The Drop Box: Worthy of an Oscar?

There is a documentary film recently released in theaters that is worth seeking out as it becomes available on VOD & through the movie’s website that is offering it for screening at your local church. Perhaps you have already heard of it? The Drop Box got, and is still getting, a lot of media attention and for once it is fully deserved.

The story is as simple as it is profound. A Korean Protestant Pastor installed a ‘box’ at the front of his church and on a regular basis unwanted babies are placed there, some with umbilical cords still connected. He knows when they are put in it because a bell rings summoning him to the latest arrival. Thereafter, he takes the deposited child in his arms, kneels and thanks God for the life that has now been entrusted into his care. And so the movie begins.

Pastor Lee Jong-rak is an exceptionable man by any measure, yet this film has little to say about his background. Coming from a poor family, his early years were tough, but, by his own account, not lacking in love. He left his home village and came to Seoul where he found his vocation – two in fact, one to marriage and the other to his Christian ministry. Later, it was the birth of the couple’s son, Eun-man, which brought a moment of crisis for the Pastor. At first, on hearing of the birth of this severely disabled child, he sat bewildered and crying in the hospital waiting room – why had God not given him a ‘healthy baby’? Then, he checked himself and repented of what he had said. Thereafter, mysteriously, this new life, one so helpless and vulnerable, was to prove the beginning of another call for Lee and his wife and ultimately lead to the Drop Box.

The intervening path was not an easy one though. The treatment for Eun-man meant that Lee had to sell his house to pay medical bills and, for the next 14 years, was to all but live on the same hospital ward as his son. Just pause for a moment and consider that. Each day, for all those years, with a cerebral palsy child – one that was bedridden and not able to speak, often in pain…

Finally, in December 2009, the Drop Box came into being. Lee built it with his own hands and wrote over it a Biblical verse: ‘If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.’ (Psalm 27:10).  There can be no doubt that it is his Christian faith that motivates and sustains this pastor – nothing else. Watching, one marvels at how he keeps going: endless nights of broken sleep whilst awaiting the ‘bell’, before yet another arrival: a soul in desperate need left by another soul in desperation. Notably, there is never a word of judgement for the women, or more often the girls, who leave their babies. Some leave letters for the pastor, ones filled with bitter regret, it is obvious that the pain contained within these tear stained pages move the pastor as much as the plight of the babies left.

When, without any self consciousness, the Pastor talks of what these discarded babies, especially the most handicapped, bring into the world, one is struck by the wisdom of what he says, but, also, that here speaks a man who has learnt such insights from experience – this is no ‘cheap grace,’ this ‘crown’ has been hard won. It is Eun-man whom the Pastor credits with bringing into being the Drop Box ministry. By this alone Lee was taught the lesson that all have their part to play in the Divine Plan, even those, especially those, so often deemed ‘worthless’ by secular society.

In a time when the screen is filled with ‘heroes’ shooting guns, driving cars, or punching people, here is a real hero for our times. A man who has prematurely aged, whose health is not good, and who seems to have no free time whatsoever, yet through it all remains as calm and focussed as he is attentive to those around him whilst awaiting whoever next is ‘delivered’ through the Drop Box. Quite something. I defy anyone to watch this and not reflect on one’s own life: the pettiness, the selfishness, the lack of charity  – it really is that type of film: one that comes along all too infrequently.

The filmmakers rightly set out to catch something of the beauty of this ministry. There is no other word for the work of this man, his wife and their inner city Jusarang Community Church with its cramped and overcrowded surroundings, contrasting only with the vastness of the hearts found therein. The biographies of those who have been left to them – many disabled – are individually told to camera by the couple in the same way as any parent would do his own children. This is no detached humanitarian effort, however, there are real tears when talking of the children who came destined, because of their illnesses, for short ‘stays’, only to leave their mark nonetheless, and inevitably find a lasting place in the heart of this man and his family. Looking at all this on screen, one can only but conclude that the director was wise to just let the camera roll and by so doing capture something as simple as it is remarkable – and, yes, beautiful.

Captured from various international media outlets, there is also the wider debate that talks of the ‘morality’ of such initiatives. They sound hollow, if not downright mean, in comparison. While secular liberals discuss the Drop Box as an ‘abuse of the child’s rights’, the Pastor is filmed scouring rubbish heaps and alleyways looking for abandoned babies. Whilst in glossy television studios others debate their ‘concerns’, he is seen in his back street church feeding children too ill or maimed to do so themselves.

The filmmakers have an uphill struggle. Although things are changing, documentaries are rarely box office gold. In truth they barely get an outing at the multiplex, confined instead to Art House theatres in limited release. The Drop Box deserves the sort of unexpected success – both critical and box office – that Into Great Silence managed to gain. It is a movie as great as it is equally counter-cultural. Now, with the increasing prevalence of viewing movies via the internet, a film such as this stands some chance of recognition. If there is any justice – but I’m not counting on it – then this film should make it onto the list for Best Documentary at next year’s Oscars.

In any event, it will change lives; it already has. The director, Brian Ivie, started making the movie as a man of no particular faith. In fact, like any good documentary filmmaker, he just saw a great story. He found one all right, but one in which he was to play a part as well, because, by the end, he was a Christian. On hearing this, I wasn’t surprised. Anyone who comes into the presence of this saintly pastor and his work can only but be enriched – watching it millions of miles from Korea, I felt his presence too…

Do yourself a favour. Run to any theatre still showing this, or via the film’s website sign up your local church for a screening, or just download/rent it online and then watch it with your family and friends but prepare to be moved. This is what cinema is supposed to be all about and, with 500 babies saved, in Pastor Lee we have found a new hero – and, for once, a real one.

K. V. Turley


KV Turley writes from London

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  • kirk

    Wow! What a story! I’ll be looking for the movie.

  • Percy Gryce

    We might note that the medieval Church invented the drop box–although then it was called the rota:

  • Howard

    You ask the wrong question. The real question is, “Are the Oscars worthy of The Drop Box?” Based on what the Academy has chosen to reward and promote over the past few decades, to say nothing of the atmosphere surrounding their award show, I would have to answer, “No.”

  • Howard

    Interesting — but do you know of a reference to this in English? Naive Google searches are confused by the web service dropbox, by the rotavirus, etc.

  • Marie

    How fascinating! I don’t read whatever language that is written in, though. Is there a translation available?

  • Marie

    Howard, I agree about the search terms. I tried “medieval church caring for abandoned infants” instead and below is one of the results, a very interesting Wikipedia article. It seems “baby hatch” is the more common term as opposed to “drop box.” Apparently one of the medieval rotating style ones was in active use in Santo Spirito Hospital in Vatican City for several hundred years!

  • kam counts

    Thank you for sharing this, I would not have found it. Do you think a Hollywood version would be very different?