Tri-Cities Original: At 105, Josephine Morrison remains dedicated to serving others

Tri-Cities Original

KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — Josephine Morrison is celebrating a birthday.

105 years of living is worthy of a celebration, after all.

“Actually, I don’t feel that old,” she said with a gracious Carolina southern drawl and a lilt that hinted of a bygone way a refined lady might speak.

But the Kingsport resident wanted to make it very clear that she’s hoping friends and relatives will not bother with cards or presents.

“My children had the wonderful idea that, instead of thoughtful presents and cards, anyone who cared to might donate to the Kingsport Homeless Ministry,” Morrison said.

That ministry is the latest endeavor in a remarkably long and rich life devoted to serving others.

Born near Charlotte, North Carolina on Sept. 10, 1916, Morrison was orphaned when her father and mother died. They were victims of the Spanish Influenza Pandemic.

Saved from an orphanage by relatives, Miss Jo (as she’s called now) grew up in a home filled with love.  

Education took her to Virginia, and a calling through the Presbyterian church led her to Kingsport.

At church, she met her husband, and together they raised a family, traveled the world, and served in Kingsport in any way they could.

“I believe you are blessed in order to be a blessing,” she said.

After losing her husband, Miss Jo found herself with time on her hands. In 1985, she helped found the Holston Habitat for Humanity, a chapter of the global organization that builds and refurbishes homes for those in need.

“And since then Habitat has built or remodeled 300 houses in Northeast Tennessee,” she said, clearly amazed by what’s happened.

Former Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter appointed her to his Governor’s Task Force on Housing. The plight of the housing-insecure remained her focus, even as she celebrated a century of life.

Then, in the winter of 2017 while leaving church with her friend Betsy Preston as a storm rolled through Kingsport, Miss Jo said something mystifying happened.

“All of the sudden, there was thunder and flashing lightning,” she said.  “And out of my mouth came, ‘Betsy – I wonder where the homeless people are sleeping tonight?'”

“Now,” she said. “The minister had not been speaking about it. I had not been thinking about it. But out of my mouth came that question. And then we decided, we have to do something about it.”

That lightning bolt of a thought led to conversations and then to meetings with friends and organizations already serving the homeless in Kingsport.

“What we determined was that is a real need for shelter,” she said. “Especially for those who are dealing with addiction and mental illness.”

Soon, the Kingsport Homeless Ministry had formed, a coalition of charities, churches and volunteers committed to helping the poor.

The result was a lofty goal: open a new homeless shelter in Kingsport. Grace House would be its name.

“That’s a big dream, but you have to dream big,” Miss Jo said.

At this point in the conversation, it’s easy to forget that the dreamer of the big dream is turning 105 years old.

“That’s just Jo Morrison,” said Don Royston, Miss Jo’s longtime friend and fellow Kingsport Homeless Ministry board member. “She never falters. It’s never about her. It’s about, what can I do to make someone’s life better?”

Miss Jo thinks it all comes down to something Jesus said.    

“This was a direct instruction from Jesus Christ who, in the Book of Matthew to his disciples and followers, said, ‘I was hungry and you fed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was a stranger and you took me in.’ And we thought this applies to homeless people. They’re strangers to us and taking them in has to do with giving them shelter.”

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in

Matthew 25:35 (NIV)

“He said that, if you’re a follower of mine, that’s what you’re supposed to do – love people and quit judging. Pitch in and help with whatever their needs are,” she said. Simple as that.

The Kingsport Homeless Ministry has found a building on the 700 Block of E. Sullivan Street. They hope to close on the transaction later in September.  

Grace House will be a “low barrier” shelter for those experiencing homelessness who, for a variety of reasons, aren’t allowed to stay in other shelters.

“I would like to see us raise enough money to buy the building,” Miss Jo said. “And we’re on our way.”

What would she say to someone thinking about supporting Grace House?

“Well I would say… Hallelujah! Join us.”

To learn more about the Kingsport Homeless Ministry, visit

To donate, click here or mail to Kingsport Homeless Ministry, PO Box 1125, Kingsport, TN, 37662.

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Born and raised in the Tri-Cities, Josh Smith has been a member of the WJHL team since 1999. His family roots go deep in the region, and he’s traveled through almost every part of it covering news on local TV since 1995. When he’s not on the job, he’s with his wife, two sons, and daughter.   “They’re the best part of me,” he said.   You may run into them biking on the Tweetsie Trail, hiking around Bays Mountain Lake, or browsing the shelves at the local public libraries.

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