With one foot on the scuffed-up black skateboard and the other foot hesitantly pushing off the concrete, Jee Lee laughs as she attempts to glide across the parking lot. The owner of the skateboard smiles as Jee fails to make it a few feet before saving herself from falling. Pushing the skateboard back over to the young teenage boy and making jokes about her amazing skateboarding abilities, Jee turns towards another boy calling out her name. She ruffles his hair and gives him a hug, which he gladly returns. More children appear smiling and saying “Jee Sam, Jee Sam!” (“Sam" being short for "seonsangnim," which means "teacher" in Korean.)
The swarm of children slowly disperse as Jee gets into her car and backs out of the parking lot of Myeongjin Children’s Home. Driving the tight, winding back streets of Seoul in 2015, Jee can pinpoint her first memory on streets very similar to these more than 30 years ago.
In Ulsan, a city 230 miles southeast of Seoul, Jee remembers her four-year-old self standing on the street outside her apartment. Her mom, being interested in Christianity but marrying into a Buddhist family, wanted her children to experience church. She decided to send her children to a church summer camp that was advertised in their neighborhood. Holding hands with her older sister, Jee waited for the bus to pick them up for Vacation Bible School.
“It’s very significant for me because my first memory [could have been] playing with my sister,” Jee says. “We [were] waiting for a church event. Even though I was born into a non-Christian family, God ordained that I would be brought up in a church setting all my life…People might think that children’s ministry is not that important. But for me, that [was] my first memory and the fact that I accepted Christ during Sunday school…I know that when God touches little children, you should not take it simply.
touches little children, you should not take it simply. You should take it seriously because they really do trust in God at a young age.”
Arriving outside Myeongjin Children’s Home in November 2008, Jee looked down at her two suitcases packed to the point of bursting. She smiled thinking about her favorite $5 pair of worn gray Old Navy pants and the rest of her unassuming wardrobe. Having no need for her professional teaching attire here, the raggedy clothes she packed suited her just fine.
At the age of 29, Jee was moving back to South Korea, the country she grew up in until she was 10 years old. That first night, Jee woke up in the middle of the night, startled until she remembered where she was.
Orphans. Seoul. South Korea.
The children’s home didn’t have a separate room for her. Jee shared floor space with two middle school girls. Their room connected to a suite where 12 girls of all ages lived together. This was just one of the many suites that made up Myeongjin Children’s Home. Staring up at the ceiling in the dark and feeling the very thin mattress pad underneath her, Jee shifted on the only protection her body had from the hard floor. Listening to the light breathing of two pre-teen girls sleeping on both sides of her, Jee’s eyes filled with tears. God, did I make the right choice? She cried herself back to sleep. A dreamless sleep.
As the University of Virginia came alive with students chugging coffee, rushing to class wearing sweatpants, and tucking their unwashed hair under baseball caps, Jee woke up in her tiny dorm room feeling weird. She sat up in her single bed and stared at her desk, the only other furniture in the room. Jee remembered the dream she just woke up from. She never remembered her dreams. If she did, they were usually a show she watched on T.V. or something she had knowledge of or interest in. This dream was different. This dream didn’t fit into any of those categories.
“I had a dream that I was in Korea working with orphans,” Jee remembers. “At that time, I didn’t know anything about orphanages here in Korea. I didn’t know any adoptees, I didn’t know anyone who was orphaned, so it was kind of very strange. Yet, it was very significant because I don’t remember any of my dreams. But this one I remember…”
In her dream, Jee stood outside of an orphanage. Somehow she knew she was in Korea as she stared at a three-story, red brick building with large glass doors. She also knew that this building was an orphanage. Jee began walking away from the orphanage with two adults… and then she woke up.
As she shared her dream with her friends, Jee explained she was not used to her dreams being so vivid. Thinking it might come true in the far, far future, Jee pictured herself volunteering in orphanages in her late 40s or 50s with a husband by her side. She tucked the dream in her back pocket. Jee spent the next three years finishing her education and began life as a third grade teacher in the Virginia Public School district.
After five years of managing a classroom, lesson planning, and worrying about the standardized tests she had to prepare her students for, everyday began to feel more or less the same. Jee loved teaching and she loved her students. But she felt like this type of teaching was not what she was supposed to be doing long term. As she mundanely cleaned the whiteboard with the muted enthusiasm of someone completely dissatisfied with her job, Jee knew she needed a change.
Spending most of her vacation time traveling, Jee realized she wanted to do something more worthwhile during her summer months off. The dream she had in college untucked itself from her mind, reminding her of Korea. Orphans. Seoul. South Korea. She started searching online for children’s homes in Korea. Finding little information and websites outdated by several years, Jee wrestled with feelings of frustration. She didn’t know who to talk to, and she had no idea how to continue searching for legitimate volunteer programs.
Sitting in a cafe and sipping past whipped cream to the creamy taste of hot chocolate, Jee held her mug closely while catching up with one of her old college friends, Jennifer. She spoke about her dream from eight years prior and explained her desire to make that dream a reality right now. Jennifer leaned towards Jee with excitement. She told Jee about a Caucasian couple she recently met whose son, John-Michael, volunteered at an orphanage in South Korea. He was in the process of building up a non-governmental organization called Jerusalem Ministry, which mentors and tutors orphans in children’s homes throughout Seoul. John-Michael was looking for unpaid summer interns fluent in Korean and English willing to live and volunteer in a children’s home for two months.
Jee didn’t blink an eye when she later went home and found Jerusalem Ministry’s website.
Ministry’s website. She contacted them immediately.
It was the summer of 2008. Jee flew to Seoul and found herself staring at an orphanage that looked like an apartment building. Her dream flashed across her mind.
This was the first time Jee moved into Myeongjin Children’s Home, but it would not be her last.
“I was here for two months,” Jee explains, “and during that time God totally changed my life.”
During her summer internship with Jerusalem Ministry, Jee didn’t expect the variety of emotions she would feel. The children acted cold towards her. They refused to be vulnerable with her or let her come near them. They were used to volunteers coming and going and making promises few succeeded in fulfilling.
The worst emotion for Jee, though, was bitterness. Many children who lived in her children’s home, and other homes like it, were not true orphans. These children had parents who gave them up and still maintained some contact with them.
“It was kind of frustrating because, yeah, they have parents but they cannot live with their parents,” Jee says. “And I always thought all the parents were bad, because how could you leave your children at a children’s home so that you could have a better life, without them?”
A week or two into her internship, Jee had her first interaction with a child’s parent. Later, one of the social workers told Jee more about this mom.
She explained how the woman reported her physically-abusive husband to the police and got him arrested. The mother had tried her best to protect her three children who were also abused. Jee’s heart felt pangs of sorrow. She soon learned that the mom suffered from mental illness because of the abuse.
“That’s when I realized God was saying, ‘Hey, do not be judgmental. You are not in the place to be the judge,’” Jee says.
It didn’t take long before the children began opening up to Jee. Her heart grew with every smile, with every hug, with the smallest conversation. Not only did she fall in love with each child she interacted with, but her love for God also exploded. She looked at these children and realized God loved these orphans unconditionally, no matter what they did. Jee started to see each child as someone who was not only loved, but deserved to be loved. And by the end of that summer, Jee faced a difficult decision. Going back home to her third grade classroom in Virginia or staying in Korea as a full-time, support-raising volunteer for Jerusalem Ministry. Going back home meant stepping back into a classroom without her heart in her job. Staying in Korea meant depending on her friends, family, and even strangers to donate money to meet her daily needs.
A week before her summer internship was over, Jee was at a prayer meeting when she heard God speak to her more clearly than ever before. Jee, you thought this adventure would be over after this summer. No, this is only the beginning.
She thought of the prayer she lived her life by: “God, if You say, ‘Go,’ I will go. And if You say, ‘Stay,’ I will stay.” As reality set in and Jee knew she was supposed to stay in Korea, she worried about her family and friends back home. What would they say? How could she move away from them permanently?
permanently? Her dad moved her family away from Korea, making sacrifices for her and her family. How would he feel about her moving back?
“God, if You say, ‘Go,’ I will go. And if You say, ‘Stay,’ I will stay.”
God told her to stay.
“In the very beginning, it was very hard for them to take,” Jee says, thinking about her parents. “After I came back here as a full-timer, my dad thought I would only do it for a year or two, and then he was fine with it. But when I had the conviction that I would be here for the long term, I went back to America to drop the bomb on them...”
Jee’s father did not take it well. He worried about Jee’s career and what other Koreans would think of her as an unmarried woman living off of support. Jee found it hard not to worry about the same things. But when she was in America, she only heard the word “go.”
For the first three years after Jee returned to Korea, she lived in Myeongjin Children’s Home. For the first six months, she shared a room with children in the home.
“Although it was physically a struggle for me,” Jee says, “the fact that I was living with them, the fact that I was eating the same food they ate, the fact that I didn’t have bling bling, I think it was easier for the girls to approach me.”
Out of the blue, a room in the home opened up and the director of the home asked Jee to take it. Six months of sleeping on the floor caused Jee back pain. A few days after she got her own room, a friend called Jee and told her to shop for a bed. She was buying. Then, another friend gave her a microwave. A short while later, a group of ladies she knew from a book club gave her a portable oven. One instance after another, people kept giving Jee the very things she asked God for when she prayed.
Jee’s understanding of God’s love changed the more she had to trust Him for all her needs. She came with two suitcases full of old, worn clothes. Piece by piece, God traded them out for clothing fit for one of his beloved daughters.
Jee admits that support-raising never gets easier. But, her trust in God to provide for her continually grows stronger.
“I believe in a God who is big and rich and has everything. When children look at me and look at my life and see God in me, they see that God is not a stingy God. God will meet all my needs according to his glorious riches,” Jee says, quoting a verse from the book of Philippians.
Six pairs of little feet pattered across the floor as the door to their playroom opened. Several hands reached up, begging to be picked up as soon as Jee walked into the room. She scooped up a little boy and showered him with kisses. “He is my favorite,” she said. “I know, we’re not supposed to have favorites.” Laughing, she began speaking to all the toddlers in the room. Replying in baby gibberish back towards Jee, the toddlers came to life around her. Jee sat on the bright yellow mat covering the entire floor of the square playroom. The toddlers quickly moved toys closer to her and continued playing for their attentive audience. Noticing several snot-covered nostrils, Jee stood up to grab a box of wet tissues and began wiping each nose in turn. Her motherly motions came naturally. Years of treating these children as her own showed through even the smallest acts.
showed through even the smallest acts.
“Jee’s love is like a mom towards the babies,” Mijeong, a full-time volunteer for Jerusalem Ministry, says.
But being a parent to even one child isn’t easy.
“With kids, it’s a seed-planting ministry,” John-Michael, founder of Jerusalem Ministry, says. “It’s like putting an acorn in the ground and wanting to see a tree, but knowing that trees take many years, even decades, for it to really grow. And [Jee] just kept planting these seeds and loving on these difficult kids throughout the years.”
Dropped off in the front of a home as a baby in a basket, Yumi transferred to Myeongjin Children’s Home in her early teenage years. She was already there when Jee started living at the home. Yumi had a minor heart condition that required her to be more careful than other teenagers her age. Still, that didn’t stop her from wanting to live life like those around her. During Yumi’s first year of college, she started drinking with her friends. One day, she collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. She spent eight hours in surgery and came out paralyzed from the neck down.
Knowing she had no family to visit her, Jee committed herself to going to the hospital once a month to see Yumi. Jee visited the hospital armed with hours of music to listen to, hundreds of photos on her phone, and a natural giggle that any friend of her’s would say is contagious. Yumi soon asked Jee to come more often. Her visits turned from once a month to twice a week.
“I would tell her that she is not alone,” Jee writes. “And there are so many people who are praying for her.”
many people who are praying for her. I truly believe that she really felt love during that time.”
In October 2011, several months into Yumi’s hospitalization, Jee had to make a trip home for her sister’s wedding. “When I visited Yumi for the last time, I assured her that I would be gone for just a month, but I would be back with many pictures to show her,” Jee says. Less than two weeks into her trip, Yumi passed away.
The tears Jee cried for Yumi never overshadowed the joy of being able to know her and be a mother in her life. When Jee felt pain, she thought about Yumi now being with the family she had desired her whole life… in Heaven.
Jee’s good friend and John-Michael’s wife, Sky, shares about Jee’s relationships not only with Yumi, but also with all of the children at her home. “She really knows how to love somebody,” Sky says. “You would think that some people would be a little hesitant to throw all of their love after going through [something like this]. She gives her best. She gives everything she’s got. It doesn’t matter if the baby is going to leave in a week or a month. Her love is supernatural.”
From the day God told her to stay until the day God tells her to go, Jee is more than willing to obey. She is in the business of planting seeds. And the harvest will be well worth it. Her prayer remains the same. “God, if You say, ‘Go,’ I will go. And if You say, ‘Stay,’ I will stay.”
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