Helen Shum, the long-time clinic coordinator at Chinese United Methodist Church in Manhattan's Chinatown, as well as board member, fundraising chair, and most recently, the treasurer of New York JFON, passed away on Thursday, December 22, 2016. Here are some reflections on Helen and what she meant to JFON.
Steven Lee, Executive Director of New York JFON:
My last conversation with Helen perfectly captures her generous character and selfless dedication to JFON's work. Rather than talk about her illness, and in fact, without letting on how serious her diagnosis was, Helen called me with one goal in mind. She was focused on making sure that the executive committee knew that she couldn't call into the next meeting because she was in the hospital. In retrospect, it's heartbreaking, frustrating, and moving that Helen thought the details of a meeting were so important at such a moment. But that's who she was.
Helen never liked to fall short of meeting her responsibilities, so at first it took some persuading to ask her to take on more leadership roles in the organization. She had been the clinic coordinator for the Chinatown clinic for its entire existence, so she had a deep reservoir of leadership ability that just needed to be tapped. Once she agreed to serve as the chair of the fundraising committee, for example, it surprised none of the other board members or staff that our fundraising results began to break records, each year without exception.
My favorite memory of Helen, though, is a much simpler demonstration of her thoughtfulness and caring. Several months ago, a few of us were going out of the city for a training workshop. It was a cold morning when we met on the platform of the train station, and we had a long day ahead of us. So we were tired. When we sat in our seats, Helen opened up a bag and handed around tall cups of coffee for each of us. While we were drinking the coffee and slowing warming up, she opened another bag and out came these huge Vietnamese sandwiches she had picked up in Chinatown for our lunch. When we ate them later, they were delicious.
TJ Mills, Managing Attorney for New York JFON:
"Often late, but never absent" embodies the expression that 90% of life is showing up and Helen always showed up.
One of my 1st memories of Helen in the days just after 9/11, I saw her hustling over to the Family Assistance Center at Pier 94, which had been set up as a rescue mission for victims and their families. She was late. That's one of my first memories ... Helen quietly donating her time, without fanfare... trudging over on her own to the Pier to help translate for the victims and their families.
And so, each month for the next 15 years, Helen kept going--organizing legal clinics at the Chinese UMC where she interviewed, interpreted, and consoled immigrant families for hours and hours and hours. Each clinic lasted a half-day but Helen would remain the rest of the day and then return for the entirety of the next day for services, choir and her other ministries. She also hosted dozens of liaisons with the congregations of sister churches around the country (and the world) who visited Chinatown and the 9/11 memorial and Helen would introduce them to the church and to our immigrant ministry.
She was a constant presence. Her devotion and giving was so natural and devoid of fanfare. My regret is that we never got to honor Helen's contribution with a special day of her own. Although, knowing Helen, that commemoration would have been the rare event she would miss.
Helen was a gift to know. Her devotion was quiet but motivated by an unspoken passion for her church and for social justice--the notion that no person should be destined to a life any less decent than another. She recruited many others to our ministry, not by persuasion, but by example. She inspired many others to volunteer.
There were plenty of clients to complain about but thinking back I cannot recall a moment where she ever lost composure or lost her humor. And I cannot recall Helen complain about the obvious pain she endured in these final weeks.
What she cared about was the cause. The cause of justice. The cause of equality. That humility, her compassion, and her humor are what I treasure about Helen. I'm not a religious person, but I don't think the author of the Gospel would mind if I rephrased what Helen embodied: "whoever humbles herself will be exalted."
And the lesson Helen leaves me with today--a lesson she lived out every day--is that, no matter how busy our lives, we can all find time for service, for a righteous cause. I wish to honor Helen's life --especially in today's climate--by serving the most vulnerable among us and by helping to change our communities for the better.
Rob Rutland-Brown, Executive Director of National JFON:
National Justice for Our Neighbors is devastated to learn of Helen’s passing. Helen has been one of JFON’s most beloved volunteers over the years. She has touched the lives of countless clients and served the ministry in many ways through the clinic at Chinese UMC and her service on the NYAC board. Helen represented the best of JFON—a caring individual who lived out her faith through devotion to her immigrant neighbors. Our prayers are with Helen’s family and the NYAC-JFON family during this difficult time.