Editor’s Note: This story was produced as part of ivoh’s Restorative Narrative Fellowship. It is told in five parts and was originally published on WCPO.com on June 11, 2015.

 

LaMonica Sherman and her two older brothers
LaMonica Sherman and her two older brothers

When LaMonica Sherman was seven years old, she stood behind a tree stump pulpit behind the parking lot of her family’s Walnut Hills apartment and, pretending a stick was her microphone, she started preaching. Her first parishioners were neighbor kids she bribed with bologna sandwiches she made in secret after raiding her family’s groceries.

Food, she learned early, can open closed doors and minds.

Her mother laughs as she remembers her daughter’s early days of preaching. Even in first grade, Sherman was busy inspiring people.

“She would have them shouting,” says Callie Sherman, 67.

The younger Sherman’s inspiration to serve may have come from watching her father — a steel factory worker for more than four decades — as he took struggling co-workers to the grocery so their kids wouldn’t go hungry. Or maybe it rubbed off by watching her mother — a factory worker-turned janitor who dreamed of being a social worker — volunteer at church.

Watching her parents also taught Sherman the value of work.

Hard Work as a Way of Life

Her father started working on his grandparents’ Georgia farm when he was six years old and dropped out of high school at 15 to help support his own mother.

“It was hard but it made me strong,” says Ralph Sherman, 76. He hung with a rough crowd as a teenager in Cincinnati and got in more than his share of fights. He was 19 when his mother saw blood on his shirt and made him swear on a Bible that he wouldn’t fight again.

Years later, he was the kind of dad who got up at 5 a.m. on weekend mornings to save a picnic shelter in the Great Miami Whitewater Forest so his four kids and their extended family could spend the day playing softball and volleyball and sharing stories over barbecue.

That life shaped Sherman’s definition of family, a definition that would serve as a light against the dark days ahead.

Aside from her backyard sermons, Sherman didn’t go to church except for holidays until she was in sixth grade. But after that, she became a regular at Second Baptist Church in Newport. Before long, the outspoken baby of the family found her way to front of the congregation, leading the church’s Rosebud Choir. Her mother remembers her first song as leader: “Going Up Yonder.”

“I love her singing,” says Callie Sherman, who named her youngest by adding “La” to the name of a favorite General Hospital character.

As soon as she turned 16, LaMonica Sherman got a job at the Roy Rogers fast-food restaurant near her Walnut Hills home. She spent her earnings on Guess jeans, high heels and a gold tooth she now regrets. In those days, though, that tooth offered a taste of status to teens who hungered for admiration.

‘She Didn’t Take Nothing, Either’

Keeping up a polished image also helped conceal a home life, and a family, that was starting to fall apart.

LaMonica Sherman taught relatives about fashion
LaMonica Sherman taught relatives about fashion.

Her dad moved out while she was still in high school. Her mother applied for food stamps to make ends meet. Sherman brought home chicken from Roy Rogers for her mother whenever she could, but living without her father wasn’t easy.

Her first fight came when a girl she knew in high school borrowed one of her jumpers, then refused to return it. “She acted like it was hers,” Sherman says. “She mistook my kindness for weakness.”

After school one day, Sherman, known for her warmth as well as her ability to party, confronted the borrower and demanded her clothes back. “She was shocked when I stood up for myself,” Sherman says.

Another time, a classmate called Sherman a name, and that, she says, was that.

“She called me a cuss word—a ‘b,'” Sherman recalls. “I told her, ‘Don’t call me out of my name anymore. That’s the last time I’ll tell you.’ She said it again. I popped her.”

Sherman’s father and mother, who remain friendly, both say their daughter was more of a fight-finisher than a fight-starter.

“She didn’t bother people, but she didn’t take nothing, either,” says her father.

Dreaming of a Desk Job

She graduated high school and kept working, but drinking and staying out late took precedence over making plans for the future. It’s what she now calls “the poverty mindset,” or the inability to see beyond simply getting through the day. She didn’t know anyone who’d been to college. She didn’t glimpse lives outside of her circle of friends and her entry-level jobs. It would be years before she could clear her head of the fog of having “less than.”

Then, when LaMonica Sherman was 19, she had her first child, her son Gertod. His father was good-looking and charming and Sherman figured she was in love. She also figured they would build a two-parent home like the one she’d grown up in.

LaMonica Sherman with her son's father
LaMonica Sherman with her son’s father.

But Gertod’s father denied paternity before she even gave birth. While she was devastated at the time, Sherman now sees that abandonment as a blessing compared to what came next. Her son’s father wound up killing his next girlfriend and himself just nine years later.

Sherman worked part-time at night, picking up shifts as a janitor in downtown office buildings after Gertod was born. It wasn’t much, but it helped supplement the assistance she received for his food and diapers. She yearned for a different life, and when she prayed in the pews of Bethlehem Temple Apostolic Church, which was then in the heart of Over-the-Rhine, she started to believe she could create one.

One night, as she emptied garbage and swept floors, she found herself standing alone behind a desk. She paused.

“Lord,” she said aloud, “I want to work behind a desk. As a matter of fact, I want to be a supervisor one day.”

She repeated the prayer often, even as she fell in love with another charming man who convinced her he was different. He would be a responsible father. But he, too, denied paternity before she gave birth to Gertyra, or Gigi, when Gertod was 4.

The absent fathers added a lingering ache to the sting of single motherhood. “That took me into a deep depression,” Sherman said.

Dreaming Bigger, Working Harder

She was receiving less than $500 a month in assistance to cover rent, food, clothing and transportation for herself and her two young children. Even picking up night-time housekeeping shifts when she could find a babysitter left her low on food by the end of the month. “I wasn’t satisfied with that,” Sherman said.

She took a clerical class offered inside her apartment building so she could apply for office jobs. She spent more and more time at Bethlehem Temple, where her pastor encouraged her to keep dreaming bigger, to keep working harder. God had important work for her to do, he said.

When she could, she’d buy a little extra meat and other ingredients to make taco salads. She’d hang a sign in her apartment building lobby: ‘Don’t run to the border, run to LaMonica’s.’

Her taco salad was popular, and the extra cash gave her budget a whisper of breathing room so she could take her kids to the zoo or a movie, or even on an occasional visit to Chuck E. Cheese.

Neighbors like Lolita Taylor, 49, helped with babysitting. The mother of 14 who survived brain surgery and a case of amnesia, remains close to Sherman decades later. “My kids loved her.”

Taylor understood the challenges Sherman faced. She calls Gertod “the Tasmanian Devil” of Page Towers because of his propensity to get in trouble, including his mostly successful attempts to scare anyone coming out of any elevator, even at age two.

Still, Sherman pushed on. She invested more time in church, more time in prayer. She started giving advice that was part-sermon, part-survival. “A closed mouth won’t get fed,” she told Taylor. “This too shall pass.”

The words she offered others would serve her well in the days and months to come, when her greatest opportunity would transform almost overnight into her biggest challenge.

Next: Find out how Sherman’s faith, in God and in herself, has taken root in an unlikely neighborhood.