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 son Gertod
LaMonica Sherman and her son Gertod

LaMonica Sherman knew something wasn’t right with her life. At 22, she had a baby with no partner, a job with no future and a perpetual weekend hangover.

She was lying in bed early one Sunday morning, nursing one of those hangovers, when she heard a soft voice whisper in her ear.

“Go to that church on Twelfth and Elm,” it said.

She’d been thinking about finding a church home, so she didn’t really question the voice or think too much about where it came from.

It didn’t scare her. But it did move her.

She walked the few blocks to Bethlehem Temple Apostolic Church, then located in Over-the-Rhine.

She had loved church when she was younger, whether she was preaching to neighbor kids in the backyard of her Walnut Hills apartment complex or leading a youth choir.

Those were gifts she lost sight of during high school, when being a follower meant being accepted and when being accepted helped ease the pain of her parents’ divorce and the strain of a diet defined by food stamps.

At Bethlehem, Sherman began to build a relationship with God. She realized that the kind of follower she was meant to be had nothing to do with high heels, gold teeth or alcohol.

No Money, No Bus Tokens, Just Faith

Still, it wasn’t a smooth journey to the Promised Land. Sherman knew the church was where she was supposed to be, but she struggled.

She struggled through a second pregnancy. And she struggled with the disruptions caused by a sporadic and destructive relationship with her daughter’s father.

Then came the day she broke. She had to pick up her children from daycare and school after taking a clerical class, which meant two journeys on foot across an Interstate bridge. It was raining the kind of relentless rain that beats down a person’s spirit.

She had no money and no bus tokens.

Her son Gertod, 6, held her hand while her daughter Gigi, 2, sat in her stroller. Sherman’s tears mixed with the rain, but she fought them. She didn’t want her children to see her cry.

“I said, ‘God, even though I don’t like what I’m going through, I’m going to give you praise because it’s not always going to be like this,'” Sherman said. She started singing a gospel hymn, “I Will Bless Thee, O Lord,” loud and clear.

She was singing that hymn when a Metro bus stopped and its doors opened. “Where are you going, young lady?” the driver asked.

“Page Towers,” Sherman answered, “but I don’t have any money.”

Without another word, the driver parked, got out of the bus and carried Gigi, stroller and all, on board. “He dropped us right in front of Page Towers,” Sherman said.

“During the hard times, that’s when I really started seeing how real God was,” she said. “God will make a way out of no way.”

‘I Wanted More, I Wanted Better’

For 12 years, the way forward for Sherman revolved around Bethlehem Temple, which relocated to an abandoned strip mall on Hamilton Avenue in College Hill.

She took praise-dance classes for a year so she could start the congregation’s first-ever praise-dance ministry. She became an elder, assisting in pastor duties and soaking up leadership lessons. She led prayer groups and choirs. When people needed counsel, they sought out Sherman, whose encouragement and ability to see beyond obstacles were as contagious as her deep-throated laugh.

LaMonica Sherman leads a prayer | Elissa Yancey
LaMonica Sherman leads a prayer | Elissa Yancey

“I never saw myself as a leader,” Sherman said. “All I know is I wanted more and I wanted better.”

Liz Carter, who was then executive director at Cincinnati’s St. Vincent de Paul Society, saw that desire in Sherman when she interviewed her for an entry-level job as an advocate at the social service agency, which at that point employed four.

“It was really apparent from the very beginning that she was the one that fit here,” said Carter, who left St. Vincent’s staff of more than 30 this spring after almost 26 years at the agency. She now serves as the executive director of the Scripps Howard Foundation. “She has that really warm way about her.”

The circumstances weren’t pretty. St. Vincent’s Bank Street building was crumbling — literally. Sherman’s closet-sized office opened into a dark hallway dotted with bare light bulbs, peeling tile and a leaky roof.

“LaMonica would sit in there and minister to people,” Carter said. “We could call her an advocate, but what she did was minister to people, and to me that is a lot deeper. She gets underneath and sees what people need.”

No Judgment, No Demands, Only Prayer

When a grandmother stopped in with three grandchildren, not all of them could fit inside Sherman’s office. The kids lined up in the hallway as Sherman listened, and then offered more than a voucher for school clothes or money to help keep the heat on.

She offered a prayer.

It was a prayer of respect, of encouragement and of acceptance. It was a prayer filled with authentic intensity and no judgment.

“LaMonica set that tone of love and care and respect right from the beginning,” Carter says. “She could see what prayer they needed and give that to them so that they left feeling personally, spiritually cared for, loved, ministered to.”

Sherman tapped into the faith that propelled many clients through hopeless days as she shared her own faith freely. No judgments, no demands, just prayers.

“I remember coming down to visit my sister for lunch,” says Tamara Thrasher, whose sister worked in the tiny office next to Sherman. “LaMonica would have the gospel music blaring and she’d be praying for people in the lobby.”

One Christmas when Thrasher was out of work, Sherman made sure she and her two young children had plenty of presents.

It was the daily encouragement that sticks with Thrasher the most.

“She’s really shaped the way that I view people, that I treat people who are in such a fragile state,” says Thrasher, 32, who now works at St. Vincent’s as a service learning trainer.

“LaMonica taught me that even if you can’t give them something physically, give them hope.”

Sherman discovered that many of the lessons she learned through her work in the church—how to listen to people, how to comfort them, how to pray alongside them and inspire them with Bible verses—transferred directly in her role at the Catholic agency.

“I remember in the early years, her holding Bible study in our kitchen,” Thrasher said. “That just renews you, to be able to start your day with Jesus on your mind and think about how he approached those who were experiencing poverty. She made sure that God was at the center of all we were doing.”

In Sherman’s Winton Terrace office, a compact Boombox plays Gospel music softly. Gospel CDs sit on her bookshelf and her walls hold messages of encouragement.

She turns the music up during her lunch breaks and sings along. Songs of praise are so much a part of her life’s soundtrack that when she’s alone, she’ll hum a tune that instantly turns into a worship song. She birthed one of her favorites, “Put A Smile On Your Face,” on a drive to return a rental car to the airport.

Still, being on call for friends, for family, for clients, takes a toll.

When she needs to recharge, she’ll slip in an episode or two of Steve Harvey’s “Family Feud” on her flat screen TV between a few prayers. Maybe she’ll watch “300” one more time just so she can cheer on good over evil.

Aside from prayer and music, another constant in Sherman’s life is motion. At church, she stands and sways. Her dangly earrings swing and her whole body rocks in agreement with each “Amen.”

She paces the aisles as she sings and surrenders to what she calls her “heavenly voice.” It’s as if her ever-shifting body knows that, after decades of dodging despair, it has to be poised to respond, no matter what happens next.

That instinct never served her better than when she started working in Winton Terrace.