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Slain minister’s work, death inspire help for traumatized women

Rev. Kimberlynn Alexander at the new homeless shelter and trauma ministry at St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church. (Brad Vest/Special to The Daily Memphian)
Rev. Kimberlynn Alexander at the new homeless shelter and trauma ministry at St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church. (Brad Vest/Special to The Daily Memphian)

Hope in Memphis is a recurring series about people who are working every day in Memphis to defy and defeat crime and violence, poverty and homelessness, child abuse and neglect, inequity, intolerance and ignorance.

The two Methodist ministers met at the visitation for Rev. Autura Eason-Williams, the local church leader killed during a July carjacking in her driveway.

Rev. Kimberlynn Alexander sat weeping near the back of the funeral home with Terrence Ryans, her mission director at St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church in Memphis.

“We were not ready to go to the front,” said Alexander, who knew Eason-Williams as a friend and mentor. “We still couldn’t believe Dr. Autura was dead. We’d just been with her the day before she was killed.”

Rev. Neelley Hicks, a United Methodist minister from Nashville, took a seat in the row behind them. She had known Eason-Williams by reputation only.

“She was such a bright light,” Hicks said. “And she was a clergy sister. I felt really called to be there.”

Hicks tapped Alexander on the shoulder and introduced herself. They talked quietly about their mutual respect for Eason-Williams, their shock and sorrow over her violent death, the violence and trauma in their lives and in the world.

Both women have devoted their ministries to helping traumatized women and children — Alexander in southeast Memphis, Hicks in Africa.

They started making plans to work together.

“Everywhere I go, there are church buildings,” Hicks said. “There are more church buildings than mental health centers or community centers. Why not turn those church buildings into centers of physical, mental and emotional healing? Trauma impacts everyone.”

Alexander wants to turn St. Matthew’s into one of those centers.

“When Dr. Autura died, whoever knew her and had a covenant relationship with her, something died in them,” Alexander said. “We want to show what can be born out of trauma. That death and trauma aren’t the end of the story.”

Room in an empty church

Rev. Kimberlynn Alexander, right, and Terrence Ryans, the lay leader, inside of the sanctuary at the new homeless shelter and trauma ministry at St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church. (Brad Vest/Special to the Daily Memphian)
Rev. Kimberlynn Alexander, right, and Terrence Ryans, the lay leader, inside of the sanctuary at the new homeless shelter and trauma ministry at St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church. (Brad Vest/Special to the Daily Memphian)

One Saturday evening about a year ago, Alexander saw an old, brown Chevy in the church parking lot. As Alexander walked closer, she saw a woman and three children inside the car.

“I asked if they were OK,” Alexander said. “The mother looked at me and said, ‘Please don’t call the police. We have nowhere else to go.’”

Alexander said she wasn’t going to call the police.

“I told her if she was there in the morning, we would feed them and work with her to find some shelter and some help. When I got back Sunday morning, they were gone.”

The encounter haunted Alexander, especially when she went inside the large, mostly empty church filled with dozens of beds and plenty of provisions.

St. Matthew’s was built at the corner of South Prescott Street and Kimball Road in the 1940s to accommodate the post-World War II baby boom and the growing middle-class neighborhoods of southeast Memphis. By the 1960s, there were 1,400 members.

In recent decades, the neighborhood and church have been battered by busing and deindustrialization, suburban sprawl and urban withdrawal. The church’s membership has declined to a few dozen. Its big three-story building remains.

About 10 years ago, church members turned much of their ample classroom and office space into the John Meeks Mission and Service Center, a nonprofit named for a former pastor who died in 2011.

Every summer before the pandemic, mission teams from colleges across the country filled the center’s nine dorm rooms and 130 bunk beds. The center also has seven showers, several bathrooms, a rec room and a large dining hall next to an industrial kitchen.

“This church has been mostly empty since the pandemic,” Alexander said. “What good is an empty church?”

Trauma in Africa and America

Flowers are seen outside of the new homeless shelter and trauma ministry at St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church. (Brad Vest/Special to The Daily Memphian)
Flowers are seen outside of the new homeless shelter and trauma ministry at St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church. (Brad Vest/Special to The Daily Memphian)

Hicks has experienced the flipside of urban withdrawal: urban gentrification.

For years, she served the homeless, immigrants and other vulnerable people at Sixty-First Avenue United Methodist Church in west Nashville.

The century-old congregation closed its doors in 2017 after the Nations neighborhood around it became the fastest-growing area of the fast-growing city.

“We were a church for the poor, who also are traumatized, but gentrification is pushing people living in low-income conditions farther away from the city,” Hicks said. “So the church closed.”

Hicks turned her attention to serving United Methodists in the nations of central Africa. She helped people there deal with disease and natural disaster.

The focus of her work changed again a few years ago when an African bishop told her about another crisis. Rape and sexual slavery were being used as weapons of war across the region.

“Girls and women were being brutalized, traumatized, even mutilated,” Hicks said. “Then a lot of them were shunned and abandoned by their husbands and communities and retraumatized.”

Hicks responded by forming  opens in a new windowHarper Hill Global, a nonprofit ministry that built and staffed a women’s center in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Girls and women receive trauma care as well as literacy and job training to help them become financially independent.

Soon, other church leaders began asking Hicks to build women’s centers in neighboring nations.

“I knew we didn’t have the time or resources to keep building new centers,” Hicks said. “So we needed to find a way to use buildings that already existed. Like church buildings.”

Sister churches

One of the bedrooms at the new homeless shelter and trauma ministry at St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church. (Brad Vest/Special to The Daily Memphian)
One of the bedrooms at the new homeless shelter and trauma ministry at St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church. (Brad Vest/Special to The Daily Memphian)

The focus of Alexander’s ministry changed after her encounter with the homeless family in the church parking lot.

She talked to Ryans and other church members. They talked about St. Matthew, the church’s namesake. They read from Matthew’s gospel, which became the church’s new mission plan.

“You received without paying, give without pay,” it says in Matthew 10.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me,” it says in Matthew 25.

Church members decided to turn the Meeks Center into an emergency shelter for women and children during the cold winter months.

They organized a Zoom call with potential supporters, including Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, MIFA, Room in the Inn and their district superintendent, Rev. Dr. Autura Eason-Williams.

All agreed to help. So did a number of other United Methodist churches — in particular, St. Paul United Methodist Church in Lakeland.

St. Matthew’s and St. Paul formalized the connection by becoming sister churches.

“St. Paul is in a much more affluent area,” said Rev. Birgitte French, St. Paul’s pastor at the time. “St. Matthew’s had what we needed: engagement with vulnerable people. St. Paul had what they needed: time and resources.”

Both congregations worked to transform St. Matthew’s third floor into the John Meeks Shelter.

Volunteers from both churches (and others) staffed the shelter from 6-11 p.m. and 11 p.m.-8 a.m.

They cooked and served hot meals, played with children, washed linens and cleaned showers, and stocked the closets and food pantry.

The shelter served 16 families last December, January and February.

“That was just the beginning,” Alexander said. “It’s not about how many members your church has. It’s about how many people your members serve.”

The Methodist ‘connection’

From left, Terrence Ryans, the lay leader, Pastor, Rev. Kimberlynn Alexander, center, and Bonnie Carter, right, as Carter delivers a donation at the new homeless shelter and trauma ministry at St. Matthews United Methodist Church. (Brad Vest/Special to The Daily Memphian)
From left, Terrence Ryans, the lay leader, Pastor, Rev. Kimberlynn Alexander, center, and Bonnie Carter, right, as Carter delivers a donation at the new homeless shelter and trauma ministry at St. Matthews United Methodist Church. (Brad Vest/Special to The Daily Memphian)

United Methodists sometimes talk about their denomination as “the connection.”

It’s a reference to Methodism’s 18th-Century founder, John Wesley, who saw the church as a “connexion,” a system of mutual support and accountability.

The United Methodist connectional system “enables us to carry out our mission in unity and strength,” explains the denomination’s Book of Discipline. “Every local church is linked to an interconnected network of organizations that join together in mission and ministry, allowing us to accomplish far more than any one local church or person could alone.”

Those connections are helping Nashville’s Hicks provide trauma care at the Congo’s  opens in a new windowMama Lynn Center. It’s named for Lynn McAlilly, wife of United Methodist Bishop William T. McAlilly who oversees all the denomination’s congregations in West and Middle Tennessee and western Kentucky.

Hicks also is using those connections to expand trauma education to churches in Africa and America.

She worked with the  opens in a new windowNational Association of State Mental Health Program Directors in Washington to develop a seven-week educational course on Trauma, Addiction, Mental health and Recovery, or  opens in a new windowTAMAR. There’s also a separate course for youth.

Her goal is to train clergy and lay leaders to provide TAMAR education in their churches. In September, she began offering TAMAR training to church leaders in the U.S.

“We believe this adds a very important resource to mental health services in community after a crisis and to perhaps prevent one from happening,” said the association’s Dr. Joan Gillece.

Alexander and Ryans plan to provide TAMAR trauma education to the women who stay at St. Matthew’s homeless shelter when it reopens next month.

They also plan to provide TAMAR to Ella Bebe Angels, a nonprofit ministry for survivors of domestic violence. Recently, the nonprofit moved into the church’s old Golden Rule classroom.

The trauma education will be provided in an old conference room that is being renovated into Rev. Dr. Autura Eason-Williams Media Room.

“If you’re looking for an hour of power, we’re going to preach Jesus and praise and worship the Lord on Sunday,” Alexander said. “But during the week, we’re going to get to work. There’s so much work to be done. This building doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to God. God has kept these doors open because we’re doing the work.”

Ministry, not magic

A look inside of the food pantry at the new homeless shelter and trauma ministry at St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church. (Brad Vest/Special to The Daily Memphian)
A look inside of the food pantry at the new homeless shelter and trauma ministry at St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church. (Brad Vest/Special to The Daily Memphian)

The evening before she was murdered last July, Eason-Williams went to St. Matthew’s with enough food to feed a dozen college students.

The students never showed up. Sundays were their off days from  opens in a new windowProject Transformation, a summer literacy camp for children staffed by college students from across the country.

“Terrence and I tried to stall while we tried to contact the students,” Alexander said. “So we kept showing Dr. Autura around the church.”

As a district superintendent, Eason-Williams oversaw dozens of congregations. She helped St. Matthew’s find funding and support for the homeless shelter, but this was the first time she’d seen it in person.

”This is a high-needs area, and we have a lot of room,” Ryans told her.

Alexander and Ryans showed Eason-Williams old Sunday school classrooms now lined with clothing.

“We started with one room full of clothes,” Ryans said. “Now we have five rooms — one each for children, women, men, housewares and winter clothing.”

They showed her other classrooms and closets now filled with food and diapers and toys and towels.

“Every time we give food away, someone donates more food to us,” Alexander said.

They showed her the church’s fellowship hall that would become a dining hall and living room for homeless women and children.

They showed her the dorm rooms for college students that would be turned into nine bedrooms for homeless families.

“They’re going to have a key so they can lock their doors at night and have some privacy,” Alexander said.

They showed her the old Golden Rule classroom, which would be used to help survivors of domestic violence.

As the tour was winding down, Eason-Williams wheeled around, crossed her arms, nodded her head and blinked.

“This is not a blink ministry,” she said with a big smile.

“We must have looked confused,” Alexander said. “So she started humming the theme song from the old TV show ‘I Dream of Jeannie.’ We just laughed.”

“She was saying that this didn’t just magically happen all of a sudden, that a lot of thought and praying and planning and work had gone into this ministry,” Alexander said. “She was encouraging us to keep working. She’s still encouraging us.”

Autura’s connections

The late Rev. Autura Eason-Williams was Metro District Superintendent of the Tennessee-Western Kentucky United Methodist Annual Conference. (Credit: United Methodist Church)
The late Rev. Autura Eason-Williams was Metro District Superintendent of the Tennessee-Western Kentucky United Methodist Annual Conference. (Credit: United Methodist Church)

Eason-Williams was  opens in a new windowcarjacked and killed Monday afternoon, July 18, as she sat in her car on her driveway in Whitehaven. She’d just gotten home.

She was talking on her cell to Rev. Birgitte French, one of her closest friends. They talked nearly every day. Eason-Williams told French about her trip to St. Matthew’s the previous evening.

”She said she took all this food over there for students, but the students weren’t there. She laughed about it,” said French, now pastor of Colonial Park United Methodist Church.

”She told me they gave her a big tour of the building and how impressed she was by what they were doing with the shelter,” French said.

”Of course, Autura was the one who connected St. Matthew’s with St. Paul. She was very good at connecting people with each other. Autura’s connections are still doing the work.”

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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