Rev. Dr. Kathryn Alice Jorgensen, 86, Unitarian Universalist minister, professional street and theater performance artist, and co-founder of the Faithful Fools Street Ministry in San Francisco, died peacefully after midnight on Monday, January 15th, in Berkeley, CA, surrounded by her children.
Kay, as she was known, was born in 1932 in St. Paul, MN, the elder of two daughters of Dr. Detlof Emanuel Johnson and Alice Otilia Palmquist Johnson. Throughout their lives, Kay and her sister Carolyn faced many adverse situations together.
She attended Minnehaha Academy, a Christian school located in Minneapolis, MN and graduated from St. Olaf’s College in Northfield, MN, with a degree in theater and religion. In 1955 she married Ronald Leland Jorgensen, and together they had three children: Andrea, Joel and Erik.
The family lived in various Midwestern states as Ron studied, interned, and did a residency. Kay started a preschool when Andrea was a toddler in Wisconsin. In the early 1960s, when the family was living in Indiana, she had occasion to see the great French mime, Marcel Marceau; she called it a “conversion experience.” From then on she became increasingly drawn to study mime, dance, and clowning. Eventually, Ron took a position as a psychologist in Sioux Falls, SD as their kids went through school. Here, Kay founded a children’s theater called “Fantasia Folk.”
In 1974 Kay and Ron divorced and she relocated back to Minnesota, where Kay began attending the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis and started a teen mime troupe there. She joined the Orrea Mime Troupe, co-created the Street Circus Company and performed in the Guthrie Theater. Kay later moved to California, working with the San Francisco Mime Troupe and continuing her studies of mime with Carlo Clemente, founder of Dell’Arte International School of Comedy. She performed in San Francisco streets and sidewalks as a mime. By the early 1980s the street artistry scene was becoming less friendly to performers, and Kay was drawn to ministry. She entered Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley in 1983, where she received her Master of Divinity degree, serving as intern minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, in Kensington.
After graduation she served seven years as the minister of the Unitarian Universalist church in Maple Grove, MN, until 1995, when she returned to California where her daughter, Andrea, and sister, Carolyn, lived. Kay and Carolyn later in life spent many hours together in reflection, seeking understanding and meaning to their childhood experiences.
Kay began attending the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, walking there through the gritty, urban streets of the Tenderloin downhill. There she came to know individuals who were homeless or minimally housed and also the people who worked in organizations seeking to alleviate conditions of poverty. With Carmen Barsody, OSF, Kay founded the Faithful Fools Street Ministry in 1998, inviting thousands of others to make “street retreats,” walking through the neighborhood as she and Carmen did, open to the experiences and people they encountered. At the Faithful Fools’ building on Hyde Street, people gathered for arts programs, meditation, and community meetings. In her life and in her work, Kay continued to draw on her skills as a mime and a clown, keeping a clown nose in her pocket to pull out whenever a meeting got too serious, and appearing often at Faithful Fools events as a mysterious Swedish fellow named Oscard, her clown persona.
Kay remained involved in the life of the Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, eventually serving there as Social Justice Minister, seeking always to build connections between the people she served in the congregation and the less privileged people she served in the Tenderloin. As part of her ministry at the church, she supported congregation leaders in founding “Up on Top,” a groundbreaking program that offers afterschool and summer enrichment programs free of charge to children of the Tenderloin neighborhood.
She retired from the church position in 2009, but remained fully engaged in the life of the Faithful Fools. Starr King School for the Ministry bestowed an honorary Doctorate degree on Kay in 2004, noting that her work “affirms that embodied justice and compassion can happen on a daily basis, quietly, personally, emotionally, and with the highest standards of humanity.” In 2015 she received the Patty Lawrence Award for distinguished service to Unitarian Universalism in the Pacific Central District. That year, due to the advanced progression of her Parkinson’s disease, she moved to Chaparral House in Berkeley, where she continued to touch the lives of many, including her new caregivers.
Kay was preceded in death by her beloved sister, Carolyn Johnson. She is survived by her children, Andrea, Joel, and Erik Jorgensen (Melissa Shamblott), and Alejandra Brown, by her 20-year partner in ministry, Carmen Barsody, and by the people she and Oscard walked with and danced with in this life.
A memorial celebration of Kay’s life will be held on Sunday, March 11th at 3 p.m. at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, 1187 Franklin Street. Contributions in Kay’s memory may be made to the Faithful Fools Street Ministry, 234 Hyde Street, San Francisco, CA 94102.