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She Feeds Bodies and Souls

Mission: With a beat-up van, donated bread and homemade soup, Gloria Kim travels the city with food and prayers for the homeless.

January 21, 2002|ERIKA HAYASAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every morning, this frail 60-year-old minister with silver hair revs up her old Dodge van and begins scouring Los Angeles street corners, alleys and parks in search of the homeless and hungry.

Her beat-up blue van is loaded with boxes of oranges and bananas, bags of bread, piles of clothes and a steaming kettle of homemade soup. She pulls up to a hovel, honks the horn and yells: "Hallelujah!" or "Hello, my brother!"

Her patrons call her "Mama" for her acts of charity--a bowl of soup, a sack of nuts--hand-delivered with a prayer.

For 15 years this has been Gloria Kim's routine, her sole mission. Her van and her rosy-cheeked face are well-known among the homeless in MacArthur Park, Lafayette Park, Koreatown, Griffith Park and downtown Los Angeles.

"Without my help many of the homeless people would be hungry, sick and would even die out there without anybody ever noticing," Kim said. "I prayed to God and said, 'Here I am, you gave me new life. You train me and use me for whatever you need.' "

Kim, a former nurse who turned her life over to religion nearly 20 years ago, founded the Zion Gospel Mission in 1986 in Los Angeles, along with her late mother. Technically, it's a nonprofit organization. In practice, it's a one-woman food kitchen, with a few helping hands.

"She's here all the time," said LaTanya Walker, a 43-year-old homeless woman at MacArthur Park, who prefers to be called Africa. "Through rain or shine, her being sick, getting [parking] tickets. She never gives up on us."

During the week, Kim's day begins at 2 a.m. She spends the early morning cooking soup made of tomatoes, potatoes, noodles and other ingredients. Her huge stock pot can feed 300.

By 4 a.m. she is driving to Griffith Park to pray facing the mountains, she said. Then, she feeds three homeless people who sleep at the park entrance. Next, she makes the rounds to businesses that donate food and clothes.

"I give her bread. She's always happy," said Lawrence Choi, 34, owner of Se Nue Bakery. "She's getting older and sometimes she's sick, but even so, everyday she comes."

Kim draws much of her support from small, Korean- and Latino-owned business and churches concentrated in Koreatown. Also civic groups, including the Korean-American Federation, give her money, surplus food and used clothing.

Hannan Supermarket recently held a fund-raiser, presenting her with $2,000. Along with Se Nue Bakery, she also depends on Guatemalteca Bakery and Restaurante for bread.

About 9 a.m., Kim begins delivering food to people sleeping in makeshift tents or gathering at parks.

On Saturday morning, Kim stopped near 5th Street and Commonwealth Avenue, where she saw a cardboard and shopping cart shelter.

"Hallelujah! Good morning!"

A woman inside the tent asked, "Can I have two soups this morning?"

"Two soup? OK, two soup," Kim said.

Kim also gave the woman two pairs of pants, a bag of bananas, oranges and sliced honeydew and several pieces of sweet bread.

"Bye, Mama!" the homeless woman yelled, not coming out from under her shelter.

"All right, have a good day," Kim said.

On weekends, a few volunteers help Kim load and deliver food from the old van, which was donated by a junk yard. Other days Kim works alone.

Ray Bleau, owner of B&B Restaurant and Bakery Equipment Co. in Los Angeles, met Kim 10 years ago when she asked him for pots and pans.

"Here's this little woman, who probably only weighs 65 pounds, out there doing this by herself," he said. "She needs someone to get behind her . . . and help her establish an administrative section, and help her get grants that are available."

Bleau recalled that when a homeless man that Kim knew died, she tracked down a suit to dress his body and persuaded a church to donate a burial site.

Kim immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea in 1976 and worked as a nurse in Florida. Before that, she helped a community of exiled leprosy patients in South Korea.

Kim and her mother, Mok Lim Kim, moved to Los Angeles in 1984 and began their ministry in 1986, feeding the homeless out of a Koreatown garage they rented and lived in for $450 a month.

The women became familiar faces on the street corners and in the parks and alleys of Los Angeles.

When Kim's mother died in 1990, she continued on her own. She supports herself with the help of donations.

On Dec. 26, 1997, fire destroyed the uninsured Koreatown house Kim had just begun to rent, leaving her without a home or a kitchen for the Zion Gospel Mission.

When word spread, financial support poured in from the community, she said. A year later, she had enough from donations and personal savings to buy a two-room, $62,000 building on Venice Boulevard near Koreatown, where Kim cooks, holds prayer services and allows homeless people to eat and take showers.

She rents a nearby two-bedroom house with a friend.

She only serves healthy food such as fruit, bread, soup and nuts because "a plain diet is good for them. It restores the body, the soul and mind," she said. "All junk food is no good."

Her friend Bleau donated a new kitchen, with an electric stove, two refrigerators, cabinets, shelves, sinks and a ventilator to help continue Kim's work in her new building.

Kim wishes she had regular volunteers, or even an employee or two, during the week. Her cataracts are giving her trouble, and she worries about driving alone in the dark.

But that didn't stop her from leading a prayer service in front of nearly 20 homeless and low-income people at MacArthur Park on Saturday morning.

"It's a rich country, the United States. But there are many homeless on the streets," she said. "They need socks. They need food. They need jobs."

Walker, who has known Kim for 15 years, said the homeless respect her.

"She used to drive through the alleyways. I don't know how she would find me, but she would wake me up and tell me to eat," Walker said. "She's heaven sent."

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