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GOOD TURNS

Poor Woman, Rich Legacy of Unselfishness

Death of the homeless Koko saddens the church where she worshiped and to which she gave. Priest vows she won't go to pauper's grave.

July 08, 2001|STEVE PADILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Koko lived on the streets and died on the streets, but that's not how her friends choose to remember her.

Instead, when they think of Koko, as they often do these days, they remember her gifts--gifts from someone who seemed to have so little to give.

Her name was Helen Jung Oh, but most folks didn't know her real name or even that she went by Koko. She was the homeless, old Asian woman, tiny and gentle and sweet, who roamed the Echo Park neighborhood.

They found her body on a June morning in the place where she often slept, behind a doughnut shop along Glendale Boulevard. People who saw her the day before she died said she had looked gray. She was 62.

One of her friends was the Rt.Rev. J. Jon Bruno, who works at the Cathedral Center of St. Paul, a modern white building that overlooks Echo Park Lake. He is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and from the cathedral could watch as she napped in the park. More than once she resisted his offers to find her shelter.

"I'm perfectly happy," Koko would say. "This is my community."

Most staff members and parishioners at the cathedral knew her. For a time she would swing by every morning and ask Caroline Fabella, then the receptionist, for coffee. "Just come in and get whatever you want," Fabella would say.

Koko soon returned the kindness. "She gave me a necklace," Fabella recalled. At other times, Koko also brought an orange, an apple, some deodorant, a bar of motel soap. "Almost every week she had something for me," Fabella said.

Koko often attended Sunday services, sitting in the back. One day, after the collection plate had been passed around, she stepped up to the altar, where it had been placed.

She stood before Bruno, and they must have been quite a pair. Short and slight, Koko loved bright colors--she once wore bee-striped tights--and impossibly high platform shoes. Wing-like blue eye makeup "made her eyes look like they would fly away," Bruno said. Rumor had it that she had been a fashion designer.

Bruno stands 6-feet-4 and once played center for the Denver Broncos. He and the congregation watched as Koko took out a roll of money, wound tightly as a cigarette, and held it high. She bowed her head and placed it in the collection plate. It totaled $56.

Bruno tried to give it back. "You need this to live on," he told her.

"I don't often have a time to be generous," she replied. "So let me be generous."

Every so often she repeated the scene, always raising up her offering before putting it in the collection plate. And for reasons only Koko knew, the offering was often $56. No one at the church knew where she got the money.

The Very Rev. Ernesto R. Medina, the diocese's provost, was one of the first priests at the cathedral to learn of Koko's death when parishioner Ramon Partilla announced during a service that "the little Asian woman" had died. Summing up her legacy, Partilla said, "It's good enough to say you harmed no one."

The priests decided to hold a requiem and posted fliers, in English and Spanish on lavender paper, inviting the neighborhood to "a memorial service of Thanksgiving for the life and ministry of Koko."

Life and ministry. As a memorial shrine took shape behind the doughnut shop, the words seemed apt.

Next to store-bought bouquets sat improvisational floral arrangements--a purple agapanthus stuffed into a McDonald's cup. Candles and condolence cards. "God be with you. God bless," read one, signed only "Rafael." Another read: "How often I think about you and smile. We miss you. Your friends."

Yet another card bid farewell: "A lovely journey home. Your friends."

In time, the street and the elements took their toll, just as they had on Koko. After several days, the ink had faded, the flowers withered, and a glass candle holder chipped. After a few weeks, there was nothing left.

Medina recounted Koko's story during a homily the Sunday after the June 14 requiem. One of the day's readings, from the Gospel of Luke, told the story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. "She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment."

When a Pharisee denounced the woman as a sinner, Jesus thanked her for her simple gift. He turned to his apostles: "Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love."

As he read the story, Medina told the congregation, he couldn't stop thinking of Koko.

"She dared to love, dared to give," he said, just like Mary Magdalene.

Medina didn't mention it, but another Scripture passage came to mind, the story of the widow in the temple. The Gospel of Mark, in the glorious language of the King James Version, tells the tale:

"And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: And many that were rich cast in much.

"And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.

"And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, 'Verily I say unto you, that this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:

" 'For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.' "

Coroner's officials have yet to locate any relatives of Helen Jung Oh and can confirm only that the body of an Asian woman, age 62, was discovered June 7 at 11:40 a.m. in the 1900 block of Montana Street. If a relative or friend doesn't step forward, procedure would call for her to be cremated and the remains interred in a county cemetery.

Bishop Bruno vows, however, that Koko will not be forgotten. If no one claims the body, the church will take her and bury her, one last kindness--one last gift--for Koko.

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