By JoAnn Bradberry
Sheri Shockey visits with her husband, Ron, in a nursing home. The Erwins take her to visit him twice a week, and the pastor of Brinkley Heights often visits as well. MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- She didn’t go anywhere without her house shoes. Sheri Shockey’s wide feet fit in nothing but her blue men’s slippers. She walked out of the front door of the Brinkley Heights food pantry in Memphis, carrying a brown paper sack full of food. A man greeted her as he passed, “You ought to come and join us for church one day.” “Oh, I can’t do that -- I don’t go anywhere without my house shoes.” She looked down. “Well, then, you can come in your house shoes.” That was the beginning of what Sheri refers to as “a new chapter of life,” which began three years ago. Less than a decade ago, Sheri was living the American dream—a nice house in the suburbs, membership at a local church, a family and a successful job as a nurse in one of the leading pediatric hospitals in the west Tennessee area. She even took the occasional cruise vacation. At the height of Sheri’s success, a man named James Erwin and nine other families at Brinkley Heights Baptist Church were holding a prayer meeting on the other side of town. The small blue-collar congregation was struggling to keep the lights on in their building. They'd heard the call of God to reach out to their neighbors with the light of the Gospel, and they were answering that call. Their pastor met the idea with some skepticism. The church's closest neighbors were several crack houses, where gang violence and drug-related shootings were not uncommon. The spark of an idea, a food pantry, began to ignite their excitement. “How are we going to do this?” asked the pastor. “We don’t have any money.” And they didn’t. It was hard enough scraping together his meager salary every month. The discussion went round and around, hopeless. During a pause, one of the men stood up. “Well,” he said, “God’s got everything—God’s got all the money. He’s given us the plans and if He plans it He’s going to supply whatever we need. All He wants us to do is be willing.” They didn’t have much food to share, but they had faith and love enough for the whole neighborhood. Each family began bringing a few cans from their own pantry to a closet in the church and inviting their neighbors to come on Monday nights to receive some groceries, and some good news. Good news was in short supply on Sheri's side of town. Sheri’s husband, Ron, had owned his own roofing company and business had been going so well that Sheri quit her full-time position to work with a nursing agency. The job offered better pay but no benefits. When Ron’s partner disappeared with all the profits, Ron's business failed. Soon after, Sheri was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and they were left without any health insurance. ¬In the following months, their house was foreclosed on, their son was sent to live with other relatives and they were left wondering where their next meal would come from. Across town, Ron found a job working as a maintenance man in exchange for lodging accommodations—a small room at a cheap motel—while Sheri underwent painful treatment for cancer. At one point, she was reduced to living on discarded donuts and water from the motel’s free continental breakfast. Sheri quit treatment and doctors gave her only 18 months to live. “I had gotten really, really thin and I just figured I was going to die any day,” Sheri says. “My husband had been taking care of everything. When he was diagnosed with diabetes, I just lost my will to live.” Stories similar to the Shockey’s are being played out all across North America. On Sept. 16, the U.S. Census Bureau announced a 14.3 percent poverty rate for 2009, and that number is expected to grow with unemployment. The number of those living below the poverty rate is at its highest level since 1959, according to internet news sources. Southern Baptists ministries like the one at Brinkley Heights Baptist Church help meet the need. Weary and hopeless, Sheri showed up at the Brinkley Heights church in her house shoes. “It was like coming home,” Sheri says. “I discovered a whole new family in Brinkley.” A family that, according to Sheri, has taught her what it means to be a Christian. “The faith that these people have is remarkable,” she says. “I didn’t know that as a child. I didn’t understand the faith that is necessary. And being here in Brinkley has brought me closer to God. My faith has grown tremendously.” As she talks, Sheri sits on the Erwins’ couch wrestling a shoe onto the foot of an impatient toddler. James Erwin, wife Christy and their two children live in a modest house near the church. Christy works nights at the grocery store and Sheri comes over every day to nanny the children while their mom gets a few hours sleep. The phone rings—a call from Ron, whose condition is worsening. His nurse reports that he has fallen again, possibly breaking his second hip. The church, her family, is there. James and Christy take her to the hospital to visit Ron. A group of men in the church hear about the accident, pray and make plans to visit. Over the years, the food pantry and clothes closet set up by the church at Brinkley Heights have evolved into a full-scale, non-profit organization. They meet the needs of more than 1,500 neighbors each year with assistance from the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund and the generosity of church members willing to give of what little they have. In 2009, the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund provided 4.6 million meals in North America through churches and Southern Baptist hunger relief ministries. Physical hunger wasn’t the only need met. More than 36,000 professions of faith were reported. This year, $1.2 million is needed for requests already expressed for 2011, and only $500,000 is on hand for the rest of 2010. October is the time of year when churches often take up a special World Hunger offering – 100 percent of which goes to providing food for the underserved. Sheri still visits the food pantry on occasion. James, still one of Brinkley's core members, explains that the food pantry is part of the good news they have to share. “God is about loving his creation,” he explains. “He loves us. He wants us to make it—to do better than just surviving. He wants us to have life—both eternal life and life now.” Sheri and Ron face difficult days ahead. Sheri knows the cancer might resurface. Ron’s health is a continual struggle. But God brought real hope to them, through a sack of groceries, an invitation and a community of people willing to obey Christ even at great cost. “I’ve had lots of nice things. When I was a nurse I made real good money. I had nice cars, nice jewelry, we went on vacation,” Sheri says, finally lacing up the toddler’s shoes before putting on her own shoes. “But I’ve lost it all and I’ve gained it back and I’ve lost it all again, and I learned that it doesn’t mean anything.” So what does mean something? “I’ve got life,” she says. “I’ve got a relationship with God.” --- JoAnn Bradberry is a journalist working with nonprofits primarily in Africa. For more information about how your church can give to the World Hunger Fund visit www.namb.net/hunger.
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