The Rev. Jean Kim learned what it was like to lose everything at the age of 11.
Kim was born in 1935 on an apple orchard in Hamhŭng, a town in North Korea. She and her family escaped south in 1946 as political strife enveloped the peninsula in the aftermath of World War II. It was wintertime, but they fled on foot.
Kim never forgot the experience, nor what came after, living as a refugee without a home through the Korean War.
“She had her own grief and loss and pain,” said Marty Hartman, executive director of Seattle homeless shelter Mary’s Place and a friend of Kim’s. “And she wanted to transform that into something for good.”
It was a lofty goal, but one Kim lived up to. After immigrating to the United States in 1970, she became a minister of the national Presbyterian Church and founded 15 mission programs to support people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. She wrote 13 books, in both English and Korean, about her advocacy work and was awarded a medal of honor from the South Korean government and a human rights award from Snohomish County.
Kim died on July 3 in Everett from lung fibrosis, according to her son Sam Kim. She was 86.
In Seattle, where she moved in 1979, Kim worked as a social worker before founding the Church of Mary Magdalene, a nondenominational church for women experiencing homelessness. It continues today as Mary’s Place.
Those who worked with Kim remember her for her conviction. When she decided on an objective, they said she was indefatigable.
“Jean was really delightful,” said the Rev. M. Christopher Boyer, a pastor at Good Shepherd Baptist Church in Lynnwood, where Kim helped establish a homeless shelter. “But underneath all of that warmth was this steel … that she was going to accomplish what she wanted to accomplish.”
Kim had to do much of the work on her own. When she first arrived in Seattle, she drove up and down Third Avenue in a brown Toyota van, giving out food and clothing to anyone in need. After borrowing spaces in other churches, she was ecstatic to acquire a basement on Columbia Street in downtown Seattle where she could host community events.
She loved to sing and frequently led singing parades around the room with tambourines and maracas. And she brought her own brand of support — lingerie, which she said helped restore the dignity of women experiencing homelessness.
Kim was not alone for long. With a joyous smile and an infectious personality, she made people want to help her. She always wore purple — a shirt with her maxim printed across the front: End Homelessness for All People.
“She was a mother to the homeless community,” Hartman said. “I will just say how grateful we are to have her love and her legacy and her spirit of ‘can do’ and ‘should do.’ And we continue to live that out.”
Many of the organizations Kim founded continue their work today. The Jean Kim Foundation supports students experiencing homelessness at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood. And the Nest Mission, a nonprofit composed of Korean-American church leaders, supports people experiencing homelessness in Washington
The Rev. Deuksil Jung, executive director of Nest Mission, didn’t know anyone else on his board before he joined the organization. It was Kim’s legacy that inspired him to take part.
“We’ve become like a family since then,” he said. “All those things happened because of Kim. She did it. She connected every one of them.”
And she kept doing it for as long as she could.
In her final days, Kim joined Mary’s Place’s worship services on Zoom. She was animated when she spoke with her hospice nurse, her son Sam Kim said. Nest Mission needed more nurses to help treat people in their shelter. Kim was recruiting her to help.
“The hospice nurse told me that my mother instilled in her that desire to help the homeless again,” Sam Kim said.