Heather Brown: A Life Well Loved

Heather Brown and family

Cover Story

Perfection and comparison. Birmingham-based podcaster and lifestyle blogger Heather Brown says that perfection and comparison can rob Christian women and families of joy, but that she aims to provide a realistic and healthy understanding of life via her social media presence.

Heather Brown in white sweater
Heather Brown named her “My Life Well Loved” blog with the intention of helping women realize that every aspect of their life is worth loving and pouring into. “It’s not about health or fitness or fashion,” she says. “All parts of your life are important.”

“If you don’t have joy in Christ, it won’t come from exercise or a diet or anything else,” she says. “I want to let women know that no one’s perfect, and that you can have a healthy balance.” Brown’s “My Life Well Loved” blog, “Healthy with Heather Brown” podcast, and other online channels continue to gain followers and fans, as she engages with more than one million women each year.

Humble Blog Beginnings. While blogs and social media channels are ubiquitous in society now, they haven’t always been everywhere- and Brown was on the ground floor in the health and lifestyle blogging industry. A journalism and mass communications major at Samford University, she started her first blog in 2010 after a friend encouraged her to share her knowledge about couponing and meal planning with others. Brown’s husband, Eric, had recently given up his accounting job and decided to go back to school to train to be a nurse practitioner. To save money, she began “heavily couponing in order to pinch every penny” they could. “I got really good at it,” she recalls. “I’d walk out of CVS and they’d pay me money.”

She and her friend sat in a coffee shop and talked about her expertise, and before she’d left her friend had started “Saving Money and Living Life” for her. That blog led to her work with Birmingham-based emeals.com, where she produced its blog, and then eventually back into business for herself. All along the way, Brown says, God orchestrated signs and opportunities for the changes in her career. She talks often of “doors”- both opened and closed- that have pushed her in the direction God wanted her to be. “God just kept opening doors and challenging what I thought I could do on my own,” she says. “I asked God to both open and close doors for me, and we took many leaps of faith. Looking back, He blew every expectation I would have had on my own.”

Heather Brown and family
Heather and her husband Eric are intentional in their Christian upbringing of sons Leyton and Finn. They try to integrate Bible study, devotions, worship music, and prayer into everyday moments of their family life.

When Brown was pregnant with her first son, Leyton, she knew she didn’t want to go back to work full time and instead decided to “put a toe in the water” to see where God would lead them. She began working part time in real estate, teaching Pure Barre, and spent the other 20 hours a week working on the “My Life Well Loved” blog.  She asked God to “slam any doors that needed to be slammed” and soon found that she was making more money on her website than in her part time jobs. She and Eric took that as a sign to finally devote full time energy to the blog. “I don’t want to do it if you’re not guiding me,” Brown told God, and the rest is history.

Today, Brown’s blog provides a wealth of information and inspiration through articles, e-books, a newsletter, and an accompanying podcast. Visitors to the blog will find stories on everything from recipes to parenting to beauty to healthy lifestyle issues. When naming her blog, Brown says she wanted it to incorporate all the areas that women struggle with and celebrate. She wanted them to know that every aspect of life can be loved. “I wanted to have different doors I could go into and explore,” she says. “I want to let women know that you can love your life in every aspect.”

Journey of Faith. Brown’s mother tells her that she first accepted Christ when she was just three years old and while she can’t remember the instance herself, she credits her family with providing a Christian example that has stayed with her since then. “I did deal with doubt many times since I was so young when I first believed, and I’ve recommitted to Christ over the years,” she says, “but I know that the Lord has been so sweet to me. He guides and leads me and my family.” Brown recalls hearing when she was young that missionaries are not just those who serve far away. She’s learned throughout her faith journey that anyone can serve Christ- whatever their career, location, or life may be. “People want to separate so much in their lives. They want to say you can only be a missionary, or only be a doctor, or only be a faith blogger, but as Christians, we’re all missionaries in our jobs and our homes,” she says. “I’m what you’d call a health and lifestyle blogger, but if you read or listen to me for very long you see that I’m a Christian.”

Heather Brown with sons
Heather will appear at the Birmingham Home Show in February, offering a presentation titled ““The Power of a Sunday Reset for a Healthier Home.” She encourages families to have one day each week in which they can focus on how to make the next week even better. “Talk with each other about what worked last week, what didn’t work, what irritated me,” she says. “Then have a reset as a family.”

Brown grew up in the Birmingham area and attended Shades Mountain Christian School, and today her family lives in Hoover and attends Christ Fellowship Church. She and Eric do whatever they can to incorporate Christ’s teaching in their daily life with sons Leyton, now 7, and Finn, 4. As a working mother, she captures every moment she can with her sons to instill a sense of faith and belief. In addition to attending church, she and Eric have a Bible verse they focus on each week; she practices the verse with her sons on the way to preschool in the morning and then prioritizes the verse’s meaning in her parenting throughout the week. She also utilizes a family devotional time once a week (she recommends the ones from “Deep Roots,” which include cut-out cards, stickers, and other tools to accompany the devotional). They also sing “Jesus Loves Me” and “The Doxology” every night before bed. “I just try to make things as natural as possible,” Brown says. “Tell the boys about Jesus as just part of our daily life.” Brown also stresses that she and her husband keep each other accountable. “You never really feel like you hit the perfect balance, but we are working toward balance,” she says. “He’s my accountability partner, and we want to make sure our priorities are on the same page.”

Expectations and Social Media. As a social media influencer, Brown says that the internet can be a wonderful thing- but that it can also be extremely harmful if things aren’t put in their proper perspective. Brown says she experienced this on a personal level after the birth of Leyton, when she had a fourth-degree tear and also suffered from postpartum depression. “Because of the traumatic birth, I couldn’t even walk to the mailbox for six months. That truly rocked me to my core, because I had to put things into perspective. I realized that I’d treated my fitness like an idol,” she recalls. “And that led to postpartum depression, and I went down such a rabbit hole.” Brown learned that joy came not from external activities, but from a relationship with Christ. 

That whole experience taught her that so many women believe their lives have to look a certain way and that they’re a failure if it doesn’t. Social media, Brown says, only exacerbates the problem. Brown now strives to be honest in her online storytelling and encourages women to find their worth in more than what their lives look like or what they accomplish. “I want women to know that it’s normal to have this experience,” she says, “and I try to use my story, whether it’s me talking about postpartum on my blog or sharing my faith on my podcast.”

Heather Brown
Heather attended Shades Mountain Christian High School and then Samford University; she’s proud to call Birmingham home and raise her children in the area.

Brown also encourages mothers to watch for signs of social media dependence in their children and recommends that children not be given phones and internet access until they’re older. “Communication is so important,” she says. “Know what your kids are looking at, and don’t be afraid to talk with them.” Children and teenagers are bombarded with similar ideas as adults are, and they are similarly challenged with ideas of perfection and comparison. “I keep hearing the verse that says the enemy is here to lie and deceive and steal,” she says, “and we need to remember that Tik Tok and other platforms can be used by the enemy.”

Plans for the Future. Brown recently expanded her business to include her “Healthy with Heather Brown” podcast and plans to focus on it more in 2023. After becoming a bit disheartened by Instagram and her inability to share her faith effectively there, Brown decided that podcasts were a good way to focus her energy- and share her faith more freely. The first season of the podcast focused primarily on physical health, but the upcoming second season will focus more on mental and spiritual health. “The podcast lets me talk longer about my faith, and I’m able to bring on guests who can share about theirs too,” Brown says. The podcast can be found on Spotify, Apple, and Google. As she looks to the new year and new opportunities through such things as speaking engagements and personal coaching, Brown says that she is staying in tune with where God wants to lead her. She’s chosen the word surrender as her personal word for the year and streamlined for her business. “I want to be openhanded in my life,” she explains. “God has shown me many times in my life that I just need to surrender to him.”

-Cheryl Wray

 

Walt Merrell and Family

Cover Story

If you have a difficult time communicating with your teenager, Walt Merrell has a simple piece of advice for you: get outdoors. Merrell, founder of the “Shepherding Outdoors” community and author of two books of the same name, believes that enjoying God’s natural creation is key to building relationships, starting conversations, and strengthening families. Today he shares his experiences and wisdom through his books, church ministry, and work in the community as the elected district attorney for Alabama’s Covington County.

Stepping Outside his Comfort Zone. Merrell lives in Andalusia with his wife Hannah and three daughters Bay, Cape, and Banks. He was raised in church and in a close family but said that meeting Hannah and joining her family made him have a more “appropriate” understanding of what being a Christian meant. He and Hannah met at the University of Montevallo, and he points to that as a turning point. “God had a plan all along, and I was oblivious to it until he brought us together,” he said.  An additional turning point–and one that changed the trajectory of his calling–came in 2015, when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. “I had an ocular tumor in my eye socket, and doctors had a hard time diagnosing me. I had biopsies that said it was sarcoma, after almost every pathological lab couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me,” he recalled. “At the time I figured I had about two years to live, and I was going to use that time to pour into my children.”

Merrell family in wet suits
Walt Merrell’s experience as an attorney has convinced him of the importance of fathers in today’s society. “To reduce crime and to solve so many problems, we need to put an engaged Dad in the lives of children,” he said. “I’ve seen over and over again how men have abandoned their children, or abused them, or embraced addiction more than their children.”

“I prayed that I could take advantage of those two years, and one day I was walking around with my daughter in our yard and we were picking up sweet gum nuts and throwing them against a tree,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘here’s our common ground.’ Spending time together outdoors was what we could do together, and I began to ask myself questions. What about kayaking? What about camping?” The idea for Shepherding Outdoors came from that time in his life and when Merrell experienced healing from his cancer the ministry remained. “I don’t like to call myself a miracle, but I do acknowledge His authority and ability. But I don’t like to shine that light on me,” Merrell said, “but I’m grateful for that time because it was when Shepherding Outdoors was born.”

Merrell encourages parents to spend quality time with their children outside and said that the process doesn’t have to be complicated. Simply find what works for you and your family. He, in fact, had never had much experience growing up doing such activities. And he and his daughters had rarely done so. “We’d hunted a little bit, but we started doing more things outdoors,” he said. “The first time I took my girls camping, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to light the fire. Not being able to do something like that can be hard on a man, but all you have to do is try. You don’t have to be an expert.” Over the years, Merrell has taken all of his daughters on solo outdoor trips–including ones when they each turned 12 years old. He took his oldest daughter Bay, now 20, on a five-day trip down the Buffalo River in Ark., paddled across the Everglades with middle daughter Cape, and hiked part of the Appalachian Trail with youngest daughter Banks.

Merrell Family in boat
When spending time outdoors with teenagers, Merrell said there are two important rules to remember: Make it low-tech and low budget.

“When I took Bay on that first trip, it was really transformative and she came back stronger,” he said. “We camped, built fires, and it forced both of us to engage with each other. At 12, children are beyond mindless chatter and want to have meaningful conversations. And it gives us a chance to get to know each other as maturing adults.” Merrell said that 12 is the perfect age to spend one-on-one time with daughters, and he also encourages fathers to spend time outdoors with their sons. Lessons from the outdoors, according to Merrell, can be varied and valuable. “Anytime you go outside with your kids you have the opportunity to say look around and consider whether you think this was all happenstance or intentional. Being outdoors gives you the opportunity to talk about how awesome God is,” he said.


Writing His Story. Alongside spending time with his daughters while he was sick, Merrell also began to write down the lessons he wanted to leave behind to them.  “When I was sick, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to tell them everything, and that evolved into me writing stories for them. They were stories just for the girls,” he said. “And when I found out my tumor wasn’t a tumor anymore, I just kept writing.” He eventually built up the courage to share one of his stories on Facebook, and he received affirmation from readers and God about this new way of sharing. He’d learned about the practical side of sharing his stories online from his mother-in-law Brenda Gantt, who has gained a substantial following through her “Cooking with Brenda Gantt” Facebook page, videos, and books. She encouraged him to share his stories, and he started the “Shepherding Outdoors” page on Facebook. According to Merrell, his stories are “all 95% true” and focus on personal experiences and lessons learned from them. His audience is other parents like himself who yearn to build experiences with their family members; he also strives to share his faith with his readers. 

Merrell Family
Walt and Hannah’s three daughters are Bay, 20; Cape, 17; and Banks, 13. Even their names reflect the love the Merrells have of the outdoors. They live on a small farm in Andalusia, and hunt and fish on their own land.

While he’s a trained attorney, he grew up writing and he remembers his first real experience with recording his stories. “When I was 12, I went to Dog Island, Fla., to work at an inn there called Pelican Inn. There was no television and no telephone, and before I went my mom gave me a notebook and pack of pens. I still have that original journal, and dozens of others filled with stories or just rambling thoughts, even speeches I wrote as an adult.” Birmingham based Hoffman Media published Merrell’s first book of stories, Shepherding Outdoors: Short Stories from a Southern Father in 2017 and also recently published his second book, Shepherding Outdoors, Volume 2: More Short Stories from a Southern Father (www.hoffmanmediastore.com).  The book’s synopsis describes its contents like this: “Armed with the knowledge of trusted fellow outdoorsmen, the love of his wife, Hannah, and his ever-faithful dog, Lincoln, follow Walt through even more tales of fatherhood, the teachings of nature, and the strengthening power of faith and family.”

To keep up with his writing demands and deadlines, Merrell said he writes almost every day; some of his stories are posted immediately to his social media accounts, while others are saved for later or not used at all. “I write every morning from about 4:30 a.m. – to 6 a.m., then I go to work. I leave evenings with the girls,” Merrell explained. “I’ll continue to serve as District Attorney, because I believe God called me to that job.”

Ministering to Men and Families. Merrell’s outdoors ministry stems from what he has learned from work as a district attorney and a church ministry he’s been involved with that serves fathers and their families.  “A lot of my men’s ministry efforts come from what I’ve seen at work,” he said. “Years ago, our church put together an event where we had a WWF wrestler come speak and had steak and baked potatoes. We never said a thing about Jesus when promoting it, but we had more than 400 men come, and they heard the testimony. Twelve people were saved that night.” The ministry was aimed at unchurched men, and his church began doing a similar event every month. “It’s amazing to see what God did through that,” he said. “I’ve seen lives changed professionally and personally.” Today Merrell’s ministry has extended into other churches, schools, and other groups where his message of enjoying the outdoors is shared with both parents and children.

Brenda Gantt with granddaughter
Walt Merrell’s mother-in-law is Brenda Gantt, who also lives in Andalusia and hosts the immensely popular “Cooking with Brenda Gantt” videos and operates a bed and breakfast in the area. Read her faith story here.

His message to fathers? Children have many things vying for their attention, and that the outdoors provides a them with common ground. “You may wonder how to communicate with your daughter who just dyed her hair pink,” he said, “but you still have things in common.”And his message to teenagers? Life is changing at your age, but you can still trust God and His leadership. “I try to speak to the issues that children or teenagers of a particular age are facing,” he said. “I recently spoke to 1500 students of different ages at a private school in Tenn., and I did a revival not long at a 2000-member church in Ga. I tell my story and pray that it makes a difference in an individual or family’s life.” Learn more about Shepherding Outdoors on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and at www.shepherdingoutdoors.com.

Cheryl Wray writes from Hueytown, Ala., and is the mother of three and grandmother of six. She coordinates the Southern Christian Writers Conference.

Megan Alexander holding book

Cover Story

Who Could Know? When a baby girl was born on February 15, 1980, in Seattle, Wash., no one on this earth knew where this girl would go or what she would do, or who would ultimately direct her life. No one could know she would be gifted with such honors as Emmy-nominated national news correspondent, host, emcee, speaker, wife, mother, producer, actress, and author. No one knew faith in Jesus Christ and standing true to His principles would solidify her worldview or that this faith would affect her family and career and even society. No one on this earth knew, but her Heavenly Father emceed it all (Proverbs 16:9).

Megan Alexander in red hatMegan Alexander credits her mom and dad with wisdom that helped her maneuver through life’s hard messes. Her dad’s treating people of all walks of life with dignity and respect- whether the building’s security guard or the company’s CEO- modeled invaluable life skills. Her mom’s sage advice for forming friendships proved priceless: be open to new relationships; when you feel left out at school, keep your eyes open for others who might feel left out, too. God can use us when we allow ourselves to be available to Him and seek out new friendships and new people.

Crucial Relationship. However, Alexander came to a crossroads. Through Christian school, her parents, and her church, God had always been part of her life. That wasn’t enough in middle school. She asked herself what she believed apart from familiarity. Was the road to Jesus Christ really for her? Was something called a “personal relationship with Him” even possible? Ultimately, she chose the path less traveled, and that has made all the difference: the difference that helps Alexander as a long-time Christian stay true to her beliefs in a secular industry, to discern when it is appropriate to share her beliefs in a professional setting. Alexander married her husband, Brian, and they have two sons- Chace and Catcher- and one daughter- Capri. The boys love baseball, and weekends are often filled with ballpark activities or taking day hikes in surrounding areas. Another favorite family treat is strolling through Gaylord Opryland’s botanical gardens, locally called “the jungle.” The family attends Bethel World Outreach Church in Brentwood, Tenn. where Alexander volunteers with Meals on Wheels. “I fell in love with Nashville when I first moved here in the fall of 2002. My college roommate was from Nashville, and I came home with her that spring. I instantly knew this is where I wanted to work and raise my family someday. My very first night in Nashville I slept in my car parked in the parking lot of the Grand Ole Opry- just so I could say I did. That seemed like the perfect introduction to a life of excitement in Nashville. My Mom was appalled! After a detour to Texas and NYC, I finally got back here ten years ago.” 

Megan Alexander in green sweater
Megan Alexander is a national news correspondent, host, emcee, speaker, producer, author, and actress.

Earning a Seat. Alexander formulated a life philosophy centered around “table”—earning a seat at the table, the table that allows her a voice in influencing society. Toward Jesus’ standards of love and accountability. She has long wanted to be known for good work first, for gaining the respect of colleagues, letting them see that she will deliver for them, that she is a team player and will get the job done. She thinks of this as earning her seat at the table. She enjoys working in television, turning a story, and making deadlines. She is convinced that doing good work gains people a seat at the table where they then can have a platform to share. During rare travels, Alexander spends enough time with colleagues, whether it’s breaking news or when they’re covering the Super Bowl, that sharing many of life’s ups and downs- births to deaths- occurs. “When opportunities arise [I can] share how to get through life and what comforts- living out faith in Jesus with others.” 

Faith in the Spotlight. Earning a seat at the table comes in various ways, and for Alexander one way is through writing. Her book, Faith in the Spotlight: Thriving in Your Career While Staying True to Your Beliefs (2016) expounds on principles of faith in Jesus. She speaks to the issue of how Christians can thrive in a secular world rather than merely complain about not being represented in the media or being silenced in popular culture. She writes about the importance of mentors, coping with rejection, handling high-pressure situations, and the ways being a Christian fulfills her role in a superficial society. She knows how difficult it can be for Christian women to get ahead in their careers and simultaneously navigate their roles at home and in their faith. She offers a fresh millennial-centered perspective on how to build a successful career while being married and focusing on family. She gives inspiring, real-life examples of why women can- and should- lead in the workplace. Alexander reminds Christians that God’s Spirit will tell us what to say, where to go, and what to do (when we look to Him for guidance. Believers in all walks of life are sent by Jesus into the world to make a difference for Him- to take their seats at the table, raise their hands, and offer another viewpoint. 

The Magic of a Small Town Christmas cover
Megan’s new book celebrating the joys, wonders, and traditions of a small-town Christmas is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Books a Million.

One More Hug. Continuing to define her seat at the table, Alexander wrote a children’s picture book undergirding family, One More Hug (2019). For children ages four to eight and their parents as well, One More Hug was inspired by her eldest son when his getting on that big, frightening school bus for kindergarten was an opportunity for her to provide confidence through hug after hug. There’s always time for one more hug and unconditional love to help a child navigate life, even when it’s time to go off to college. 

The Table Expands. Alexander presents another glimpse into her career and wide experiences as she navigates Christmas across the country through her UPTV series, Small Town Christmas, and her latest children’s picture book, The Magic of a Small Town Christmas. The book is a beautiful rendition of family values, heart, and the joy of the holiday season in the spirit of her TV show. “I believe our small towns are the heartbeat of America. And they come to life in magical ways during the holidays. Whether it’s the large Christmas tree located in the center of the town square, the kids laughing at the local ice-skating rink, a church filled with Christmas music, eating yummy gingerbread cookies, hanging handmade stockings, sharing a home-cooked meal, or the glow of candles in the windows- These small-town scenes are heartwarming to see and experience. I have traveled the country for my TV show and have experienced how so many small towns and their people celebrate Christmas in special ways. From longtime local traditions to classic Christmas sights and sounds, I tried to capture an element of each of these towns and incorporate them into this book. I hope to write more books.”  Heartbeat Falls may be an imaginary town, but Alexander hopes that when you turn the pages, you will see a little of your hometown, your local holiday traditions, and your neighbors in the words and illustrations, just as she does when she celebrates with her own family. 

UPTV ScheduleHosted by executive producer Megan Alexander, the second season of UPTV’s docu-series, Small Town Christmas, airs on December 4, 11, and 18 at 8 p.m. central time. Each televised episode spotlights a different small town around the country to show how its people ring in the Christmas season. The series focuses on local businesses and towns that make the holiday season special in their unique way. The residents of these towns know the beauty of a small town doesn’t merely come from its size but from the love shared by its people. Viewers experience small town foods, drinks, entertainment, and faith highlighted in local businesses. “I’m producing and hosting the Christmas show because I want to contribute positive content to the world. I want to be able to read [books] and watch [programs] with my kids. My full-time job is mom of three and author and owner of my own production company. We are working on producing movies, and I would love to film one in Middle Tenn. I believe in the people.” 

-Sheila E. Moss: Living to Matter: Mothers, Singles, and the Weary and Broken; Interrupting Women: Ten Conversations with Jesus; and international publications derived from teaching Bible and Christian ethics in Africa, Ukraine, Venezuela, and England; teacher of Bible classes for 35+ years; mother of five adult children and grandmother of eleven grandchildren

Brenda cover

Cover Story

As the holiday season approaches, popular home cook and social media personality Brenda Gantt celebrates with a lots of inspiration for upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings. Gantt, who has become a Facebook sensation with more than three million followers, reaches out to the world from her home in Andalusia, Ala. through her “Cooking with Brenda Gantt” videos and a brand new cookbook, Linger Around the Table Y’all. Her popularity exploded in 2020 when she began sharing her simple, Southern recipes online. Today, she continues to build a loyal following–while expanding with speaking engagements and the publication of two popular cookbooks. Ultimately, Gantt says that her story is one of faith. She makes sure that all of her work is sprinkled with the love of Jesus. “People tell me that they feel a connection to me and my faith,” she says. “Along with my recipes, I make sure I share Jesus with my followers.”

Brenda Gantt Sewing
While cooking is still the main part of her Facebook page, Gantt has expanded into sharing gardening and outdoor help as well. “I’m doing yard work, telling them how to root plants. I’ve even had a video on line dancing,” she says. “I want to show some of my life outside the kitchen.”

A Continuing Witness. Gantt, who operates The Cottle House Bed and Breakfast in Andalusia, has always been an avid cook; she cooked for her family and often encouraged young people to learn how to cook. One day during the early part of the coronavirus pandemic, a young man from her church asked her how to make homemade biscuits; on a whim, she recorded a video on her personal Facebook page and shared it with church members who’d requested the biscuit recipe. The video was shared thousands of times, and within two weeks it had a million views. Her son-in-law, Walt, soon suggested that she set up a separate page away from her personal information. “Cooking with Brenda Gantt” debuted in April 2020, and she began recording “official” videos almost immediately. 

Since then, her visibility and popularity have continued to grow–and so has her feeling of responsibility to reach out and help people. While her followers are in the multi-millions, Gantt attempts to stay personal and accessible. She wants to always be a strong Christian witness, helping people when she can. “It’s overwhelming sometimes because I can’t answer all of the questions,” she says. “I encourage my followers to help me out. If someone asks a simple question–maybe the difference between plain and self-rising flour–I encourage followers to answer that person.” She gave as an example a recent video about peach cobbler that garnered 60,000 comments. “I just can’t get to all of them,” she says, “so I love it when my followers help.”

Brenda cover
Read Brenda Gantt’s inspiring faith story here.

Even more meaningful than the questions she gets about cooking are the situations that involve people’s personal lives and struggles. Gantt says that she always strives to provide encouragement and love and has been bolstered by how her “simple” videos seem to touch people. “I’ve encountered all kinds of situations,” she says. “Divorce, wayward children, illnesses. I’ve had some people fighting stage-4 cancer who said they don’t have the energy to cook, but they can sit and watch me cook. My videos are uplifting to them, and they looked forward to my smile. Hearing things like that is just wonderful. It reminds me of how I can make a difference.” Gantt says she is particularly attuned to any needs and requests online that are spiritual in nature. She scrolls through comments on her videos and responds whenever there’s the opportunity to build someone up. You never know, she says, when you may be introducing Christ’s love to someone for the first time. “I want to get my followers into their kitchens, to give them confidence in cooking,” she says, “but I also want to let them know that Jesus loves them. I always bring some Scripture into my videos, and I tell stories that show my faith in a non-threatening way.” According to Gantt, she understands the way some people will react to her faith story. “You have to be careful because not everyone wants to hear that much about Jesus. I do it gently and try not to come across as pushy,” she says. “I follow God’s lead and give what I can.”

Brenda Gantt cooking biscuits in the kitchen
Gantt learned about cooking at the feet of her mother and grandmothers. They taught her to cook, and also shared with her the value of spending time together at the dinner table.

Recipes & Stories. Once Gantt’s cooking videos went viral, requests for her recipes came in on an almost constant basis. Her first cookbook, It’s Gonna Be Good Y’all, was published in 2021 by Birmingham’s Hoffman Media; it included more than 100 recipes from Gantt’s private collection. Gantt’s newest cookbook, Linger Around the Table Y’all, was released in October of this year and works as a companion to her first book–but with additional recipes and more personal stories. The book, which sold out of its original pre-orders, is available now from www.brendaganttbook.com with limited inventory. The title of her second cookbook, Gantt says, was a very deliberate choice. “There’s something to be said about families sitting around the table together,” she says. “We need to find at least one meal a day–it can be breakfast, lunch, or supper–where we can gather around the table together with no phone and no television.” According to Gantt, families today are busier than ever before; it’s especially important to find time to eat together, amid travel ball, dance lessons, school, church events, and other activities. She says she and her late husband prioritized mealtime with their children. “When I was raising my children, we didn’t have cell phones. But we had phones that had to be taken off the hook, and our kids knew at mealtime that the phones were off the hook,” she recalls. “We ate together and talked. When they were teenagers, they wanted to eat and quickly get up from the table. I’d say no, we’re going to sit here and talk.”

Gantt’s new cookbook provides more than 100 additional recipes (“it’s not fancy recipes, just common sense food”), as well as inspirations from Scripture and stories about how she grew up “lingering” around the dinner table and then fostering table time with her own family. She says she still treasures the memories of having breakfast each morning with her parents since her father worked late into the night. “He worked at Hunt Oil in Tuscaloosa, and Momma would often take us to his office for supper and we’d visit while he ate,” she says. “I vividly remember those times of eating together. It showed my Momma’s love for my Daddy.” Gantt’s original motivation to write a cookbook was to pass along such stories (and recipes) to her children and grandchildren. “It’s important to leave that legacy to our family.”

Linger Around The Table Yall cover
Learn more about Gantt’s new cookbook Linger Around The Table Y’all at www.brendaganttbook.com. A limited number of copies are available for purchase on the website. Find one of Gantt’s delicious recipes from her new cookbook here.

Holiday Celebrations. Linger Around the Table Y’all includes recipes for holiday dishes (with a chapter on holidays titled “O Holy Night”) and Gantt says that her memories of the holidays are often intertwined with food. She’ll never forget the Christmas when her father smashed a real coconut with a hammer on their family’s carport. Her mother planned ahead and punched holes beforehand so that the children could drink the milk from the coconut. “Mother and Daddy peeled the skin off the coconut and then she made a tall, 3-tiered coconut cake,” she remembers. “She put it under a big glass dome and set the entire cake on the back balcony. If we wanted cake, we had to go outside to get it.”

Gantt says that holidays are about making memories, and she encourages families today to teach that they are special times. “We always dressed up for Christmas dinner,” she says. “Dress up, even if it’s just you and your little bunch because we are celebrating something great. We’re celebrating Jesus!” Just as her new cookbook proclaims, it’s the gathering together that’s vital. She stresses that being together doesn’t have to be fancy; it just needs to be intentional. “There’s nothing fancy to a lot of my recipes and ideas,” she says. “You can have a picnic with your children out in the woods. Or you can gather together on the porch or in the kitchen. Just eat together and talk. It doesn’t have to be complicated.”

Future Plans. When asked what her plans are for the future, Gantt says that she will “keep doing what I’m doing until the Lord changes my direction, and I haven’t heard that yet.” She plans on continuing to post on her “Cooking with Brenda Gantt” Facebook page and being open to new avenues and challenges. She limits her speaking engagements to select events and continues to welcome people into The Cottle House–where she serves as hostess and cooks meals for guests. “It’s a 1905 farmhouse with a wraparound porch. We redid it and it has that country feeling,” she explains. “I cook breakfast every morning for guests, and they tend to want to eat together these days. People are coming from all over the United States, and I think they need that connection.” She also continues to support and love her children and grandchildren (Dallas and Hannah, their spouses Anna and Walt, and grandchildren Isabella, William, Bay, Cate, and Banks) and honor the memory of her husband, George, who passed away in 2018.

Gantt encourages people to continue visiting her Facebook page and inviting new people to discover her online. She finds it hard to believe she has more than 3 million followers, but she is always ready to welcome more. “It’s crazy when you think about it, and I don’t know how big it will get,” she says. “But I want people to keep finding me, so I can help them. I’ll keep doing my thing until God tells me otherwise.”

-Cheryl Wray

Sonya with black dog

Cover Story 

Sonya King still gets quizzical looks when she explains that her animal rescue organization is a faith-based ministry. Her answer is that all of God’s creatures must be cared for and protected and that through serving animals she can be a witness to people. “God can use everything to connect with someone, to develop a connection, to build a relationship. The opportunities are right in front of us,” she said. “I can tell you story after story of how our animal rescues have shared the love of God with others.”

Sonya with Two by Two foster parents
Two by Two is always looking for volunteers. Founder Sonya King encourages anyone who is interested to get in touch with her. She is seen here with Deb and John Sellers who are donors and foster parents. Learn more at the website www.twobytworescue.com.

Two by Two Rescue. Two by Two Rescue operates out of Helena, Ala., and is run with the mission to save unwanted, abused, and abandoned animals. Founder and owner King operates her work with the promise that all possible animals will be served, and that none of them will be killed. King, who first attended college with the plan to be a broadcaster and then ended up with a law degree, felt God’s calling to start an animal rescue after seeing the proliferation of stray dogs in the community. She began picking up stray dogs one by one, feeling compelled to “do something with the struggling dogs in the area.”

At the time, then Helena Mayor Sonny Penhale told King that there wasn’t anyone who wanted to care for the stray animals in the community; the town didn’t even have an animal control service. King began as a volunteer, and then Penhale encouraged her to do it in a more official manner; she agreed, but she had to go by the rules she felt so strongly about based on her faith. “I said, every animal lives. And he said okay,” she recalled. “That was 20 years ago.” Today, Two by Two rescues not just dogs but also cats, horses, and other animals and its services stretch into 24 states other than Alabama. King and her volunteers get donations from around the world. “When people call us from Mobile or Huntsville, or other states, we take that as a high compliment, because it says something about our integrity,” King said. “We do as much as we can with the resources we have.”

Sonya with black dogs
Sonya King grew up in Montgomery, moved to Helena 21 years ago, and started the Two by Two Rescue soon after. The organization still works out of Helena but will travel anywhere to assist with an animal rescue.

At the time of its inception, Two by Two was one of the very first cities in the state to offer a no-kill policy. More cities and communities have followed that lead, but King said that animal shelter euthanasia is sadly still common and generally accepted. The way societies–cities, states, and nations–care for their animals says a lot about their priorities, King said. There are many improvements still needed in Alabama, she said, and she does her best to raise awareness of the issue. “I honestly wish our services weren’t needed, and that’s my dream and prayer that the Lord would change the way we treat animals,” she said. “We need our government to realize that we need fair, basic laws to protect our animals. It’s about being a good steward.”

The animals rescued by Two by Two come from a wide variety of places–and King said they don’t say no to any of them. They receive calls from law enforcement about animals, or someone will simply call or email that a dog is running up the road. Families in crisis, who’ve experienced a death or a divorce, will call because they have an animal that can no longer be cared for. Some requests for help have come in simply because King or a staff member has worn a Two by Two t-shirt at dinner and it started a conversation about an animal in need. “We’ve had people tell us they have a financial issue where they could either pay for their dog or pay for medicine for a spouse,” King said. “Unfortunately, when we say we’ve seen and heard it all, it’s true.” Two by Two offers care and takes the financial burden in most situations. “If we have, for example, a veterinarian come in with an animal whose care can’t be paid for, we will pay for the care or they will relinquish the animal to us,” King said. “We can’t say no to animals in need. Thankfully, we have a lot of great volunteers and supporters.”

Two by Two also offers foster opportunities, and King stressed that they always need volunteers for this program. Fostering involves bringing abandoned animals into the homes of volunteers who care for them until a permanent home can be found; all the costs of fostering (food, bedding, vet care, etc.) are taken care of by Two by Two. “We believe that a home is where the animal should be, and we also like to know our animals first. See how they are with children, things like that,” King said. “Foster parents are there to supply love and security, and we need those volunteers.” King said she sometimes marvels at how she went from her original life plans to directing an animal rescue with such a huge scope. She believes ultimately, though, it goes back to her belief that God desires mercy and care for His creation. “The Lord has placed a mantle of justice on me,” she said. “It started first with my interest in law, when I thought I was going to go after the bad guys. But I know now He was pointing me in this direction.”

Sonya with Dog
To learn more about Two by Two Rescue and find out how you can get involved, visit twobytworescue.com.

Christ-Centered Work. King grew up as a preacher’s kid and has always felt led to live out her Christian faith; she said that, although she didn’t realize it, her calling to work with animals came from God at a young age. She still has a photo of herself at just 7-years-old, when she brought home her first stray dog. “That’s where it’s totally a God thing,” she recalled. “Back then we didn’t have cell phones to take pictures, but someone snapped a photo of me and this big black dog with me. It was the start of it all.” She named her animal rescue after the story of Noah in the Bible, and she follows Biblical principles in her work. “Noah obeyed God’s voice, and that story tells us that the Lord values creatures. If He wasn’t concerned about them, He wouldn’t have made them a priority,” she said. “The breath of all creatures comes from God, that includes us as humans, but also all creatures.” She also points to Jesus’ own words to minister to “the least of these” and stresses that it can apply to any of God’s creatures that are not given priority in society. King often gets the opportunity to share her vision with others, and she said that other Christians often question her about her work. They haven’t stopped to consider, she said, that work with and for animals is a mission in and of itself– and that it can lead to other ministry opportunities. 

Sonya with black dogs on bench
To view adoptable dogs, visit www.twobytworescue.com.

The work of Two by Two does just that- often extending a helping hand to owners who need help. The group recently responded to a woman standing in front of her house with a basket of puppies and a “Free” sign. She sobbed about the fact that her husband had just left her and her son, and she no longer had the money to care for her pets; she couldn’t pay for her son to play little league baseball, and she didn’t even have money to pay her electricity bill. “We told her we’d take care of the puppies, but we’d also get her electricity turned on and sponsor her son’s baseball season,” King said. “We were able to love on that family in that dark moment.” She and her volunteers have also heard from non-believers who were witnessed to because of Two by Two’s work. King said that she recently received an email from a man who’d scheduled his suicide, but then saw how the rescue group had taken care of his animal. She and the man–who was an atheist–became friends, and he gave his life to God. “He saw that we were able to save the dog, and not send it off to be killed. He said he’d give his life another day,” King remembered. “We were opposites, in our personality and politics and more. But when it came to dogs, he softened. He’s become a champion for us,” she says.

“We truly believe this is a ministry,” she said. “Your work and ministry are often right in front of you. Use your passion to serve others, and God can do great things.” 

-Cheryl Wray


Save the Date for Barktoberfest!

Boy with dog at BarktoberfestTwo by Two animal rescue will sponsor its annual Barktoberfest on Sunday, November 6, at the Amphitheater at Buck Creek in Old Town Helena from 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. Activities include food trucks, items for sale, veterinary clinic, dogs to adopt, a dog park, vaccinations, family picture with dogs, owner-and-doggie costume contest, and entertainment. Two by Two owner Sonya King said that the annual festival is an effective way to get the word about their work, but also is fun for dog owners. She encourages anyone who has adopted to come to the event and celebrate at the alumni booth. “We’d love for you to come over after church, and bring your dogs with you,” she said.

 

Cover Story Wes Wyatt behind weather desk 1

Cover Story

Wes Wyatt knew he wanted to be a meteorologist when he was just a kid. In fact, he remembers his elementary school teachers saying that they couldn’t get him to pay attention because he was looking out the window watching the weather. “I was fascinated by weather at a young age,” Wyatt said. “All of my childhood friends would tell you that Wes always wanted to be a weatherman.”

Today Wyatt serves as the Chief Meteorologist for WBRC Fox 6 in Birmingham, where he understands how important it is to provide resources to a community that knows first-hand how severe weather can change lives.

Wes Wyatt
Chief Meteorologist Wes Wyatt leads a team of six meteorologists at WBRC Fox 6 with the goal of helping Alabamians be weather aware in every season.

Finding his Path. Wyatt’s journey to the Magic City began as a youngster in southern Tuscaloosa, where he graduated from Hillcrest High School and then attended Mississippi State University to pursue his dream of being a meteorologist. After graduating with a degree in broadcast meteorology, his first job in the field was in Meridian, where he rose to the position of Chief Meteorologist for WTOK-TV; his years there, he said, provided him with wonderful training and a quality work environment. But, when he got a job offer from his hometown of Tuscaloosa, he jumped at the chance to come back to Alabama. 

He returned to Tuscaloosa and served as Chief Meteorologist for seven years at WVUA-TV on the University of Alabama campus. “When the University called and asked me to come to their new station at the college, I jumped at the chance,” he recalled. “It was a blessing and rarity to work where you’re from,” he said, adding, “To have the opportunity to cover the weather in the area where I grew up was something I never imagined I’d get to do. There was a great sense of comfort getting to be there again.”

According to Wyatt, that career move to Tuscaloosa paved the way for many blessings to come–something that, he said, is evidence of God working in his life. On his first full day back in Tuscaloosa, Wyatt met his wife, Nicole. “The good Lord has a path laid out for us,” he explained. “In my situation, I enjoyed where I was but when I decided to move back God revealed that there was a plan for me. I was introduced to my wife when I moved back, and then things went a new way. And then the opportunity to come to Birmingham was opened. It could only be laid out by God.” Wyatt moved to Birmingham in 2010 and served first as the Fox affiliate’s weekend evening meteorologist and severe weather analyst before moving into his current position as chief meteorologist.

Experience with Severe Weather. Wyatt’s time in Tuscaloosa–both during his growing-up years and during his time as a meteorologist in town– gave him a new understanding of the important role meteorologists have for communities, as he witnessed a number of devastating weather events. He still vividly recalls the landfall of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the blizzard of 1993 (the unprecedented “storm of the century” that dumped at least 17 inches of snow in the area). “Seeing those events, and then just experiencing snow as a child in Alabama sparked my imagination about weather,” he said.

Wes Wyatt with family
In addition to being Chief Meteorologist, Wes Wyatt is a proud husband and father. He is seen above with his wife Nicole and son Landen.

After experiencing the outbreak of deadly Alabama tornadoes in 2000 early in his career (and seeing it strike Hillcrest Place in Tuscaloosa where he grew up), Wyatt was especially affected by the reality of a meteorologist’s impact. “Seeing that devastation showed the significance of my job to me,” he said. “I have a responsibility as a meteorologist. What we do is important because it helps to save lives.”

As the years have gone by, Wyatt has continued to see the dangerous impact of severe weather on Alabama and specifically the Birmingham area. The deadly and unprecedented spate of tornadoes on April 27, 2011, made a huge impression on Wyatt and others in the weather industry–and reminded him of why he does what he does. “It always amazes me when you think you’ve seen it in all with mother nature, and then you see something like April 27,” he said. “I never thought I’d see something like it.”

In his current role at WBRC Fox 6, Wyatt leads a team of six at a station that broadcast 60 hours of news a week. His job is to manage the team of meteorologists during “normal” and severe weather coverage (which includes television coverage, and various social media platforms), and to be the face of the station in the community. Community engagement is vitally important to his work, and Wyatt enjoys serving the Birmingham area through both his presence on television and his appearances at schools, weather events, and other places where he can share the importance of weather awareness. “We really focus on being true, timely, and accurate,” Wyatt said. “I want my viewers to take comfort in knowing that I’m the guy who is looking at the radar, looking at all the data. I’m there on TV to give you the information you need.”

Residents of Alabama, he said, have a unique relationship with the weather because of the severe weather they experience. He said, though, that it’s important to not get complacent. “We are very aware and well educated about weather in Alabama,” he said. ‘It’s important to remember that this time of year is the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season.” Wyatt said that September and October present specific weather concerns from the hurricane season; there are risks along the coast, and risks upstate from such things as wind gusts, excessive rain, and spin-off tornadoes. “People underestimate the rain that can come with tropical storms,” he stated. “Rain and storm surging can cause the most deaths.” During this and all other times of the year, Wyatt said that Alabamians should check weather forecasts, plan ahead, know where a system is going, and stay tuned to the weather. Keeping backup batteries for flashlights and having supplies in case of power outages are other important things to remember. “Emergency situations can come up,” he said. “It’s better to be prepared.”

Faith in Times of Trouble. Wyatt said that weather situations can reveal God’s goodness–something that, as a Christian, he values and recognizes. “Whenever a bad storm comes through, we stress prayer for the communities involved,” he said. “We witness so many times how it really makes a difference.”

Wes Wyatt with guitar
Wes Wyatt’s love for music started at a young age. He taught himself how to play the guitar and still writes music today.

Wyatt grew up in a Christian home and saw faith evidenced especially by his mother, who lost a battle with cancer when she was only 51 years old. “A spot was discovered on her lung, and it took doctors months to figure it out,” he said. “Melanoma had spread inside her body, and so many times she heard from the doctors that they couldn’t do anything. To see her going from being the mother we knew to someone who was in such pain…it was so hard.” Through it all though, Wyatt said that his mother evidenced the faith she had raised him and his brothers with. She got bad news “over and over again” and still never wavered from her faith. “She held onto her faith, and we saw what it meant to her and how it helped her get through every day,” he remembered. Today he still relies on her memory to inspire him to be strong in his own faith–and to be a testimony of it whenever he can.

According to Wyatt, he feels comfortable sharing his faith within his circle of influence and said he tries to stay true to it every day in his work with weather. “I’m firmly rooted in science, but I also know that there’s more to it than that,” he said. “I’ve seen the power of faith and belief and what it can do, so I find it very easy to share.” 

Wyatt’s mother also influenced another important part of his life. She instilled in him a love of music—something he continues to do today as a songwriter and performing musician. “Mom sang in a gospel quartet, and then cousins and friends had a quartet,” he said. “I taught myself how to play guitar, my brother plays drums. I used to play every weekend in college, and while I’m busier now I still spend time doing it.” He continues to write music today and is also working on a book-length project. “If I come up with a cool idea, I tell myself ‘I need to write a song.’ It just flows from me,” he said.

Looking to the Future. Today Wyatt enjoys a full life with a gratifying career, an enjoyment of music and writing, and time with his wife and young son Landen. “My job really is my dream job. I grew up watching the station, and it’s sometimes hard to believe I’m working there now,” he said. “And Nicole is a wonderful wife. She understands the job and my responsibility.” Wyatt doesn’t know where else the future may take him, but he’s content with where God has led him thus far. “The Lord laid out things for me in ways I never imagined,” he said, “and I’m very blessed.”

-Cheryl Wray

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Tony and Lauren Dungy

Cover Story

Super Bowl winning coach Tony Dungy and his wife Lauren believe that anyone can find a meaningful purpose and make a difference in other people’s lives through God’s direction.

It may seem like that’s something easy for Dungy to proclaim. After all, he had great success as head coach for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts, went on to a prolific career in broadcasting, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He and his wife stress, though, that all Christians have a life purpose, whether their sphere of influence is large or small. The Dungys share their wisdom on the topic in the just-released Uncommon Influence: Saying Yes to a Purposeful Life (Tyndale House Publishers), a book that presents practical and spiritual tactics to create lasting change in a Christian’s life, career, ministry, and family.

Tony Dungy Coaching
Tony Dungy began his NFL coaching career with the Steelers, then went on to head coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts. He led the Colts to a Super Bowl win in 2007.

Living a Life of Purpose. Most people, according to Dungy, don’t think they make a real difference in life. “People think, ‘I could never have an impact on people,’ but we began to think about other people who’ve had an impact on our lives and it made us realize that they may have never known what they did for us,” he said. “We had this idea to inspire people to think about what they can do.” The couple wrote the book, which they describe as one with a “mixed voice” based on their different experiences and expertise, with several goals in mind including:

  • To demonstrate the importance of saying yes when God places opportunities in your path.
  • To provide counsel on being available to the possibilities that come from God (which leads to fulfillment and contentment).
  • To share stories of their path of service, specifically in the areas of adoption and foster care.
  • To teach that the only way to know a life of true fulfillment is to give that life away.

“We wanted to share our life experiences from the more than 40 years we’ve been married,” Lauren Dungy said. “We share about our experiences with kids, fostering, and adoption and how we’ve used that platform. And then we stress that everyone has a platform. Some are small and some are large, but you have to use it to glorify God.” She stressed that a Christian’s platform “doesn’t have to be in front of 50,000 people or on television.” It can be in a community or in a family. Part of their knowledge, she added, comes from guiding people to find out how to discover what their platform may be–since many people are starting at ground zero. Prayer, she said, is integral. “You have to pray about it, and wait to hear from God,” she said. “We prayed and communicated with God about our desires, and we heard the answer that this is where God wanted us.”

Additionally, Tony said, those who want to find their areas of influence should consider where their interests, talents, and passions lie. “What do you enjoy? What is your passion?” he advised people to ask themselves. “God gives us the desire of our heart, but we need to know what that looks like.”

Lauren and Tony Wedding
Tony and Lauren Dungy met through their pastor and married in 1982. They have co-authored several books, including the 2014 release Uncommon Marriage and their new release Uncommon Influence: Saying Yes to a Purposeful Life.

In writing the book, they each focused on topics and experiences they had special knowledge of; they each point to favorite chapters. Lauren points to her chapter on prayer, which recounts her understanding of prayer from an early age. “That chapter’s powerful to me because I learned at an early that praying for wisdom and direction are so important,” she said, “My mother was injured in a terrible grease fire when I was young, and I learned from that how simple prayers can help in even terrifying experiences.” Tony points to his chapter on “going against the grain,” which he said can be especially powerful for Christian men. “Society tells us what masculinity is all about,” he said, “but you must be yourself and not follow the crowd. As a Christian we have to go against the grain of what our culture may tell us to do.”

A Shared Faith and Passion. Tony and Lauren both came to faith at an early age and were already believing Christians when they married. At the time, Tony coached for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Lauren was a teacher. They quickly realized that their platform was more than they’d imagined. “I had 30 players, she had 30 students, so we had a built-in influence,” he said. “And as we grew in our experiences with the Lord, we began a beautiful, lifelong journey that included experiences with children, foster children, and adoption,” she added. “We know that nothing is a coincidence and that God brought us to this place.”

Today Lauren uses her teaching background in her work as an early childhood educational specialist and vice president of the Dungy Family Foundation. Tony became the Buccaneers’ coach in 1996 and led the team to four playoff appearances in six seasons, then served as head coach for Indianapolis for seven seasons (making the playoffs each year and winning the Super Bowl in 2006); he was the first black coach to win the NFL championship. He retired after the 2008 season, served as an analyst for NBC’s “Football Night in America,” and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016.

As each of their careers changed, the couple prayed about where their focus needed to be. “We were looking at our lives. I’d retired from the NFL, was working some in television,” Dungy recalled. “We asked ourselves: What is our purpose now? What can I do in my community to make a difference?” Lauren said that it’s important for Christians to realize that platforms and opportunities can change over a lifetime, depending on what stage of your journey you’re in. “We have different seasons of life, and our platforms can change. And you can have more than one,” she said. “Tony retired, I stopped teaching, and we believe our influence is with children.”

The Dungy Family
The Dungy family consists of 10 children, who are both biological and adopted. The family also regularly includes foster children.

The Dungys have 11 children (three living biological children, seven adopted children, and their oldest son who committed suicide in 2005); they also currently have five foster children. They originally learned about the fostering opportunity from their church and have fostered children since the beginning of their marriage. It’s an experience, they both agreed, that can truly change a child’s life. “We look at these children and we don’t know where they came from or what their background is. We don’t know what their fear is,” Dungy said. “But in ten minutes they expect you to help them, and you realize that you can help them.”

The fostering experience–and the years of parenting their own sons and daughters–has taught the Dungys a variety of lessons about what children want and need. “All children want love,” Lauren Dungy said. “They want to be poured into and listened to. They want to be given the gift of time. And you have to be intentional about it. You have to ask yourself: Did I give them the time they needed? Did I support them? Did I listen to them?” Ultimately, she said, much of their efforts came down to prayer. “All children need to be prayed over and prayed with so that they can have their own faith and develop their own relationship with God,” she said.

Lauren and Tony Dungy
Lauren Dungy is a childhood education specialist, with years of experience as a teacher; she is vice president of the Dungy Family Foundation and heads up the organization’s reading program which visits elementary schools and donates books to promote literacy. Photo Credit: Steven Vosloo/Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.

Sharing Their Faith. The Dungys’ faith has become well known and documented over the years, as they have both been comfortable in sharing their convictions with the public. Their Dungy Family Foundation is designed to “meet the physical, educational, and spiritual needs of their community,” and they both serve in various Christian ministries and at their Tampa Bay area church.

Their testimony, though, is something they say they’ve grown into–as it’s become easier to share their faith as the years have gone by. Dungy said that he can speak from a faith standpoint when it comes to sharing his opinions–whether it’s while doing football analysis or speaking to a large audience–and Lauren stresses that a Christian testimony should be natural. “We can incorporate our faith into everyday life,” Lauren Dungy stated. “We don’t become a Christian once the TV turns off or we come home from work. We want to live our lives, and for our faith to be integral in every part of it. It needs to become natural.”

Ultimately, that witness intertwines with a Christian’s platform or sphere of influence to make a real and tangible difference in others’ lives. “We may not even realize what a difference we can make,” Dungy said, “but as Christians, we must say yes to the opportunities God puts in front of us.”

Cheryl Wray is a freelance writer based in Hueytown, Alabama, where she often writes on sports-related topics. She’s also the coordinator of the Southern Christian Writers Conference.

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Cover Story MicrosoftTeams in gym in circle

Cover Story

When the World Games come to Birmingham for two weeks in July, the world will get a taste of what makes the Magic City so special.

For John Kemp, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Lakeshore Foundation, that includes showcasing what his organization does best. The athletic competition (which takes place on July 7-17) is a unique opportunity to show athletes, fans, and visitors how people with disabilities can be given agency and shown respect. The Lakeshore Foundation–an internationally renowned organization that serves more than 4,000 individuals annually through physical activity, sport, recreation, advocacy, policy, and research–serves as the disability access initiative consultant to the World Games, providing direction on the accessibility of venues and the athlete and fan experiences for individuals with disabilities. It will also provide demonstration areas to showcase Lakeshore’s sports and athletes.

Lakeshore Foundation pool
Lakeshore Foundation offers fitness classes, aquatics classes, sport and recreation programs and more for individuals and families with a physical disability or chronic health condition. Learn more at www.lakeshore.org.

Kemp said that Lakeshore’s involvement has paved the way for future World Games city planners to make the event highly accessible and entertaining for people with disabilities. “People with disabilities will be able to ‘know before they go’ to a sporting event,” Kemp said. “They can look up venues and know what’s accessible. Cities don’t have everything fully accessible, but we’re working on getting to a place where it’s better.”

Kemp’s inspiring role at Lakeshore. The World Games is just the most recent in a long line of meaningful ways the Lakeshore Foundation is invested in the city of Birmingham. The world-class facilities and services offered from its headquarters in Homewood provide physical activity through fitness, aquatics, recreation, and athletics; research on all aspects of life with disabilities; and physical accessibility for all individuals. 

Kemp, who became CEO in November of 2021, leads by example; his inspiring story encourages those he works with- from the young athletes on the wheelchair basketball court to the adults struggling to recover from debilitating injuries. Born without arms and legs and using four prostheses, Kemp began advocating for people with disabilities when he was just a boy. “I was born with a disability and was raised to be active and involved, and I can almost pinpoint the moment when it came together for me,” he said. “I went to Easter Seals Camp for several weeks, and then the Easter Seal society received a nomination for me to be their national poster child. I was selected, and I started giving small appearances.”

Lakeshore Foundation CEO John Kemp
John Kemp enjoys visiting with athletes of all ages at Lakeshore; the Foundation provides team and individual sports opportunities for both youth and adults such as wheelchair basketball, power soccer, swimming, and track and field.

Even as a child, Kemp felt confident in his voice. “If someone gives you a microphone, you talk and use it,” Kemp said. “I followed through with my role with Easter Seals, and it became a passion for me.” His work with the Easter Seals went full circle as an adult when he became General Counsel and Vice President of Development for the national organization. He has also worked in many other capacities as a disabled leader and advocate, including serving as the National Executive Director of the United Cerebral Palsy Association and co-founding the American Association of People with Disabilities. He holds a law degree from Washburn University School of Law (where he also has been awarded an honorary doctorate). He’s been the recipient of the Henry. B. Betts Award, widely regarded as America’s highest honor for disability leadership and service, and the Dole Leadership Prize from the Robert Dole Institute for Politics at the University of Kansas (an award also given to Nelson Mandela and former president Bill Clinton).

Kemp now said that he’s honored to work at Lakeshore Foundation, which he calls “an incredibly inspiring place.” “I’m so impressed with the people and the mission, and how we transform lives,” he said. “We have people here who have serious accidents or other situations that have changed their lives dramatically, and they find Lakeshore. They don’t realize what they’re capable of until they come here. Our extraordinary staff works with them and they get to experience things they never thought they could do.”

Kemp said that walking through Lakeshore and visiting with athletes inspires him in his own life, to realize that anything is truly possible. “When I see the transformations that happen in people’s lives I’m so impressed, and then I get to talk to the elite athletes that we have training here and it means everything,” he said. “And then there are the young athletes who are playing power soccer or wheelchair basketball. I love talking to them, hearing their stories.” Kemp stated that the way Lakeshore offers services is unique in the world; “nobody else combines it with research the way we do it, to help people improve their own functioning,” he said.

Faith and Family. Finding his way back to Birmingham has been another “full circle” moment in his life, since his wife Sameta (Sam) is from the city, and they met when his work brought him here. Sam worked for another disability organization, and they often found themselves in the same environments. “I came here in 1998, we fell in love, and we’ve now been married for 21 years,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for Birmingham, we wouldn’t be together.” They now have five grandsons in Birmingham, and Kemp calls their journey back to Alabama “serendipitous.”

John Kemp and Family
John Kemp’s family celebrates Christmas together (left to right): Ben Hoff, 13, graduating 6th grade Briarwood School (front row); Mac McCowan, 18, just graduated from Mountain Brook High School; Marguerite McCowan and Chad (son) McCowan; Will McCowan, 20, incoming junior at at the University  of Alabama; Sameta (Sam) Kemp; John Kemp; Sam Hoff, 17, incoming senior at Briarwood School; Louis Hoff, upcoming junior at at Briarwood, 16; Stephanie Hoff (daughter); and Stephen Hoff.

Together they raise their family with and provide an example of living a life of faith that shows respect and gives meaning to all people. According to Kemp, many people simply don’t know how to treat people with disabilities–not from unkindness, but from not understanding the issues involved. “Disability exclusion usually isn’t intentional,” he said, “you just aren’t thinking about it. It’s more of an oversight at that point.”

Many people, he said, don’t think about the issue until they’re confronted with it. Perhaps they have family members with a disability, or they have to confront it in their own lives. “It isn’t until then that they connect the dots,” he said. And for Christians? Kemp said that churches and other faith-based organizations tend to have a natural inclination to be inclusive because it’s a “natural part of love to be so,” but that there’s always room for improvement.

World Games 2022 Mascots
The World Games take place from July 7-17 in venues across Birmingham, showcasing sports that weren’t played in the most recent Olympic Games. The Lakeshore Foundation will work with the World Games to make events more accessible for people with disabilities.

As an altar boy in his own childhood, Kemp said that he literally couldn’t “step up” the altar. Such hindrances for people in the church with disabilities need to be addressed. To have a full experience with God, Kemp believes that worship and other spiritual activities need to be accessible. Whether that’s sign language offered in services or a wheelchair ramp to get to worship or study space–the church needs to be at the forefront of inclusivity for people with disabilities. “We need to do whatever we can do to make people feel that love and to feel more included,” he said. “That should be a natural part of faith.” While awareness of disability issues continues to increase, Kemp said that it will always be “a slog uphill” to make things right. “People are more aware, but there are still plenty of hurtful things done toward the community,” he said. “It continues to take work.”

Birmingham’s time in the spotlight. The spotlight on Birmingham for this month’s World Games is important for this reason, Kemp said. Showing organizations like the World Games how important it is to include people with disabilities is one more step to making inclusion a reality. While every venue won’t be accessible to people with disabilities, there will be more opportunities at this World Games than at any of the athletic events in the past.

The Games also create an opportunity for the community to learn more about Lakeshore’s own elite athletes. The Foundation’s facilities serve as an official training site for the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee teams and serve as host for national team training camps and international competitions. Those U.S teams have won medals at the Paralympic Games and serve as inspiration to people everywhere. At the World Games, teams and athletes from Lakeshore Foundation will provide demonstrations at different venues in the city–showing again what the Birmingham facility so uniquely offers.

-Cheryl Wray

 

Sozo Children jumping

Cover Story

The Sozo Children’s Choir kicked off its multi-state “Miracle Tour” in April with performances in Delaware and Maryland, where the choir opened the Youth for Christ dinner featuring Tim Tebow. In May, the ministry celebrated its 12th anniversary with a concert at the historic Lyric in Birmingham featuring upbeat praise music and a special acapella worship experience. “The show at The Lyric was exciting for all of us. Every choir tour just gets bigger and better,” said Cathy Head, chair of the Sozo board of directors. “These children have been practicing for over a year to prepare for this trip and to be able to celebrate this birthday with us in such an amazing venue was a real blessing. It’s bigger than we could have imagined when we first planned the tour last year.” 

Sozo Children performing on stage
The Sozo Children’s Choir has performed for nearly 10,000 people (and counting) in four states during the 2022 tour. They perform at churches and schools.

For the last year, the children have been rehearsing and performing in Uganda, Africa leading up to the American tour. Sozo Children, a Birmingham-based ministry, serving the needs of vulnerable children in Uganda, created the choir in 2016 and the current tour is the fourth time the choir has traveled to America and is the first time the choir has toured the states since being stranded in Ala. two years ago when the pandemic forced the children to shelter in place nearly 8000 miles from home. “The entire month has been a whirlwind of events for us,” said Suzanne Owens, CEO of Sozo Children. Following the performance at the historic Lyric Theater, Sozo hosted its Run For A Reason 5K through the streets of the Avondale community ending with a choir performance at Avondale Brewing.

The choir tour was originally planned for January through May but due to a series of delays in the process the tour will now last into early October. Although off to a late start, the choir has now performed in four states and to nearly 10,000 people and is busy booking dates in churches and schools wherever they are able. There is no set charge for performances, but most churches and schools take up an offering or make a donation to the ministry. 

“Starting later than planned has turned into an opportunity for us,” said Owens. “Spreading the tour through the summer will allow the kids to attend Vacation Bible School (VBS) with some of the local churches during the week.” The choir has been invited to The World Games and will sing The National Anthem at a Legion soccer game as well.

Sozo Children girls dancing and singing
The “Miracle Tour” serves as a mission’s trip for the Sozo children. While in the United States, they will also experience things like attending Vacation Bible School.

The choir serves as a mission trip for the children of Sozo, who audition to join the tour every other year. Owens said this choir is special because it is the first one where children from the local community in Uganda reached out to audition. In total, five children from the local community joined the choir, and Sozo, for the first time. “We’re excited to share this worship and learning experience with our kids and let them spend quality time with children here in Alabama,” said Owens. “Growing up here, we sometimes take things like Vacation Bible School for granted but it’s a real treat for our kids.” 

A former youth pastor who moved into ministry from mortgage banking, Owens says she never imagined she’d be operating a children’s home in Africa, or anywhere else. “Two of my former youth had accepted a temporary assignment as missionaries in Uganda,” said Owens. “They were going there to help build a website for a church and play in a worship band, but they found a children’s home that had been practically abandoned.”

Owens said she felt like God was leading her to intervene but the idea of opening a home for the children was out of her comfort zone at the time. “I did a lot of arguing with God,” she said laughingly. “I felt like He was telling me ‘You’re going to open a children’s home and have missionaries’ and I was saying ‘no, I’m not.’”

Sozo Children Girls
Sozo Children is a Birmingham-based ministry that serves the needs of vulnerable children in Uganda.

Eventually, Owens and the mission team got permission to take in some of the children from the home. With some help from local leaders, they agreed and rented a house, hired a local staff, and initially took in 17 of the children. That’s when they decided on a name for the ministry. The name “Sozo” comes from Scripture. It is the Greek word that means “to rescue or save” and appears more than 100 times in the New Testament.

Today, Sozo Children has grown to provide housing, nutritional care, counseling, medical care, quality education and spiritual direction to more than 125 children. But the reach goes much farther. Sozo ministers to families in the local village where it works with a local pastor to host “kids club” twice a week—providing snacks, play time and devotionals for hundreds of children who sometimes walk miles just to attend. “Children come to Sozo from some really harsh circumstances,” she said. “Some of them have been abandoned, some have lost their parents. Some of them have been abused and some have been rescued from trafficking situations.”

In Uganda, like many other parts of the world where extreme poverty is everyday life, children are often dropped off at local police stations by desperate parents who can no longer provide for them. Social workers assist in finding homes for the children with relatives or children’s homes like Sozo. “We place a lot of emphasis on sustainability,” she said. “We want to equip them to be self-sustaining and self-sufficient—to learn skills that will benefit them throughout the rest of their lives long after they graduate from their time with us.”

Sozo Children Group Shot
Since the Sozo Children’s Choir started in 2016, they have traveled to the United States four times. During 2020, the choir was stranded in America due to the COVID-19 shutdown.

“The purpose of mission work is not to go there to create little Americans, so we don’t impose our western culture on them. Instead, we go there to walk alongside them and experience God together,” said Owens, adding, “We want them to be amazing leaders for Uganda and we want them to be strong leaders for Christ in their communities wherever they go in life.”

Sozo also leads short-term mission teams to Uganda where participants can interact in the work of the ministry, deliver food packs, and learn about African culture. Despite limited access to travel since the start of the pandemic, Owens is optimistic about the future of international missions. “We’ve only had two mission teams travel to Uganda since the end of 2019, but we are planning a full calendar for next year and trusting God to guide the way,” she said. Individuals can sign up to join a Sozo mission team on the Sozo Children website. Many teams are organized by churches, small groups, or even groups of college students who want to take a meaningful trip for Spring Break or during summer or Christmas breaks. 

Sozo Children is funded through child sponsorships and donations and also operates Sozo Trading Co., an upscale thrift store in the Avondale community. To learn more about Sozo Children, or to sign up for a mission trip, book the choir, or sponsor a child, visit www.sozochildren.org.

-Terry Schrimscher

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22 years featured image

Cover Story

May marks 22 years of publishing Birmingham Christian Family and we are ready to celebrate with you!

Here’s a look back at the cover stories over the past year. Click on the cover image or link to read these stories. Or if you prefer, simply visit www.BirminghamChristian.com/Issues and scroll to read your favorites online.

June 2021

Don Killingsworth

BCF 0621 COVER 250x300 1President of Jacksonville State University Don Killingsworth shares how his faith impacts how he leads the university. Read more here.


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David Green

Hobby Lobby Founder David Green shares his philosophy on faith, family, and business. Read more here.


BCF 0821 cover 250x300 1August 2021

Chris Stewart & Mac Jones

Crimson Tide Sports Network Sportscaster Chris Stewart shares his miraculous return to the sidelines and the Nick Saban Show. Read more here.


BCF 0921 cover 250x300 1September 2021

Brendt Blanks

Social Media Influencer Brendt Blanks shares how she uses her platform to highlight home décor ideas and God’s blessings. Read more here.


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The Foundry Ministries

 The Foundry Ministries CEO Micah Andrews shares how God has brought healing in our community through the ministry for 50 years and continues to do so today. Read more here.


BCF 1121 cover 250x300 1November 2021

Charlotte Evans Russell

Social Media Sensation Charlotte Evans Russell welcomes a baby girl to her Happy Home. Read more here.


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Mayor Randall Woodfin

Birmingham’s Mayor Randall Woodfin’s mother, Cynthia Woodfin-Kellum, shares how faithful service is at the root of how her son leads the Magic City. Read more here.


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Darci Lynne

America’s Got Talent Darci Lynne Farmer shares what it was like performing on the national stage as a 12-year-old and how her faith and family helped her through the process. Read more here.


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February 2022

Danny Gokey

Two-time Dove Award winner and three-time Grammy Nominee Danny Gokey shares how his faith and the power of music shaped his life. Read more here.


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Janice Rogers

WBRC Fox 6 News Anchor Janice Rogers shares what she has recently learned about faith, grief and hope. Read more here.


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Montana Fouts

Whether she is on or off the field, Alabama Crimson Tide Softball Standout Montana Fouts strives to inspire those around her and point them to Christ. Read more here.


We look forward to sharing more Good News with you in the coming year and we invite you to celebrate 22 years of Good News with us at the Celebrate the Family Expo on May 7, 2022 at the Hoover Met Complex! Click here for details about this free, fun filled day! THANK YOU for reading & advertising with us!

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