From hand to hand: the journey to North Korea

Medical supplies represent gesture of peace

February 6, 2018 | News
Julie Bell, Mennonite Central Committee
Natalie Gulenchyn, who is in her 80s and volunteers at Mennonite Central Committee’s material resources warehouse in Winnipeg, sewed the medical kit bags that were transported to North Korea. (MCC photo by Rachel Bergen)

It’s been a long trek for eight small bags of medical supplies. They have been packed and re-packed, crossed an ocean, passed through three countries and numerous airport security checks. On this day, the bags have reached their destination—a small medical clinic on a farm near Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

As I watch my Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) colleague, Chris Rice, hand one of the bags to the medical staff, I am humbled by the significance of this small gesture. Rice and I, and two of our MCC colleagues, are here at a time when tensions between this country and other parts of the world are running high. On this day, U.S. president Donald Trump is in the region and most people, including the people of North Korea, are aware of that.

And yet, the story of how the medical kits came to be is what matters most in this moment. Through translation, we tell the medical staff we have come to North Korea to visit some of the projects supported by MCC, including providing canned meat and soybean products to orphanages and schools, and agricultural support on their farm. But their faces light up when we tell them that it was a conversation during a previous visit to the farm that prompted a collaboration of people around the world.

During that visit, medical staff told MCC about accidents on the farm, everything from cuts and scrapes to sprains and broken bones. Word of the need for medical supplies travelled through MCC’s regional office in South Korea and on to our offices in Canada and the U.S. We decided to put together medical kits, consulting with medical experts both in and outside MCC on what the kits should contain. Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we were able to buy the supplies and they were delivered to our material resources warehouse in Winnipeg.

That’s where Natalie Gulenchyn, a long-time volunteer at the resource centre, got involved.  She cut the fabric and sewed the bags, complete with MCC’s iconic dove logo.

Everything was packed into a piece of luggage, which travelled with me from Winnipeg to Beijing, China, where we checked to make sure everything was okay and re-packed the luggage.


The suitcase of medical supplies. (MCC photo by Jennifer Deibert)

The luggage crossed its last border when we travelled to Pyongyang. In yet another hotel room, we moved the supplies—from bandages to surgical tape and disposable gloves—into the eight bags lovingly sewn by Gulenchyn.

Now, as the nurses and a doctor at the clinic thank us for the supplies, I am so grateful for all the hands and hearts involved in bringing these simple gifts here. Donors, volunteers, MCC workers and their families—these people made it happen.

On this day, the hostilities and harsh rhetoric of current times are irrelevant. I think about the many references in the Bible to “do the work of God’s hands.” The call to carry gifts of comfort and words of peace is the only truth that matters.

Natalie Gulenchyn, who is in her 80s and volunteers at Mennonite Central Committee’s material resources warehouse in Winnipeg, sewed the medical kit bags that were transported to North Korea. (MCC photo by Rachel Bergen)

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