Rev. Dr. Jean Kim: Mother to the Homeless

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Mother to the Homeless Rev. Dr. Jean Kim
Photo courtesy Jean Kim Foundation

By Donna Hawkey

When a five-foot-tall Korean immigrant changes the world, we should all listen.

Meet 85-year-old trailblazer and “Mother to the Homeless,” Rev. Dr. Jean Kim. She has spent 50 years of her life serving people who become homeless in Seattle, Lynnwood, Edmonds, Brier, Mountlake Terrace, and beyond. 

Before immigrating to the U.S., she spent years experiencing poverty and homelessness while witnessing the devastation of her home and her culture during the Korean War.

Rev. Dr. Jean Kim has been wearing a purple shirt with the printed words “End Homelessness” – every day - since 1997! 

Rev. Dr. Jean Kim at her 80th birthday party
Photo courtesy Jean Kim Foundation

Homelessness is Multi-Dimensional

Her family makes a harrowing escape to South Korea when she is 11 years of age. Throughout her early life, she feels a sense of homelessness beyond the physical needs of shelter; she calls this “multi-dimensional homelessness.” It encompasses physical, emotional, and social homelessness. This definition stems from her half-century of listening carefully to many homeless people and from her personal experiences, too.

Beginning with a wealthy early childhood, she ran through vast orchards on property lined with four estate homes in North Korea. However, inside those homes, she witnessed the terror of her father’s physical and emotional abuse of her mother. She says, “Emotionally, I was born homeless. Whenever my mother cried, I cried with her. I shared her tears, grief, and anger.”

During the Korean War, Rev. Dr. Kim experiences physical homelessness with the loss of all their family’s wealth. Her young life started on a path of further personal heartbreaks that never fully breaks her spirit; it serves to strengthen her resolve. She credits her faith in God for that.

“Jesus carries me on her back,” she says. Throughout her tragic and grueling life circumstances, she always brings herself back to hope through the eyes, words, and wonder of God.

Devoted to bringing dignity to lives traumatized by any of the multi-level aspects of homelessness, she works tirelessly. 

"Many suffer the dimension of “social homelessness. They’ve become estranged by their families and don’t have any relatives nearby or even a single friend to turn to in times of crisis.” --Rev. Dr. Kim.

“Purple is the liturgical color for the Seasons of Lent in the Christian tradition. It can symbolize pain, suffering, mourning, and penitence. It is also the color of royalty, so traditionally, it has been used for the season of Advent in the Christian tradition.” --Rev. Dr. Kim.

Transforming all “pain-stricken purple people into hope-filled purple people” is her life goal. 

Rev. Kim's first church was housed in the former First United Methodist Church in downtown Seattle.
Photo courtesy the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation

Miracle Creator

“Together, we can accomplish miracles.” --Rev. Dr. Kim.

She created fifteen miracle missions both locally and nationally, including the seed of the idea for the very successful Mary’s Place, a family shelter. In her book, Jubilee Handbook: An Introduction to the Mission of Ending Homelessness, she provides 106 concepts she gleaned from all her life experiences and ideas for systematic ways to solve serious problems.

After traveling extensively to learn about several hundred homeless programs from congregations across the U.S., she made many lifetime friends and associates while working, studying, and raising a family. With a Doctorate in Ministry (at the age of 71), a Master of Social Work, and certification as a mental health counselor, Rev. Dr. Kim is more than well-qualified.

She has received 25 community awards, including the 2019 Snohomish County Human Rights Award. The award was presented to her on December 8, 2019, to commemorate the 71st U.N. Human Rights Day.

In 1981, before she turned 50, she also received a humanity award from the Seattle Chapter of the United Nations Association. The Korean government awarded her the Medal of Honor, and from the Presbyterian Church U.S., Women of Faith, she received a service award.

For her 80th birthday, after being inspired by her work helping homeless college students find housing, her family and friends developed an educational foundation called “The Jean Kim Foundation,” a 501(c) (3) organization.

Rev. Dr. Kim worked for ten years at Harborview’s mental health clinic and helped many homeless women that fled from domestic violence. They had no money and nowhere to live, and they needed a safe place to go, just as she had experienced in war-torn Korea. Through these eyes and her generous heart, she created her first mission, The Church of Mary Magdalene, in downtown Seattle. This church mission became the nucleus for forming the first Mary’s Place shelter.

“Homelessness for women and children is a life-threatening trauma, just like fires and tornados. Homelessness for women often means robbery, assault, rape, and even murder. Therefore, I named homelessness “the disease unto death.” --Rev. Dr. Kim.

When she created the Church of Mary Magdalene, it became a uniquely spiritual place that allows homeless women to feel safe during the week without the threat of male violence. A worship service takes place every Saturday. For the sermon, the preacher and women engage in discussion rather than a traditional sermon format. Rev. Dr. Kim praises women by saying, “You are better than Biblical commentaries.”

Homeless women were given new lingerie free every quarter to allow them to feel some dignity. She says, “Wearing well-fitting, clean, new lingerie helps women to feel their image is being restored, which was created in God’s image.” Once a Seattle Times article called the Church of Mary Magdalene, “A Lingerie Church.”

She brought the healing gift of singing and music to the congregation. Eventually, they hired a music director, and the homeless choir was invited by other churches to sing at their services. Today the choir still sings together every Saturday (until the coronavirus crisis), and their choir has an excellent reputation.

A small number still meets on Saturday, despite the coronavirus threat, for weekly worship in the basement of Gethsemane Lutheran Church, downtown Seattle, under Zoom worship leadership.

Although Rev. Dr. Kim did use old hotels or motels in downtown Seattle for homeless families, the Church of Mary Magdalene never became a family shelter. But when Rev. Pat Simpson took over the mission, she named Rev. Dr. Kim’s weekly day program “Mary’s Place.”

After Rev. Simpson, Marty Hartman was hired, and Mary’s Place became an independent 501(c)(3) inspired by Rev. Kim’s original work and service. Today, Mary’s Place does outstanding leadership work to end family homelessness. But there is much more work to be done.

Public Policy and Attitude Change Needed

Rev. Dr. Kim reminds us that in 1948, the U.S. signed the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” an international document that includes proclaiming housing as a human right; but the U.S. has woefully fallen behind on adhering to this right.

Everyone needs housing to perform a job well and to live a healthy life, so Housing First is something Rev. Dr. Kim has been working on most of her life. King County is now known as a national leader in the Housing First approach – thanks to trailblazers like Rev. Dr. Kim!

“No public will support the establishment of a homeless shelter. The public seems to want the homeless to sink into the earth or evaporate into the air. They want them to disappear. That is the attitude of the public we have in our midst.” --Rev. Dr. Kim.

Political will and economic policy changes are the magic keys to ending homelessness.

“The federal government concentrated public housing in segregated inner-city neighborhoods and subsidized metropolitan sprawl. It failed to create enough affordable housing for low-income families and minorities in rapidly developing suburbs. There are four-to-five year waiting lists for housing, and people and families are cut off from decent housing, educational, and economic opportunities.” --Rev. Dr. Kim.

We know that homelessness disproportionately affects people of color, so our society continues to discriminate against racial groups similar to redlining.

Many decades of disastrous budget cuts at the federal and state levels have helped cause this unnecessary plight. And now, with COVID-19 and the economic crisis, we are ready for a “volcano eruption.” --Rev. Dr. Kim. 

She believes every person will feel suffering from the financial strain of this pandemic.

“Many city governments want to dump, sweep away, or throw away homeless people just like we throw away trash, instead of solving the problem of homelessness.” --Rev. Dr. Kim.

As we move to a technology-driven economy, there are fewer employment opportunities for people without training or formal education. The hourly wage for most lower-skilled jobs does not allow for sustainable living or even cover rent in a one-bedroom apartment.

“Some of you might say that we have made it in our struggles; why can’t they? People who have many problems are still housed if they have financial or family resources. People who have been messed up too deeply can’t make it on their own. They need help.” --Rev. Dr. Kim.

Governments everywhere need to step up to ensure that all human beings can exit out of a life cycle of poverty. Jobs need to be created that meet people in trauma where they are at, not our perceived expectations of them. And support services are needed to get them over the bumps and sometimes giant hurdles that someone in trauma goes through to heal.  

People who become homeless have the right to be treated as equal human beings in society. It’s the right thing to do.

Public Education Needed

Contrary to opinion, due to a lack of public education, drugs or alcohol are not the primary reasons for homelessness, although that also can be a reason for homelessness. (The opioid crisis shows us the disease of addiction knows no income, ethnic, or other social boundaries.) Drugs and alcohol are sought out for stress relief for the traumatic effects of becoming homeless and the effects of living without any basic standard of human living.

“Root causes of homelessness are based on racial disparities and historic institutional racism. For instance, behavioral health services for people of color have been almost non-existent along with affordable housing.” --Rev. Dr. Kim.

The lack of affordable rents/housing and low-wages or lack of employment ultimately becomes the main reason people become homeless. And it can result in poor health, depression, addiction, and shame. It’s one of the worst human tragedies in modern times. For these people, it feels like “God has walked away and left them hopeless and spiritless.” --Rev. Dr. Kim.

While chronic homelessness does exist, most people are homeless only once, if they receive the necessary and critical services needed. Studies show criminalizing homelessness costs more. For example, one day in jail that costs $87 is compared to one day in a shelter at $28.

(This is a fundamental concept of Shoreline’s Community Court; to provide targeted support services to help people.)

Her Legacy is Published

In the last few years, Rev. Dr. Kim has been encouraged to write and publish what she has learned throughout her over 50 years of experience. She has published a four-book series available on Amazon. 

These books are the bible of homelessness solutions, including her years of serving the homeless and her compelling autobiography. They’re for anyone who desires to become more informed, or are in a place of public policymaking, or curious about a remarkable women’s life. She is currently writing a summary of these four books translated into Korean.

Please consider reading about her work; a healthy society depends upon listening to humanity leaders. We can all work together on solutions no matter who we are. Rev. Jean Kim indeed teaches us that!

Read her hundreds of solution ideas and many that she implemented with much success. She gives us lots of purple hope and reminds us that God loves us all and that Jesus walked the path of homelessness, too.

Rev. Dr. Kim resided in Lake Forest Park during the years 1989-1998.

All proceeds from her books are donated to six homeless missions in the Seattle, Lynnwood, and Edmonds areas, including the Jean Kim Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. Its mission is to break the chain of poverty through education.

This article was written from reading Rev. Dr. Kim’s books, websites, and various communication between us. More to come about Rev. Dr. Kim personally and her work. Thank you Rev. Dr. Kim for your time, education, patience, and editorial assistance. It is an honor to be introduced to you!

Update: "Jean Kim is with Jesus where there is no more pain or sorrow." My mother (Jean Kim) passed away peacefully on July 3, 2021 at 3:35am. - Sam Kim


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