The Rev. Jean Kim, who died earlier this month at the age of 86, believed that “together we can accomplish miracles.” She was exactly right.
For two generations, the tiny (five-foot) Korean immigrant, who had fled North Korea and suffered from homelessness in that escape, led the Seattle region in working miracles for the unsheltered. She had lofty goals — seemingly impossible ones — but she lived up to those goals, becoming an ordained minister of the national Presbyterian Church and eventually founding 15 mission programs locally and internationally to support the homeless.
Back in the 1990s, the early days of her “miracles,” I was working as a Seattle Times columnist and had the good fortune to get to know Rev. Kim. By that time, she had already founded the Church of Mary Magdalene, a nondenominational church for homeless women, in the basement of the historic First Methodist Church on Seattle’s Fifth Avenue.
She told me that she had asked her parishioners — all of them homeless women — to write their hopes for the future on a piece of paper. She asked that they carry that list in their bras for a week. Alas, they couldn’t do it.
The problem was one she hadn’t foreseen. Most of the women had no bra. Or if they did, the bra was an ill-fitting garment. That discovery led Rev. Kim to undertake her “ministry of the lingerie.” She decided her church would supply each of the women with four sets of underwear a year. She said four sets were a minimum because the women, many of them homeless survivors of domestic abuse, tended to lose their belongings or forfeit them to petty theft. Rev. Kim believed that supplying underwear boosted the women’s self image. She told me, “The underwear signifies dignity, cleanliness and taking care of the body. It says ‘Seattle cares about you.'”
In the first four years, more than 400 women received undergarments through the program. Funds came from donations solicited from church-goers and others. Rev. Kim used the funds raised to shop at Kmart where she’d negotiated a 10 percent discount.
After I wrote about the lingerie project there was a happy sequel. Not only did contributions flood in but Rev. Kim also heard from Downtown Nordstrom. She arrived to find five large bags filled to capacity with new Nordstrom lingerie. That generous contribution led the irreverent to start referring to “the Church of the Good Bra.”
It’s easy to make light of the project, but it is simply impossible not to stand in awe of the incredible work that Rev. Kim did to nurture the homeless and unsheltered, especially over the years of her several unsuccessful attempts at “retirement.”
Marty Hartman, now executive director of Mary’s Place, tells how the Church of Mary Magdalene formed the inspiration for Mary’s Place, incorporated in 1999 as a 501 (c) (3) organization. Hartman, who met Rev. Kim when both were volunteering at another shelter, was recruited at Mary’s Place in 2000. Hartman has served there ever since.
Mary’s Place became especially important when the recession hit Seattle in 2009. Suddenly there were moms and children living unsheltered on the streets. Mary’s Place upped its work, enlisting help from 21 faith-based organizations (churches, synagogues, and temples) that took turns hosting homeless moms and children. Today Mary’s Place operates five overnight shelters and a women’s day shelter.
As homelessness increased during the pandemic, the work to bring families inside is being done by volunteers fueled by donations from local corporations such as Amazon, Starbucks, Microsoft, and Vulcan. As Hartman explained, “Jean taught us well. She said we wouldn’t get anywhere if we didn’t learn to ask for what’s needed.”
With Mary’s Place launched, Rev. Kim’s work wasn’t finished. The woman often called “mother of the homeless” went on to found organizations in Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace, and beyond. She established the Nest Mission, a nonprofit composed of Korean-American church leaders who support homeless projects throughout the state. She wrote 13 books in English and Korean. Proceeds from books like “Hope Is the Color Purple,” benefit the Jean Kim Foundation that supports homeless college students.
In recent weeks, Rev. Kim’s long journey finally concluded. She ended those final days joining Mary’s Place worship services on Zoom and inspiring her hospice nurse to serve others. Services to mark her passing are set for Saturday, July 17, at Maplewood Presbyterian in Edmonds. There will be other memorials including one to install Rev. Kim’s star on the Mary’s Place’s Wall of Stars.
But that’s not the end to the many missions that still celebrate the founder. The volunteers she called to action cannot, will not, forget the patron saint of the homeless. They recall with fondness that she always wore purple, the deep purple of Lent and sacrifice. Her purple shirt provided her marching orders: “End Homelessness for All People.”
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