Many of today’s American friars have come from widely varied backgrounds: lawyers, financial executives, physicians, theater and more. And some have immigrated to this country. Francis Kisoo Kim, OFM, is a prime example of both and, just as his personal background is varied, so are the ministries he has pursued.
He is a native of South Korea who came to the States to help his family in Korea. Little known is his South Korean Army military service in the Vietnam war. Afterwards, he spent years in Iran driving a truck before leaving with the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Arriving in the States in 1979, he settled in Massachusetts and was employed as a maintenance mechanic, purchasing a house and putting himself through college at night. Though raised a Buddhist, he converted to Christianity and first met the friars at Arch Street in Boston. In 1986, he took a week off from work to volunteer at St. Francis Inn.
It was there that he met a former nun who spoke so positively of her religious life, that it sparked something inside him to join the Franciscan postulancy program at Holy Cross in the Bronx. From there, he entered novitiate, made his simple vows of profession, obtained his bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland, and studied theology at the Washington Theological Union – all in a span of 10 years.
Ever since his ordination in 1996, Francis has been almost exclusively involved in international ministries to some of the most impoverished and repressive areas in the world. China, North Korea, Uganda, Kenya, Madagascar, South Sudan and Haiti have drawn his efforts to alleviate the human suffering consequent to basic human needs: food and water.
His first effort was his native Korea. Intimately aware that famine had killed more than 3 million people in the North, he extended his initial Korean ministry at 31st Street beyond the Third Order Secular Koreans. With the help of the pastor and guardian, the late Ronald Stark, OFM, they raised funds to build a noodle factory, as well as supply the flour needed to produce the noodles, in hopes of directly feeding the starving North Koreans. Over $100,000 was raised from Korean Secular Franciscans and the New York Korean community. They chose this approach because North Korean farmland was totally devastated and Chinese rice imports for the entire population would be prohibitively expensive.
This initial outreach was roadblocked for two years because of the mistrust by the Chinese and North Korean governments. Francis was finally granted a visa in 1998 (for a more detailed account, see the Anthonian, Summer 2008, Octavio Duran, OFM). Francis travelled there to verify and observe the first shipment of flour and the construction of the noodle factory. Four months later, he returned to oversee the second shipment of flour. The extensive scope of the famine soon made apparent the larger need to reinstitute farming that used modern techniques in the North in order to expand an almost non-existent food source.
Though still thwarted by North Korean and Chinese harassment, he arranged to start a farm in China on the North Korean border, where he developed a method of efficient organic farming. The North Korean government allowed him to make periodic trips into an area of the North so he could train a group of over 200 farmers and their families in the efficient farming method.
Prior, he had worked in conjunction with Korean E.M. Center, Org., to create the EM liquid fertilizer that would be a significant boost to the project. He had first used it in China and then introduced it to the North Korean farmers.
This “life-saving brew” as Francis described, was made by two of the sisters of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM) on the farm in China. Francis would ship it by train when he was in North Korea. By using this fertilizer, the North Korean farmers could substantially multiply their planting and harvest. Under North Korean mandate, 80% of their harvest would go to the government and the rest, 20%, could be kept by the farmers and their families. Without the EM fertilizer, hardly anything could be grown – which made the 20% share of the harvest substantially below subsistence levels.
There was another aspect to this ministry, and it was far more dangerous. Since the farm was on the North Korean/Chinese border, North Korean refugee women braved the risk of capture almost every day by entering China for Francis’ help. He and the sisters would travel six hours to the rugged mountainous terrain, where they would give the women clothing, food, two years of cash rolled into duct tape, and a cell phone.
Tragedy was a common occurrence in this forbidding area. Refugees would take cover in claustrophobic small holes carved into mountain slopes. Danger was always present, not only because of the physical conditions, but more from North Korean and Chinese patrols along the border. Capture was always a risk – and there were plenty of close calls.
All of the women would return to the North to aid their families with whatever they were able to get from Francis. They would use some of the cash to bribe the starving border guards to cross back into the North. They would give the cell phones to the next group of women so they could contact Francis to let him know when and where they would cross the border. They could talk for less than 15 seconds so that the cell phone signal wouldn’t be detected.
Once, a woman who was too sick and weak, stayed with Francis to recuperate at the farm. She was arrested and deported back to North Korea. In a situation like this, the woman would be beaten, raped and killed. Knowing her fate, Francis pleaded for her life and he himself was subsequently arrested.
These forays went on for 15 years. Eventually, Francis was detained by the Chinese a number of times, and he sometimes was briefly put in prison. But the local mayor, who Francis had befriended and helped visit New York, would have the friar bailed out.
Government suspicion, Chinese and Korean, eventually led to revocation of Francis’ Chinese visa in 2008. It was also the same time China expelled all religious groups and confiscated their assets. Before leaving, Francis thwarted the Chinese government in its attempt to confiscate the farm by signing it over to a neighboring woman farmer. Before his ouster, he was also able to establish a 500-bed orphanage on property in the North Korean farming area. Though overcrowded, it still exists today.
Shortly after returning to the States, he was invited by Franciscan sisters in Uganda to help the South Sudanese refugees, victims of the Sudanese civil war, living in the Ugandan refugee camps. He determined two critical needs – water and food supplies. The latter eventually became untenable because the overland route to the camps inland led many times to the complete theft of the shipments. When the civil war ended, almost all of the refugees returned to South Sudan.
But the need of water could be solved by implementing efficient and modern well-drilling. Through his efforts in Uganda, Francis was invited to Kenya by a group of Franciscan sisters who had been trying to figure out a way to increase the availability of potable water. To finance this endeavor, he invited members of the Korean SFO chapters to visit Kenya, and encouraged financially successful, first-generation Koreans to vacation there and pay for a well. This gave them the opportunity to witness the extreme need and the positive impact the wells had on the community.
At first, he relied on local contractors to drill the wells. But in one instance, a contractor failed to begin the job. Francis made himself the contractor and purchased a well-drilling machine. To this day, he periodically continues to oversee the well-drilling on his trips to Kenya. His efforts also led to the donation of 100 acres of land by a local community in Kenya, which was used to construct a school and community center, and to develop farming practices in portions of the acreage.
A colleague and farming expert from Korea, Bartholomew, volunteered to go to Kenya indefinitely to be onsite for the implementation and growth of the farming practices. The water well apostolate will continue in Africa with Francis overseeing the drilling of multiple wells in East African countries of Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, and Malawi.
Intertwined with his African ministry were explorations of ministries in Haiti, South Sudan, and then Madagascar, where the people and conditions were not that much better off than North Korea. Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake years ago – an event from which they are still slowly recovering. This overture has been postponed because of the 2021 kidnapping of 19 missionaries and the demand for a $1 million ransom for each. Subsequently, the US government deemed travel to Haiti too dangerous.
The Madagascar initiative came to the same abrupt end as the South Sudanese. Any supplies sent to Madagascar would be robbed and never reached their destination. Once again, a much needed ministry would require a unique future implementation.
As if this wasn’t enough effort, Francis also established a farm in Stillwater Township, New Jersey, which was staffed voluntarily by Korean communities throughout the New York metropolitan area. It employs the same efficient farming practices that evolved in the China farm – with its objective to sell produce to the New Jersey and New York Korean communities to help raise funds for Francis’ future international ministries.
Like Jesus in the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, Francis continues to first address the real physical needs of people before they can comfortably hear the Good News. Or as St. Francis once said: Preach, and if necessary use words.