Caring for God’s Creatures: Two by Two Rescue

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, October 30, 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

Did you enjoy this story? Click here to view our full June issue!

 

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.


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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.


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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.


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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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Cover Story

When University of Alabama pitcher Montana Fouts talks about softball, you can hear the love in her voice. Fouts, one of the most celebrated collegiate athletes in the country, also talks with the same excitement and enthusiasm about her faith in Christ. Her faith, she says, is what keeps her grounded and focused as she plays for the Crimson Tide and looks forward to pitching with Team USA in international competition.

Montana Fouts with SoftballStarring for the Crimson Tide. Fouts, a senior from Grayson, Kentucky, has made a name for herself as one of the best pitchers in the nation, cementing that reputation with a no-hitter in last year’s NCAA College Softball World Series. The no-hitter against reigning national champion UCLA was only the fifth in World Series history and the first since 2000. She was also recognized as last year’s SEC Tournament MVP and the 2021 National Pitcher of the Year; in high school, she was the USA Today High School Player of the Year and MaxPreps National Softball Player of the Year.

At Alabama, she’s become a fan favorite–and relishes the love that Crimson Tide fans have for softball. “Before committing to Alabama, everyone told me that I’d feel like a rock star here because they love softball in Tuscaloosa,” she says, “and it’s true. The Alabama fans love and respect the sport so much. Not everyone thinks softball is great, but they do in Tuscaloosa.”

She also stresses the family atmosphere created by the softball staff at the University, and her respect for head coach Patrick Murphy. “We love our coaches,” she says. “Murph lets everyone be themselves and find their place.” This year’s Alabama team is building on last year’s SEC tournament championship and World Series appearance with a group of new players around Fouts. The team lost a whole slew of seniors from last season, but Fouts says this year’s is a special team. The team started the season 20-0 and has remained in the top five in national polls since the beginning of the year. The players, she says, are hungry to get back to the College World Series. “We were just grateful to make it that far, but of course, we want to win the whole thing,” Fouts says. “And this year we have a lot of players who haven’t experienced the World Series. I want to get back for them.”

Montana Fouts on Field
Montana Fouts led the NCAA in strikeouts during the 2021 season with 349 and threw a SEC tournament record 39 strikeouts. The day before throwing the first perfect game in a College World Series since 2000, she pitched a career high 16 strikeouts against Arizona.

Fouts is an example of how to succeed in the NCAA’s new “name, image, and likeness” (NIL) program begun this season. She’s been ranked as the top collegiate athlete (over college football and basketball players) on Cameo, where people pay to have celebrities provide personal messages to fans; she’s also become a spokesperson for various softball companies.

Loving the Sport at an Early Age. Fouts has experienced success at softball most of her life, crediting her family for supporting the sport she loves so much. Young pitchers, she says, thrive when they have a supportive family. Her father Tim Fouts and mother Stephanie Williams sacrificed to give her the chance to compete on an elite level, and Fouts says she’ll always be grateful for that. “They sacrificed a lot,” she says. “Taking me to practice, staying in hotels to go to tournaments. It took a lot from them and my siblings.” Fouts has a younger brother, Cody, who is 17, and sisters Madison, 19, and Makayla, 11.

Fouts says, though, that ultimately a young athlete has to have the desire to keep competing. “My Dad will sometimes apologize for getting onto me, and I always tell him that’s what I needed,” she says. “I love the game so much. Even on the very worst day, I still want to keep playing.” She adds, “Burnout was never a thing for me. I just love to play and compete. I always have.” Fouts does stress that young athletes can have a lot of extra pressure put on them, especially with social media and other outside influences. Players need to be honest with themselves and others and keep the sport in a proper perspective. Fouts says that softball is the “greatest thing ever,” but it’s not everything. “I ask God to let me see that,” she says. “I want success at softball so badly, but I don’t want it to be everything to me.”

Relying on God. That understanding of how softball fits into her life on a deeper level is something Fouts says has developed since moving to Tuscaloosa. She was raised in church, but her faith grew exponentially once she came to Alabama for college. After some struggles in her first year on campus, she looked inward and knew she needed to get some things right; an important first step was to go to church. Today, she and most of her teammates attend Church of the Highlands together, and they hold each other accountable as Christians. “I look down the aisle at church and see members of my team,” she says. “You don’t know how much that means. This is really my favorite team ever.”

Her faith has helped her deal with struggles, failures–and successes. A primary lesson in dealing with all aspects of playing softball is realizing that God can work everything to His purpose and that things happen for a reason. “That’s a great perspective, and I learn it from my relationship with Jesus,” Fouts says. “Things aren’t perfect all the time. I’ve had injuries and I’ve been really down before but losing a game or even losing a season can be put in perspective. If everything falls in your lap, what are you learning?”

Fouts with Be the Blessing Ribbon
Fouts can often be seen on game day wearing a “Be the Blessing” ribbon in her hair. She shares, “Everyone I come around, I want to be a blessing in their life. I encourage you to do the same – Be The Blessing!” Learn more at www.montanafouts14.com.

“I can tell a difference in my life when I realize that God can use all situations for good,” she says. Fouts is outspoken in her faith in outward ways. Most of her social media posts reference her faith, and she also has started a small business that focuses on the phrase “Be the blessing.” She promotes t-shirts, sweatshirts, hair ribbons, and other items that focus on that message–that you can use your life and influence to be a blessing to others. She often wears her own “Be the blessing” ribbon while pitching, hoping it makes an impact on people watching the game.

Inspiring the Younger Generation. Sharing her faith is “natural” to Fouts, and she desires to be a role model to young softball players. “I’m really grateful to have the opportunity to be an example to other people,” she says. “It’s easy to talk about my faith because without it or without God I wouldn’t have anything.” Fouts was recently selected to the Team USA softball team, following in the footsteps of softball players she idolized when she was young. She grew up looking up to Team USA pitcher Jenny Finch–also an outspoken Christian–and now hopes she can inspire young players in a similar way. “I’ve always dreamed of wearing those letters across my chest, that was always the goal,” she says. “And now to do what Jenny Finch and other players did is just a dream come true.”

Fouts has another year of eligibility remaining at Alabama due to the “Covid year” in 2020 and is now in graduate school continuing her education in psychology. After school, she plans to play softball professionally, coordinate camps, and inspire others. “Every day I try to be a blessing. I want people to see Jesus in me,” she says. “Because I wouldn’t be anything without Him.”

-Cheryl Wray

Wray writes often about sports topics and figures and is the coordinator of the Southern Christian Writers Conference, which takes place year in Birmingham this year on June 3-4.


Cheer on Fouts at the World Games in Birmingham

TWG2022Birmingham softball fans will get the unique opportunity to watch Team USA compete this Summer in the World Games. The United States’ softball team will attempt to avenge its gold medal loss to Japan in last summer’s Olympics during the competition held in the Magic City between July 7 and 17. The World Games 2022 Team USA roster is composed of 11 former student athletes and seven current athletes from 12 NCAA Division I universities. Among those athletes are current UA pitcher Montana Fouts and current Tide standout Haylie McCleney. In total, eight members from the 2020 U.S. Olympic roster who won the silver medal in Tokyo will be on Team USA for the World Games. According to head coach Heather Tarr, the American team will be exciting to watch–and a unique opportunity for local fans of the sport. “This roster includes both experience and youth, and I truly believe this will be a team that our fans will love to follow as we compete for a gold medal at the 2022 World Games in Alabama this summer,” Tarr says. “I am so excited to see this team in action.” In addition to the U.S. and Japan, other countries competing in the World Games in softball are Australia, Canada, China, Italy, Mexico and Chinese Taipei. Softball games will be played at the Hoover Met. Learn more at www.twg2022.com/sports/softball.

Did you enjoy this article? Click here to read the full April issue!

Janice Rogers on set possible cover FX4A7022

Cover Story

Family is everything to Birmingham broadcast personality Janice Rogers. And for the 36 years she’s been on air in the Magic City, her dedicated viewers feel like she’s a part of their family too.

Now the co-anchor and morning host at FOX 6 WBRC-TV is reaching out in a new way to help individuals who have suffered from the grief she’s sadly lived through with her close family members. Losing special people in her life has given Rogers a new way to connect with her larger community family.

Birmingham born and bred. Rogers is a rare breed in the broadcasting industry- a newscaster who has stayed in the same market throughout her career. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, she moved to the Birmingham area as a teenager, graduated from McAdory High School, and attended UAB; her family put down roots in the area and she never wanted to venture far from her parents, siblings, and extended family. Part of a blended family with five brothers and one sister, Rogers said that her family always felt like “The Brady Bunch.”

Janice with morning newscrew WBRC
Janice’s work family has helped her get through difficult times. Her colleagues, including co-anchor Mike Dubberly, are tight-knit and make having fun together a priority.

“My parents were each married before and had three children each, and then they married and I was born,” she said. “Growing up, we felt like such a traditional family, almost like a TV family. We were so close and happy, and I thought everyone had that kind of family.” When it came time to find her first job in broadcasting, Rogers vowed to stay close to home. “When I started working in television and thought about going somewhere else, I realized that I wanted to be able to get off work and be close to the people I love,” she said. “I was fortunate to get a job right out of school and had internships at Channel 6. I also had a paid internship at Channel 13 and before going back for my senior year I was asked to stay as a videotape editor. I was lucky enough to find a job quickly and stay close to family.”

She’s had opportunities to go to larger markets, but never seriously considered the offers. Rogers has hosted WBRC-6’s morning show, “Good Day Alabama” for 25 years and hosted the “DayBreak” show before that. Being up early with her viewers- sometimes being the first face they see in the morning- has given Rogers a special connection with them. She’s always been comfortable sharing her life on camera and, in return, has gained devoted followers. “I’ve always shared my life and I’ve always felt really close to the viewers,” she said. “When you do mornings for decades, you feel like you’re in living rooms and part of families. People can sometimes be critical, but the majority are so wonderful.” Knowing that local celebrities are “real” people is important, she stressed. She was on the phone with her co-anchors the day she went into labor with her son, Noah (now 22 years old), and viewers know about her struggles as well. “My husband has had very serious medical issues, and much of our audience knows that,” she said. “It’s important to know that people in the public eye don’t have perfect lives.” 

Janice Rogers and Family
Rogers is the youngest of seven siblings. She lost both of her parents and brothers Gene and Alvin. Her remaining siblings and extended family are extremely close.

Faith and Family. Rogers grew up in church and faith continues to be an important part of her daily life. “I was raised in church, but like everyone, my faith has ebbed and flowed,” she explained. “I’ve rededicated my life to Christ at different times. I’ve felt lost. I’ve questioned a lot. But ultimately, my faith has gotten me through so many hard times.” Rogers’ biggest challenges have been the losses of family members- especially the unexpected ones. She lost her mother and father, and then her sister-in-law five years ago in an unexpected manner when she died after knee surgery and a deadly infection. One year later, her brother Alvin, a U.S. Marine who fought in Vietnam and contracted cancer from Agent Orange, passed away from cancer after living an incredible life. But it was the loss of her best friend and brother Gene on March 1, 2021, that really changed the way she understood grief.

Rogers had just hung up from a phone conversation with her brother that day when her then 28-year-old niece (who is deaf) FaceTimed her frantically. She was signing in a panic and Rogers signed back to Rachel to show her Gene. “She took the phone and showed him to me. He was on his bed, not moving. I could tell he’d probably had a heart attack,” she remembered. “We called 911, and I jumped into my car to get to him.” By the time paramedics arrived Gene had died of a massive heart attack. The shock and grief that followed was almost unbearable. “Losing my mother was one of the most horrible things in my life, but I was able to walk through it because she was older and it wasn’t a sudden death,” she said. “Gene was my best friend. We talked three or four times a day. It was just unimaginable.” Rogers’ coping mechanism was becoming a caretaker for Rachel and jumping into action in other practical ways. By keeping busy she didn’t have time to deal with her grief.

Janice with husband and son
After the death of her father, Rogers’ son Noah comforted her and increased her faith. He told her that he saw “God walk away with PeePaw, and it was so reassuring to hear that.” Rogers with son Noah and husband, Mark McCulloch.

When she was asked to do a television segment with a representative from the Community Grief Support organization, Rogers began to realize she needed to grieve properly. Her family was approaching the holidays at the time with dread, but Rogers instead learned to focus on the good things in her life. “My son said to me around that time, ‘Mom, I’m still here,’ and that really hit me,” she said. “I realized that I had people who needed me. I wasn’t working through my grief.” Rogers also leaned more heavily on her faith during those dark days. “I prayed, I fussed at God. I didn’t understand why he was taken, but I know that in time we’ll understand,” she remembered. “I have faith and I know we’ll see each other again someday.”

Growing through Grief. Today Rogers uses her experience to help others through her work with Community Grief Support, a Birmingham nonprofit that provides free counseling and mental health support services to bereaved adults (including people without insurance or insurance that doesn’t cover mental health services). The group, founded in 1996, helps people process grief after the loss of a spouse, child, friend, or family member. 

Janice Rogers niece brother and sister in law
The unexpected losses of both her sister-in-law and brother left a huge hole in Janice’s life. She and other family members now help take care of niece, Rachel, who has hearing loss and other disabilities.

Grief is different for everyone- some go into action mode, while others are paralyzed. Rogers said, though, that it’s important to talk to others as you’re going through the process. “Do talk to someone,” she said, “and if you don’t have someone to talk to personally, finding a counseling group is important. You need to be able to acknowledge your sadness to others and know that it’s okay and normal to feel that way.” Rogers was buoyed by the support of her colleagues and viewers when she lost her brother and other family members; in a way, it gave her a full circle experience, knowing that even total strangers could encourage her just as she’d tried to encourage them over her decades on the air. “I try to encourage people and be genuine,” she explained. “If I get one comment from someone who just lost a loved one or who has a sick child; if they say I helped them, it’s a huge blessing.”

-Cheryl Sloan Wray is a freelance writer from Hueytown and coordinator of the Southern Christian Writers Conference. Her latest book “Notes from a Quarantine: Essays, Stories, and Poems,” is available on Amazon.

Janice Rogers will join Grits and Gouda for the 5th Annual Holiday Cooking Show on November 14! Click here for details.

Did you enjoy this article? Click here to check out our March issue!

 

Danny Gokey 2

Cover Story

In the beginning. A big family: two brothers and four sisters (Charles, Daniel, Angela, Janell, Gina, and Tracey). The fifth of these siblings, Daniel Jay Gokey, entered the mix on April 24, 1980 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Only the Lord knew where He would take this baby. Saturated in music, the family sang in his Grandfather’s church where Danny grew up. Despite singing all of his life, it was not until age 12, after an offhand comment from his father to his mother about how well he could sing, that Gokey realized he actually had a good voice. Danny recalls being shocked by his Dad’s comment, but from that point on something settled in his heart about using that gift. He went on to serve as worship leader of Faith Builders International Ministries during his mid-twenties, traveling between two campuses each week to lead. Ultimately, however, Gokey realized that serving through worship was the foundation, but not the calling on his life. Soulful Christian Pop has become his mainstay signature. Along with the soulful music is the testimony of life-wrenching times with stronger, better times seeping then soaring through.

Danny Gokey
Danny Gokey auditioned on American Idol in 2008.

In the moment. The power of music can provide purpose and direction, especially in the most trying times; that power has shaped Danny Gokey’s life and driven his career. Probably few people more deeply understand music’s power to feed the soul than Gokey. He learned to channel the inspiration he found through his music and his faith to make a difference in people’s lives, including his own. He has learned to ask God to “keep me in the moment. I want to honor people by living in the moment. I desire to move the flesh out of the way to love.”

On May 15, 2004, Gokey married his high school sweetheart, Sophia Martinez. Asking Danny to audition for American Idol was her repeated request. She had long been a fan and persuaded Danny to watch and consider auditioning. Sophia was born with a congenital heart condition but for years the couple had no indication that her first surgery in infancy and second surgery at age seven were leading to a huge crash and burn. Then, in their early years of marriage came the random and extremely accelerated heart beats. On July 9, 2008, four weeks before Gokey auditioned for American Idol, Sophia died from complications during the third procedure to treat her congenital heart disease, a routine surgery that was considered to be ninety-percent successful. Sophia was in the fateful ten-percent. Wanting to respect Sophia’s desire for him to audition, yet falling apart emotionally during the process, Danny honored the commitment, ultimately finishing in the top three. 

In the grief. Music sustained him following Sophia’s death, and after the world discovered his talent on American Idol, propelled him up the charts. For his first album, Gokey gained a nomination for Best New or Breakthrough Artist at the first annual American Country Awards. Even after her death, Sophia influenced her husband to honor his God-given talent through ministry and music: Danny founded Sophia’s Heart in her honor to help provide resources and shelter for homeless families. This later became Better Than I Found It, a nonprofit established to support and encourage other organizations who are committed to making a difference in their own communities. He affirms that “friends and family have helped set up a scaffold so that real ministry can take place; they have rallied around me and encouraged me when there wasn’t a lot [already] established.” Gokey adds that “ministry can easily take over your whole body . . . such that you don’t see how it’s affecting your family. Ministry requires daily discipline.” It’s all about choice. 

Danny Gokey
Danny Gokey is a two-time Dove Award winner and three-time Grammy nominee!

In the aftermath. Three-time Grammy Nominee, three-time K-LOVE Male Vocalist of the Year, two-time Dove Award winner, and eight-time Dove Award nominee, Danny Gokey has become a favorite of millions of fans. He released his first album, My Best Days, which debuted at number four on the Billboard Top 200 album chart. Among many others, he has released such notables as 2014’s Hope in Front of Me (which was inspired by his book, Hope in Front of Me: Find Purpose in Your Darkest Moments), award-winning holiday album, Christmas Is Here and 2019’s The Greatest Gift: A Christmas Collection, his second collection of seasonal music. “The Prayer,” his signature duet with Natalie Grant, was released as a single in 2018. Gokey has celebrated a series of number one singles, and reached the top of Billboard’s Christian chart again with Rise, his fifth full-length studio album in 2017, in 2019 with Haven’t Seen It Yet and 2021 with Jesus People. Singles “Tell Your Heart to Beat Again” and “Haven’t Seen It Yet” have both been RIAA Certified Gold. Danny has engraved his place on the radio charts with multi-week, multi-chart topping runs in the United States, Canada, and now Latin markets with his Spanish singles and hits in Latin America, including 2016’s album La Esperanza Frente a Mi. It all comes down to “Love God, Love People,” just like Danny’s most recent number one, and first spoken by Jesus Christ (Matthew 22:38-39).

With multiple awards, number one album debuts and number one singles, Gokey is excited about continuing to share hope and encouragement with his listeners. He has reached a sweet season in his music career and life. The climb, however, has been riddled with heartache and those things that most people—the church included—rarely speak of publicly, if at all. Cycles of depression have plagued him but have also provided opportunity for God to sing through him in true ministry. Danny has wanted to mix hope and entertainment in a way that would truly make an impact on hurting souls.

In the experience. One recent testimony of hope drawn from his music comes through the quiet words of a young woman: “Danny Gokey is a true missionary. I thank him again for walking God’s path with confidence and wisdom.” She sent a special message to Danny, saying: “I am forever indebted to [you] for [your] song and video ‘Rise,’ which saved my life and countless others, like ‘Tell Your Heart to Beat Again.’” Despite chart successes, what better tribute could a songster receive than those words of life and healing—genuine appreciation and empathy through God-given music as God’s conduit.

Danny Gokey
Danny Gokey is now married to Leyicet Peralta. The couple and their four children live outside of Nashville, Tenn.

In the next chapter. Several years after Sophia’s passing, Gokey met and married Leyicet Peralta, a model, at a church in Miami, Florida. They currently live outside of Nashville with their four fabulous, rambunctious children: Daniel, Victoria, Gabriel, and Emanuel. Fans can get to know more about them and their family life, goals, and perspectives through their podcast, Livin’ la Vida Gokey. You can watch the videos on AccessMore, or listen wherever you find your favorite podcasts. Because of busy schedules and time on the road, Danny cherishes every moment he gets at home with his family. He knows how precious is every moment, and how life can change in the twinkling of an eye. 

In the whole. A particular verse from God’s Word has directed Gokey’s life: “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13). Danny explains, “It is the believing that makes me abound in joy and peace of the Holy spirit—believing in the right things, believing in what God says.”

Danny concludes with urgent words of wisdom for Birmingham Christian Family Magazine readers: “The greatest words resounding in my heart right now are that Jesus is coming again soon; we need to be more about keeping that at the forefront of our minds so that daily decisions are based on bringing people into the Kingdom of God because life is full of distractions. The Bible makes it very clear that when He comes, people will be eating, drinking, marrying . . . going about their regular lives. . . . Life will look very normal just as it did to the people in Noah’s day. ‘People were unaware’ until the day Noah entered the ark and ‘until the flood came and swept them all away. So will be the coming of the Son of Man’” (Matthew 24:38-40).

You “just haven’t seen it yet,” echoes one of Gokey’s latest songs. Keep your eyes open for the good things that are coming!

 –Sheila E. Moss: author of Living to Matter: Mothers, Singles, and the Weary and Broken; Interrupting Women: Ten Conversations with Jesus; and international publications from teaching Bible and Christian ethics in Africa, Ukraine, and Venezuela; teacher of Bible classes for over 35 years; mother of three daughters and two sons; and grandmother of eleven grandchildren. 

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Cover Story

As confetti rained down on then 12-year-old Darci Lynne Farmer when she won the “America’s Got Talent” talent competition in 2017, she had no idea of the amazing journey ahead of her. She did, however, know that she would rely on her family and faith to sustain her through whatever might come. Now 17, Farmer is in the midst of her “My Lips are Sealed (Except When They’re Not)” national tour and will perform on Jan. 30 in Birmingham at the BJCC Concert Hall. It’s a long way from the crazy dreams the young ventriloquist had when she began learning her art and entering talent contests.

Darci Lynne Farmer
Darci Lynne Farmer’s initial audition on “America’s Got Talent” is the most viewed video from the show. The video, for which she received the valuable Golden Buzzer ticket, was viewed 135 million times within 24 hours of being uploaded to the show’s Facebook page.

Quick Rise to Fame. Farmer taught herself ventriloquism from her home in Oklahoma City when she was just 10 years old, after she saw a performance at a local church. “When I was getting into it, I’d never really heard of it much. I had never seen a video or seen it on tv. But I just knew it was the coolest thing and something clicked in my brain,” Farmer remembered. “I think it was divinely influenced; it was meant for me to be introduced to it. I really wanted to share my love for it and after being on the show more people know what ventriloquy is. I think I’ve helped to make it more popular.”

She competed in her first local talent show in 2014 and appeared on the television show “Little Big Shots” before auditioning for “America’s Got Talent.” She won the coveted “Golden Buzzer” from judge Mel B. (which sends contestants straight to the live shows without going through other qualifying rounds) and went on to win the show’s $1 million grand prize and a headline gig at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. Her performances included her now well-known puppets Petunia (a precocious girl bunny), Oscar (a shy mouse), and Edna (a flirty old woman).

Farmer’s family stayed with her in Hollywood throughout the show, which included auditions and the different rounds of competition. “We turned it into a big Spring Break trip and then I got the Golden Buzzer ticket. I went in with such low expectations, but my parents said just to just do my best and they’d be proud of me no matter what,” she said. “The eight months we were there were very stressful, and it’s the hardest I’ve ever worked.”

“For the finale performance, we knew we wanted to do a duet but none of us knew what song we wanted to do. Just three days before, the musical producer suggested “Little Help from my Friends.” I never had even heard it before,” she laughed. “I learned it and performed it in a day and a half.” After the win, Farmer performed at such locations as Madison Square Garden and the Grand Ole Opry, while having her own NBC holiday special and embarking on her first tour.

The Farmer Family
The Farmer family watched “America’s Got Talent” since it first premiered on American television and Darci Lynne was especially inspired by the wins of ventriloquist Terry Vator in the second season of the show and of 12-year-old singer-songwriter Grace VanderWaal who won it the year before Darci Lynne did.

On the Road Again. The coronavirus pandemic halted Farmer’s national tours for a year, but the time away from the stage gave her family the opportunity to try new things and spend more time together. “I’ve been touring since I’ve won and I’ve slowly transitioned to doing things more myself. What I love about this new show is I had a lot to put in it from me. This is my vision, and it’s super important to me. It’s family friendly, and we’ve improved it so much over the last year,” she said. “We had to reschedule shows that got canceled and have added new shows too.”

“At meet-and-greets, people say ‘We’ve waited two years to see this.’ It’s crazy,” she said. “I think everyone has really been ready for the world to keep spinning.” The show this month in Birmingham is a rescheduled event from two canceled performances in 2020 and another in early 2021.

Farmer’s family is integral to her own success, she said. Her parents Clarke and Misty, along with her older brothers Nick and Dalton and younger brother Nate, help with her shows and encourage her to do her best. “Me, my parents, my brother Dalton, my ventriloquist coach, and a journalist friend have all collaborated on the show,” she said. “We’ve Zoomed, brainstormed, and worked together. They know my puppets and how to write for them.”

The current tour also includes new original music, as well as a brand-new puppet. “I started writing during quarantine, and these are songs that haven’t been released yet. They’ll be played in the show by a live band,” she explained. “And I have a new puppet, which we’re really excited about. I used to have four, and now I have five.”

Darci Lynne Farmer
Darci Lynne Farmer’s goals for the future include singing and acting. She grew up singing with her mother in the choir at church and sings often on her social media channels; she’s currently taking acting lessons and has performed as a voice actor for Disney’s “Fancy Nancy” and episode of “Scooby-Doo and Guess Who?”

Dalton, 22, has also been instrumental in helping her social media presence, which exploded during the pandemic. She has 3.6 million followers on TikTok, where she shares personal posts while also encouraging young ventriloquists. “It’s so rewarding to have young kids there wanting to learn ventriloquism,” she shared. “I want to be a good example and help those younger than me.”

A Faith Witness. Farmer said she also takes her responsibility as a Christian seriously, and knows that being in entertainment provides unique opportunities. “It can sometimes be hard in this business, but I’m excited to have this platform,” she said. “When you’re in the public eye and have a platform, you have to make the most of it.”

Farmer’s family have been members of United Methodist Church of the Servant in Oklahoma City since before she was born, and she’s long been active in worship services, choirs, and Bible studies. “We’ve always been a family of faith, and we go to church every Sunday if we can. If we miss, I try to go on Wednesdays,” she said. “Church is important, and prayer and Bible study are important to us as a family.”

And now, as she looks to her own future, she’s relying on God’s guidance. “I’m still trying to decide what God’s plan for my life is, because I’m still young,” she reflected. “I’m taking everything step-by-step.” She said she wants to go to college, study music, perhaps get into acting–and, of course, continue growing as a ventriloquist. In the meantime, she plans on entertaining audiences across the country with a fun-filled, family-friendly unique concert experience–all with her lips sealed.

-Cheryl Wray

Freelance writer based in Hueytown

Coordinator of the Southern Christian Writers Conference

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