The room looks official. Walls of books stand statue-like around the office. Heavy leather chairs circle a large meeting table at one end of the room. An expansive desk with paper piles, miscellaneous books, and small traveler’s trinkets take up the other side. And in the center of the room, right in front of the entrance, sit five leather sofa-seats. They sit invitingly to any potential guest. In the middle of the black sofa-seats stands a knee-high glass coffee table and atop the table is a mix of bottled drinks. Banana flavored milk, a vitamin-C drink, and water, to name a few.
The room looks official, indeed.
But that all changes when Kyungja Kim begins talking. Her smile actually speaks louder than her words. And her excitement to share bounces from one wall to another. “Are you hot? Are you cold? Can I get you anything else?” she warmly asks.
Then, settling into her seat, a smile slips across her face. And in the matter of one minute, the official office quickly feels like a living room at a family gathering.
And like at all family gatherings, storytelling ensues.
Kyungja begins recalling the time her family lived in North Korea. She was seven years old when the Korean War broke out in 1950. Then, in 1952, a wealthy aunt paid a “spy” to help her family cross the border. Kyungja vividly retells of being woken up in the early morning to start packing.
“Suddenly, early in the morning, the spy came to my house and he just yelled, ‘Pack! We have to go!”’ she remembers. Her parents whispered that they were going on a picnic as they trudged out of the door.
“We packed in a hurry, and we ran away,” Kyungja continues. “And we rode a boat, but up in the mountains as we rode the boat, the Communists were shooting at us.”
were shooting at us.” Her delivery sounds surprisingly matter-of-fact. Probably because the story didn’t end in the boat.
She continues on, explaining that after escaping gunfire, her family arrived in South Korea only to be jailed. The whole family lived in police custody for a month while South Korean officials determined if they were Communists or not. They, of course, were not.
For most people, this would be the most profound story of their lives. With spies, guns, and jail, the story has it all. But for Kyungja, it isn’t. In the midst of the conversation, this story breezes by because she recognizes that great escape as only one of many miracles in her life.
Kyungja has traveled the world many times over. Her visits include remote territories, mega-metropolises, and countless villages in between. She currently oversees an organization called Native Partners for World Mission (NPWM), which partners with men and women from every nation in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and even parts of the Middle East and Africa. The goal of this organization remains three-fold: partner with gifted local pastors, open doors for educational training, and equip pastors with ministry connections and financial partnership. NPWM currently connects 60 churches in Korea with over 200 pastors scattered over 20 different nations. NPWM has successfully created a network of churches and organizations that together empower ministries in developing nations. And on top of that, Kyungja owns and operates a Montessori kindergarten connected to her church, Jeil Sungdo, where her husband was the executive pastor for over 45 years.
All of this she chalks up to a few things: conversations (which she absolutely adores), prayer (which she absolutely needs) and, of course, God (whom she absolutely loves).
Eight years after her family settled in South Korea and the two nations transitioned into postwar life, 16-year-old Kyungja became lovestruck. But not by a movie star. Or by a boy in her class. Kyungja constantly daydreamed about one thing: English. All she wanted to do was learn English. So much so, that she and some friends would often jaunt to a U.S. military base in Seoul and wait for Americans to walk out.
“It was an easy way to practice my English,” she says.
She grew up wanting to be a diplomat and that fueled her insatiable hunger to learn English. This desire to be an English-speaking diplomat has God written all over it. There were simply too many miracles throughout her life that birthed from her English conversations to not be God. In fact, a conversation with an English speaker ultimately set her life on a radical journey to follow Jesus.
That English speaker was a U.S. Army officer by the name of Thomas. He was tall, very handsome, and a Christian.
One day, as Kyungja walked home, she heard the jumpy intonation of English flooding from a church door and stopped in her tracks. Her ears perked up as she saw a retreat center holding a conference for U.S. military officers. She had stumbled onto a perfect chance to practice her beloved English. So, Kyungja scurried over to the church and slipped into the back of the sanctuary and eagerly sat in the wooden pews. A perfect spot, she thought.
The service came to a close about an hour after she arrived. She missed most of what was said. Words like “saint” and “savior” were not in her textbook, and she had a hard time keeping up. As Kyungja gathered her coat and bag, Thomas strolled up to her.
“I was happy listening to the English,” Kyungja says. “And then [Thomas] came to me and was asking me, ‘Are you a Christian?’ So, I said, ‘Yes, I go to church.’ And he asked me again, ‘Are you a Christian?’ And I got angry. I said, ‘I told you, I go to church!’ And he said, ‘I am asking you if you are a Christian?’ I didn’t say anything.”
Thomas could tell that this high schooler lacked the key to faith: knowing Jesus. At which point, he suggested that she attend a Bible study on the weekends. Kyungja’s mind immediately jumped at the thought of getting free English lessons. She readily agreed. Thomas traveled the two-hour journey south from the dividing line of North and South Korea to give Saturday Bible lessons while Kyungja excitedly participated, relishing the opportunity to speak English.
“Then, one day, he told me he was going to leave for the United States,” Kyungja remembers. “And he told me, ‘If you gain the whole world, but you don’t have life, what is the world worth? I want you to gain life.’ I kept these words in my mind after that.”
Kyungja's face lingers with fondness over this moment. Thomas challenged her. She distinctly remembers that moment. He effectively put into question her very existence, and Kyungja desperately wanted to answer that question.
From that conversation, Kyungja eventually decided to attend Korean Bible College, located just north of Seoul. While the rest of her friends attended the top universities in Seoul, outfitted with tree-lined paths and tall, European-style lecture halls, Kyungja boarded a bus every morning and headed out to the countryside to study at the small school. Bound for a mission to discover this “life” that Thomas had spoken about, a pressing curiosity scurried around in her heart. Kyungja was always a good person.
She believed in God and faithfully acted out the well-known statutes of the Bible, like giving to the poor and loving her neighbors. But Thomas still spoke about “life” as something she lacked. Kyungja asked herself, what am I missing?
In truth, that was the only reason she was attending the Bible college. She wanted to discover this “life,” then politely withdraw from the college and move on. So, after she entered her first semester, she started praying for God to reveal some answers. Then one day—May 13, 1961 to be exact—God spoke to Kyungja at a school conference. Sitting amongst her fellow classmates, she felt the intense love of God as the conference speaker spoke. It was the moment she had been waiting for. As she sat in the crowd, God highlighted two verses from Isaiah 53:
But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid Him the iniquity of us all.
The truth of this verse pierced her heart. Life meant more than achieving goals and being a good person. Because, despite every effort not to, Kyungja would still makes mistakes. Yet, God still wanted a relationship with her and in order to know God, she had to know Jesus. Kyungja already knew about Jesus, but she didn’t know why she needed to follow Him. And in that moment at the conference, God revealed that He had sacrificed His Son on the cross, so she could be set free from her sins.
at the conference, God revealed that He had sacrificed His Son on the cross, so she could be set free from her sins. A life of freedom was a life worth living. And a life of following Jesus is exactly what Kyungja was looking for.
Kyungja will never forget that day. The tears fell long after everyone left the conference auditorium. Life became so vivid and alive. God was not just a being but a holy Father whose love for Kyungja ran so much deeper than she had imagined. Kyungja found “life” at that conference. This “life”, she realized, was all about Jesus.
And so Kyungja pursued her education at the Bible college with a new perspective. It was there that she met her husband. It was there that she intensely examined the Bible. And it was there that a professor recommended she work for the United World Missions Organization after graduating.
As Kyungja jumps into the story about her time at the United World Missions Organization, her face crimps into a sour look. She rolls her eyes every few sentences in response to what she had to do at the organization. Her job title read “General Secretary” and that meant mailing letters, receiving letters, and conducting countless phone conversations, all in English. And piles of responsibility mounted as she navigated through cultural differences from her foreign superiors. To say she matured on the job would be an understatement.
“At that time, I spoke English, but I couldn’t speak fluently,” Kyungja says. “So sometimes I had some strange pronunciation and they would say, ‘What did you say? What did you say?’ It was so stressful, working from nine o’clock and speaking English all day. So after year, I just gave up.”
But her professor urged her to keep going. To tough it out.
And sure enough, a year later, God plopped Kyungja in the middle of yet another English conversation that would change her life forever.
another English conversation that would change her life forever.
In September of 1966, Kyungja led a group of American missionaries around Seoul. As part of her job, she often escorted visiting foreign groups as a way of connecting them to churches and ministries in the country’s capital. Toward the end of the week-long tour, one visitor—an older pastor named Harold from Kirkwood Church in upstate New York—asked a simple question.
“If I gave you 10 dollars, would you accept it?”
She thought for a moment and remembered that she did have a very large need to fill.
“At that time, I had a passion and a burning heart for the children,” she says. “I went to all of the [sports] fields, the river banks, and the parks. And I would gather the kids and teach the Bible. It was my mission. So, I said, ‘Yes, I can use it to buy materials.’”
And with that, the pastor gave her 10 dollars. Kyungja promptly bought materials for a Bible study aimed at kids.
A few months later, Harold sent 20 dollars. Not long after that, he sent 30 dollars. And later, he sent another 30 dollars, and so on and so forth. Then, Harold returned to Korea a year later and asked another simple question.
“What is your biggest need?”
Kyungja thought for a second and said, “I need a house for a Bible class.”
The pastor responded as promptly as she answered. “Well,” he told her, “draw a picture of what you need and send it to me.”
Any person that meets Kyungja quickly finds that courage has been built into every fiber of her being. She is without concern for people’s judgment. She possesses an intense trust in the Lord. And she allows Him to lead her, unhindered by fear of those around her. In other words, she holds nothing back.
Which is why, when the pastor from Kirkwood Church told her to send a drawing of the house she needed for her children’s Bible study, she sent two. One of a single-story house and another of a two-story house.
He sent money for the latter. Eighteen months later, in November of 1969, they completed the building.
“And then we started to open our house as a Bible school,” Kyungja says. “And then children started gathering from all over Seoul and we had over 200 hundred come. They were in the bedroom, the living room, the kitchen, and even on the second floor.”
Soon, the parents that dropped their kids off at the living room Bible study began asking when the adult Bible study would start. This caused Kyungja’s husband, who had been working under a famous Korean evangelist in the 60’s, Billy Kim, to start a full-fledged house church, complete with a youth group for middle and high school students.
“So, with my three-month-old daughter and my husband, we had the first worship service, and that was the start of Jeil Sungdo Church,” Kyungja says.
That was also the start of the 10 dollar miracle.
Today, Jeil Sungdo Church towers over the neighborhood buildings. Perched on a hill in a district of Seoul called Shillim, the church expanded from the house to a large sanctuary in 1971, then eventually to a larger building, and has undergone several renovations since its birth. When it started, trees and mountains surrounded the area. Today, the area lays riddled with streets and apartment buildings. As the neighborhood changed, Jeil Sungdo stayed intact.
Kyungja leans back in her black sofa seat and looks around at what the 10 dollar miracle has erected.
dollar miracle has erected. She sits in the pastor’s office while depicting the early years of ministry for her and her husband. Photos of her family are perched on the wall. Hung frames also hold documents of important milestones in the church’s history. And scattered about other parts of the wall are photos of pastors from NPWM, the organization she has headed for the past 20 years.
“It’s all connected,” she says, looking around.
The conversation with Thomas, the Army officer. The conversation with the Kirkwood pastor. And finally, the conversation she had with three scrawny looking guys in Manila, Philippines.
In 1992, Kyungja and her husband flew to a disaster recovery zone in the Philippines. A volcanic eruption destroyed huge chunks of land near Angeles City, north of Manila. Many people were without shelter, medical care, or food. So the members of Jeil Sungdo sent a group down to assist in a village called Pampanga.
This trip led to another trip, which led to a few more trips. And on each trip, Kyungja felt an intense desire to help. But it wasn’t until she entered the cafeteria of Asian Theological Seminary in Manila that God revealed exactly how.
At a table just 10 feet away sat three Burmese men devouring the food in front of them. The aggressive scooping of rice into their mouths startled Kyungja. So she walked up to them and gently asked in English, “Why are you eating like that? Are you okay?”
The response startled her more than the aggressive eating.
This was the only meal they would have that day, and possibly, for the next few days to come. Kyungja sat down next to them and continued talking.
The men fumbled for words in broken English to explain how they wanted to teach about Jesus back in Myanmar. They shared about how they had come to know Jesus. And finally, they shared about how difficult it was to operate a church that could serve the community tangibly in the impoverished parts of their nation.
The conversation continued into the night. Kyungja loved talking to them. She saw glimpses of her early years, before Jeil Sungdo Church tallied thousands of members. It reminded her of the challenges, and the blessings, of starting from scratch. And the conversation reminded her of the Kirkwood pastor that sent the first donation over 30 years prior.
God revealed something important to her that night in the cafeteria. Local pastors, not foreign missionaries, had access to the unreached areas of Asia. They looked like the people and spoke the same language as the people and could culturally relate to the people on all levels. Kyungja realized that if the pastor from Kirkwood tried to start Jeil Sungdo, the difficulties would have been insurmountable. So instead, he gave her, a local missionary, money to help start a church.
In the span of a two-hour conversation, God revealed to Kyungja what the next big step would be. In October of 1993, a short year after meeting the three men at the table, Kyungja and her husband founded NPWM. As of 2013, over eight educational institutions and 90 churches have been built. Twenty different nations have been impacted by the men and women serving God under the NPWM network. And as they serve in the local communities, countless numbers of people have come to know Jesus through them.
Kyungja, however, doesn’t mention these stats as she sits in her seat reflecting on all of it.
At this stage, all of the accomplishments, the achievements, the recognition, they mean little to her. These days, she ventures out to visit NPWM churches multiple times a year. She is the first to get up, read her Bible, walk through the neighborhood, return to the hotel lobby only to engage other travelers in talks about the best local cuisine. Then, after loading a van full of visiting pastors, she shares stories from the front seat about how the neighborhood changed after an NPWM church was built there. All the while, she issues directions to the driver to take this alleyway, or that highway, as a shortcut.
Her spunk, her pep, and her zeal for helping people is, simply put, staggering.
Yet, through it all, Kyungja sums it up in one whole-hearted confession…
“He never showed me a whole step. Just one step, then one more step and one more step,” she explains. “I never dreamed to be a pastor’s wife. I never dreamed to plant a church. I never dreamed to be a missionary. But I just followed Him. I don’t know what the next steps are. I was tempted sometimes to get off of this path. But then I looked up at the cross, and I'd just cry.”
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