Working for Peace and Justice
When her local church synod called on its members to advocate for safe rescue and resettlement of Hmong people who were being threatened by the Thai government to be returned to communist-controlled Laos where suffering and death awaited them, no one was surprised that June Kjome went into action.
She took to the phones and her e-mail to round up fellow activists to join in the effort. "You have to strike while people are thinking about it," said the 87-year-old Kjome of La Crosse, Wisconsin.
For nearly 65 years, Kjome has championed the rights of marginalized and persecuted people both at home and around the globe, a reason a book -- Justice, Not Just Us: June Kjome and the Makings of an Old Lady Activist -- is in development about her life.
Her efforts began in 1945 as a missionary nurse in Zululand, South Africa. In interviews with her church's Foreign Missions Office, Kjome expressed interest in China, but said she would go anywhere needed. After several more interviews, she was offered a seven-year appointment to Zululand. "Yes," she said, when asked if she would go. Then, she added, "Where is it?"
She embarked from New York shortly after VE Day -- Victory in Europe -- but while the Pacific Theater was still active. With the U.S. anticipating invading Japan, her voyage on the James D. Trask, a U.S.S. Liberty cargo ship, was no luxury cruise.
Ships like the Trask, built to carry war equipment and supplies during World War II, were sitting ducks for Japanese subs. Officers told their ten civilian passengers stories about similar ships sunk during the war in the Baltic Sea and around Norway, Great Britain, and the North Atlantic. "Some officers told of having ships blown out from under them but they survived and were there. They may have exaggerated some but it was pretty interesting and amazing."
Kjome spent 19 years as a "bush nurse" in South Africa, witnessing firsthand the inequities imposed upon blacks living in that country. The inequalities only got worse when the country began its policy of apartheid in 1948, imposing even harsher laws controlling the Africans. Kjome said she "found her voice" as an activist and a feminist in Africa, where she became concerned about equal rights for all people, regardless of race, religion, or gender.
I heard God's call, and I was anxious to do his work," she said.
After returning from Africa in 1964, Kjome worked as a nurse at Gundersen Lutheran hospital in La Crosse for about 20 years, retiring in 1985. She made several trips back to South Africa and to Namibia as a representative of her American Lutheran Church denomination's Woman-to-Woman program. She also worked through her church and other organizations to encourage the South African government to end apartheid.
Kjome points to the end of apartheid in 1994 and the election of Nelson Mandela as the nation's first black president as evidence that advocacy can bring about positive change, even if it takes several decades of hard work to make it a reality.
Active in other peace and justice issues while still nursing, Kjome became even more involved after her retirement. She helped found the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity, was an advocate for local anti-poverty programs and food pantries, and worked to provide emergency shelter and transitional housing for women and children fleeing violence. She also became deeply involved in the League of Women Voters and an Interfaith Justice and Peace Group.
"I learned the process of how you gather information and how to use it," she said. "When they say, 'you can't beat city hall,' that's not true."
So at age 87, Kjome still challenges injustice, wherever it is in the world. Her efforts for the Hmong in Laos and in refugee camps in Thailand are a continuation of her work for them in the late 1970s and 1980s. That was when many Hmong refugees first came to the United States to escape persecution in their native Laos. The communist regime, which took over after the Vietnam War, targeted the Hmong because of their support for U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.
Despite feeling her age, June still stands every other week on a downtown La Crosse street corner, advocating for peace in the world. She is a founding member of the local unit of Women in Black, as well as numerous other local peace and justice organizations.
She also was among a group that staged a sit-in in U.S. Senator Herb Kohl's La Crosse office in September 2006 to pressure the senator into being more active in ending the Iraq war. The sit-in resulted in Kohl's staff assistant, John Medinger, calling police to evacuate the demonstrators. Kjome and the others were cited for trespassing, but Kohl later dropped the charges.
Medinger, a former La Crosse mayor, said of Kjome, "She seems like a very charming and disarming little old lady, but she's a strong woman with strong convictions about justice and peace."
And so she is. Kjome's passionate dedication to making a difference in the world around her impresses many people. "I think of the example of Jesus in his ministry," Kjome said. "He worked with people on the fringes, the margins. All the people who were powerless in his society."
Kjome was honored for her efforts in 2007 at a "Celebrating June Kjome Day" that drew 500 well-wishers. The event was held at her church, St. Paul's Lutheran in La Crosse. Speakers represented such diverse organizations as Habitat for Humanity, League of Women Voters, Couleecap, a non-profit that serves poor families and individuals in several counties; Houston County Women's Resources, which helps women in need; and several organizations that support young people struggling with gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender issues. "I just feel that I am living in a different time where love and acceptance of everybody is important," she said.
Kjome has received numerous local and state awards for her advocacy work and a 10-unit transitional housing complex for abused and battered women was named after her in nearby Houston County, Minnesota.
Still, Kjome is modest about her achievements. "Building consensus and forming coalitions is an important part of successful advocacy," she said. "You never really do anything alone."
Pictures -- thanks to June Kjome