It was another glorious June morning in Southern California. Brian Ivie was midway through a bowl of Cinnamon Life cereal when the headline in the Los Angeles Times caught his eye.
"South Korean Pastor Tends an Unwanted Flock."
He read the entire story, which was lengthy. And then he read it again—and again, and again, as the Life took on milk and soggily sank to the bottom of his bowl, forgotten.
The article detailed the efforts of Lee Jong-rak, a pastor in Seoul, South Korea, who had built a mailbox in the front of his house church where people could safely abandon newborn babies they didn't want or were unable to care for. Most had birth defects or special needs; Lee and his wife had personally adopted nine of them, and were foster parents to another dozen. Their church was—and still is—the only privately run center for disabled children in the country of more than 50 million.
To Ivie, a whip-smart 20-year-old aspiring director at the University of Southern California Film School, the story looked like a great opportunity to make a documentary about one man vs. the perfectionistic Korean culture.
"How does this happen? Why are kids disposable, and how can they be left in this box?" he asked himself.
The story had guts—and heart and soul. Visions of the Sundance Film Festival began to swim before him.
Within minutes, he had Lee's contact information, courtesy of an obliging Times reporter. He sent an email, explaining who he was and that he wanted to make a documentary about Lee's work.
A month later, he got a response bearing the tell-tale marks of Google Translator.
"Dear Brian," it said. "I don't know what it means to make a documentary film, but you can come and live with me for a while if you want."
The result is The Drop Box—a moving, 80-minute documentary that will play in 717 theaters nationwide March 3-5 in conjunction with Focus on the Family. It provides an opportunity for audiences to make a lasting difference by getting directly involved with Lee's work and other global orphan-care initiatives.
And though Ivie had no way of knowing it at the time, it would change his own life for eternity.
Ivie, now 24, has known what he wanted to do with his life since he was 9.
"I would make movies during the summertime," he tells Citizen. "Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter. They weren't supposed to be spoofs, but they ended up being spoofs. We would show them on a sheet in my driveway for everyone in the cul-de-sac."
Ivie was confirmed as a child and sometimes attended Mass with his parents while growing up in the comfortable beach town of San Clemente, Calif.
"If people had asked me if I was a Christian, I would have said yes," he recalls, "because I was really nice, I didn't smoke cigarettes and I watched Fox News with my mom."
But where Ivie really worshipped was at the altar of cinema. The art of storytelling fascinated him. "It kept me on my toes, kept me awake, and I loved doing it. And that was a good thing—until it became the ultimate thing."
His passion took him all the way to USC Film School, one of the nation's best. But once there, "things started falling apart for me pretty fast, because everyone there was just like me." His nominal faith failed to sustain him; he sought fulfillment through his art and a growing addiction to Internet pornography.
But once he started working on The Drop Box, it seemed as though a providential hand began to put things in order.
Ivie began with a $5,000 campaign on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, planning to make a five-minute film. But at the last minute—on a whim—he upped it to $20,000.
"It was kind of a dare to God to do something I thought He should be able to do," he says. "I didn't really know Him at the time, but I thought it was very possible that could happen."
Not only was it possible—it was easy. "We didn't have to do too much campaigning," he recalls. "People caught hold of the story and the heart of it."
A few days after reaching the goal, Ivie got a phone call from a stranger—a friend of a friend—who said, "I heard about this story and I wondered if I might double your money."
Taken aback, Ivie asked why. The stranger simply said, "It's important. You'll understand later."
Within a week, a different stranger called, asking to donate another $25,000 to the project. Again, Ivie asked why, and received a similar answer: "It's important. You'll understand later."
Shortly thereafter, a classmate approached him on campus and suggested he get in touch with a friend of her mother's.
That friend turned out to be married to the billionaire who founded the RED Digital Cinema Camera Company, which makes high-resolution professional equipment for filmmakers and photographers. She asked how she could help. Ivie took a deep breath and plunged in.
"I know Peter Jackson is shooting The Hobbit on the RED camera right now," he said. "I always used to make Lord of the Rings movies when I was a little kid … Would you buy us a RED camera?"
"Of course I will," she said simply.
Not long afterward, Ivie recalls, he walked into the RED headquarters in Burbank and back out with $50,000 worth of high-end equipment. On Dec. 15, 2011, he and 10 friends flew to South Korea—courtesy of yet another interested party who just wanted to help—to meet the man who was laying down his life for unwanted babies.
Those miracles were only beginning.
Heart and Seoul
Lee Jong-rak, now 61 and pastor of Jusarang Community Church, is a tall, spare man with high, prominent cheekbones and an air of dignified humility so deep as to be almost regal.
He wasn't always. As a young man, he ran away from home, battled alcoholism, was fired from a job and regularly fought with executives at the company where he worked as a salesman.
But Lee's life turned around through the answered prayers of his wife, Chun-ja. She invited him to church, where he met Jesus. They had a daughter—and later, a son.
And that was when the rubber of Lee's faith really met the road of reality.
According to his medical records, Lee Eun-man (meaning "full of God's grace"), now 28, was born with cerebral palsy. The truth is that his physical challenges defy convenient descriptions: A gigantic cyst on his face at birth absorbed most of the blood flow in his head, leaving him brain-damaged after it was removed. A hole in his trachea must be manually vacuumed several times a day to help him breathe. His limbs are rubbery and flaccid, bent at odd angles, feet turned backward. They have never borne his weight.
Even though doctors said he wouldn't survive an entire year, Lee hid Eun-man from Chun-ja for a month after his birth, while he wrestled with God and asked, "Why?" But then, the couple had a revelation: All life is precious. Eun-man's life had a God-given purpose—and they were going to fight for their son.
The medical bills were staggering. So Lee sold the market he owned and he, Chun-ja and their 7-year-old daughter essentially moved into the hospital that would be Eun-man's home for the first 14 years of his life.
"It was during this process of suffering that God called me to do this," Lee tells Citizen.
During the long days at the hospital, Lee would visit the other patients and pray. He saw medically documented miracles occur: Blind babies received their sight. One with brain cancer was totally healed. When Eun-man was 6, Lee went to seminary; Chun-ja ran a small restaurant to help support the family.
Word got around. A hospitalized woman made him a deal: If Lee would care for her grandchild after she died, she would become a Christian. Lee took the deal—and the baby, who has grown up in his house. Others sent him their disabled children to adopt.
And after Eun-man was finally allowed to leave the hospital and the family was back home, the babies kept coming—dropped off at the Lees' door or gate.
So in 2009, Lee built the slot he calls the Baby Box on the front of his house, where parents can safely place the children they cannot raise, for whatever reason, assured of their chances of survival. So far, 629 babies have come through it, many with notes—and in a culture where physical perfection is valued, most come with special needs.
The Lees do whatever they can to help the children live a good life: When the Baby Box bell rings—often in the dark of night—Lee rushes to collect the child. Gathering it to his chest, the first thing he does is pray over it. As the baby is being examined for health issues, the police are notified, and later other government groups and adoption agencies. Unless or until another family adopts the child, the Lees regard it as their own. And they pay for whatever surgeries may be required—some of which, like Eun-man's, are astronomically expensive.
"One of my sons was a preemie, and the hospital bill was $50,000 for the initial surgery," Lee says. "One of them has had nine brain surgeries and two heart surgeries.
"It's a lot of money, but God has met the needs. I've learned that God is a loving God, and He really cares for each of His children."
The same can't necessarily be said of the Korean government. Concerned that the Baby Box was actually encouraging parents to abandon their children, state officials have cut off aid to the family for Eun-man's care and urged Lee to cease his work. In 2012, a law intending to help unwed mothers put their children up for adoption was passed. However, it requires children to be registered with their birth mothers' names. And since discovery is precisely the thing unwed Korean mothers are trying to avoid, abandonment has actually skyrocketed over the last three years-and the babies' chances of adoption have dropped commensurately.
The Lees, despite advancing age, limited funds and precarious health—Jong-rak is diabetic—refuse to turn their backs on the children needing their help. The Baby Box is busier than ever.
The Great Reward
That was what Brian Ivie and his crew discovered during the two weeks they spent sleeping on the Lees' floor near the Baby Box three years ago.
"When we first met him, we sat down at this little table and he told us he didn't want the movie to be about him," Ivie recalls. "We were like, 'But we need you! You're our main character!' "
But as the days went by, things began to change.
"A lot of the kids that were left there had disabilities and deformities. Blind, deaf, missing limbs, facial deformities," Ivie says. "I was watching these videos, each one an individual life—and I kept seeing myself in all these videos, like I was just another one of those kids."
It began to dawn on Ivie what Lee really meant: The story was about the unconditional love of a Father for a whole lot of imperfect, unlovely children who couldn't care for themselves—and who, without intervention, were facing certain death.
And when he returned to LA, he discovered that love for himself, through a podcast of a sermon about Jesus becoming sin in order to pay the penalty for sinners.
"I had never heard it that way before," he recalls. "And then I understood. What I had experienced in Korea was the Father's love. And I saw it at the computer where I'd been addicted to pornography for several years. I saw Him becoming that for me, saw Him taking my place in an impure relationship, yelling at that same girlfriend because she wasn't enough. And I hated myself.
"I knew myself for the first time, that I had all these things inside—these deformities and this brokenness—but I had a Father who loved me to death. Literally. It changed everything."
When Ivie returned to Seoul in August 2012, it was as a new person—and to make a film not about Pastor Lee, but the unconditional love the Father expressed through him.
In 2013, a rough cut of the film took the top award at the 2013 San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival.
"I thought we had a chance to win the Documentary category, because there weren't a lot of films in it," Ivie says. "But to win the overall was amazing."
It also meant $101,000 in prize money, which helped Ivie and his crew finish the film, with additional trips to Seoul in December 2013 and July 2014.
While that was going on, though, the rough cut was still racking up accolades: Selected for the 2014 Bayou City Inspirational Film Festival, the Heartland Film Festival, Missions Fest Vancouver, the Portland Film Festival and the Unspoken Human Rights Film Festival. Winning the Inspiration Award at the John Paul II Film Festival. Named Best Justice Film at the Justice Film Festival in LA.
During that dizzying run, Focus on the Family got involved—providing money to help finish the film and distribute it through the special three-night event at select theaters nationwide in early March. Part of the proceeds from ticket sales and theater rentals will go to the Global Orphan Care Fund, established by Focus and Kindred Image—a nonprofit founded by Ivie—to support Lee's work in South Korea and raise awareness of the needs of the 150 million orphans around the world. The goal: To raise $1 million by this August.
So what's next for Ivie? For one, a new documentary about spiritual revival movements, taking a 1960s tour bus up the California coast. But mostly, he plans to use the gifts he once worshipped as a means to worship the Giver.
"I want people to see the films I make and know I love God and I love movies, a lot," he says. "I want them to see that God is the most interesting thing ever—to talk about God in a really authentic way.
"Christians shouldn't be the ones who avoid culture and avoid people, but who go there to bring light and the best kind of love and the best kind of friendship. That's what Jesus would be doing if He were a filmmaker—be in Hollywood."
And for Pastor Lee? The work of the Baby Box will simply continue, as he pours out his love and his life—one child at a time.
"I am nobody," he says simply. "But God has transformed me and opened my eyes and ears. Anybody who has gone through the suffering and leading of Christ in my life would have done the same thing. Any one of you.
"You be the Christ to others."
GET INVOLVED: To watch a trailer for The Drop Box, visit http://youtu.be/yTQ2VTf5vWc. To learn more about the special three-night showing of The Drop Box and how you and your church or small group can get involved, visit TheDropBoxFilm.com. Tickets are available through the site; information about renting a 200-seat theater can be obtained by emailing GroupSales@fotf.org or calling 1-800-A-FAMILY. To learn how you can promote the film through social media, send an email to FilmQuestions@fotf.org.