because of them being sold out at government-designated pharmacies. Due to high demand amid the heated scare of the disease throughout March and April, pharmacies sold masks only to those with legitimate identification cards. Many migrant workers, who often find themselves with expired working visas, no jobs, no money and no homes, also have no valid ID.
Since 2000, Ven. Jino has been providing shelter and food to desperate migrant workers in Gumi through the launch of the dedicated philanthropic organization, People Making Dreams Come True. The establishment with three houses also supports foreign women who came to Korea after marrying Korean men, but separated from them for various reasons such as domestic violence and abuse.
"I had to respect the donors' wishes as to how the money could be spent," Ven. Jino said. "So I bought 10,000 masks and sent them to migrant workers' communities in Korea."
After learning that getting protective masks was also difficult in the United States, he purchased and donated 2,000 to the Korean Red Cross in North Gyeongsang Province to send to war veterans in the United States. He couldn't send them himself because individuals here are not allowed to send such masks overseas.
"I heard on the news that the government also sent masks to the United States and other countries to support them in their fight against COVID-19," Ven. Jino said. "I think what I did was pretty timely."
Love is borderless
Because COVID-19's global impact initially spawned prejudice against Asians as the disease is believed to have originated in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, Ven. Jino expected that he wouldn't be free from ethnicity-bound threats when travelling in the United States. But surprisingly, what he experienced there was far from this. Instead, he attracted policemen who showed interest in what he was doing and where he was going, who also donated money and gave him a heads-up on narrow roads ahead or cars that were speeding.
One officer told him that he had visited Korea once, donated five dollars and took a selfie with him ― another gave him a shiny fluorescent vest to protect him from dangers on the road. Benoit Trieu Van Vu, a Vietnamese priest at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Springer, New Mexico, also met with him to thank him for what he was doing for Vietnam.
|Ven. Jino poses in New Mexico during his fundraising marathon on March 2. Running a seemingly endless desert road through California, Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma made Ven. Jino miss people as he often saw nobody for days. From time to time, police patrolmen and Native Americans from the Navajo Nation ran across him during his run and donated money and food, and souvenirs he fondly recollected later. Courtesy of People Making Dreams Come True|
He met another group of people during the journey whom he said was fond of ― Native Americans from the Navajo Nation, the largest area in the country retained by an aboriginal tribe.
"I met one or two Native Americans everyday as I was passing through their district, who stopped their cars to come and talk to me and gave me water, hamburgers or money," Ven. Jino said. "Another Native American spelled me in their own language a wish to protect me during my journey and planted a flag bearing an image of eagle next to the South Korean flag I was carrying."
One time, when he found out the closest motel was 100 kilometers away and was desperate for a lodging place, two elderly Spanish brothers saved his day.
"I guess people with less turn out to be more generous? I received heart-warming care from those in poverty," said Ven. Jino. "The different lifestyles and places of living were nothing when their way of treating an astray stranger touched my heart. We could have been total strangers to each other but when we said hello, shared food and smiles, it made me want to know more about their culture and history. I knew the sad history of the Native Americans who were long ago kicked off their own lands and suffered other historic pains. So I was more eager to say hello to them when I met them."
Despite the harsh climate and frequent hunger he faced during the challenge, Ven. Jino says he will go back to the United States to finish what was left incomplete. He has set May 2021 to embark on the second journey, hoping a COVID-19 vaccine will come out before then.
"I want to run until I am 80 years old," Ven. Jino said. "By that time, I will raise enough money to complete the toilets project in Vietnam. I will also run at least 300 kilometers for my fundraising campaign in countries that fought for South Korea during the Korean War."