I have often skipped over women in hymnbooks because I could not tell their gender by the name. This is especially true of Asian women. My friend, Miyoung Kwon, has helped me in trying to identify the Korean names. Of all those names, the most intriguing person is Kim Hwal-Lan, often known by her adopted American name, Helen Kim. She was born in 1899 to family of small vendors in Incheon, Gyeonggi Province. When she was a small child, her mother was converted to Christianity. Eventually the mother persuaded the father to be baptized and they held a ceremony to burn all the objects belonging to the “pagan cults” that were in the house. Christian families were more likely to educate daughters, thus Kim attended Ewha Girls’ School in Seoul. She completed her formal studies in the U.S. where she received a B.A. from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1924, an M.A. from Boston University in 1925 and a doctoral degree in education in 1931 from Columbia University, the first Korean woman to earn a doctorate. Between degrees, she taught at Ewha Womans College and promoted the Korean women’s modernization and nationalist movement in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Her tireless worldwide travels made her an informal ambassador for Korean women and Korean Protestantism. In 1939, she became president of her alma mater. She co-founded the Korean YWCA in 1922. After retiring from the presidency of Ewha, she devoted her life to Christian and social reform, and was awarded 5 honorary doctorates. In 1948, she was appointed as the UN General Assembly delegate from Korea. However, her legacy has been tainted by her pro-Japanese writings and lectures. She encouraged the militarization of students and changed her name to a Japanese one in 1941. But she justified her actions in order to keep Ewha open under harsh Japanese policies. Her actions were consistent with the Methodist church missionary policy to avoid conflict with colonial occupiers. Recently, students at Ewha Womans University have called for the removal of Kim’s statue on the campus.
Kim wrote on many topics, and this included poetry. In 1927 she wrote “Lonely The Boat”, lovely hymn I found in the Methodist and Presbyterian hymnals. This speaks of a sailor alone in a tempest tossed sea seeking help from God. He begs that even a sinner can receive calm just as Christ calmed those in the Galilee Sea. She may have been inspired by her probable sense of isolation and challenge while studying in the U.S., but it seems prescient regarding the tightrope she had to walk during the Japanese occupation.