Back My Story: Kellita Sherman
August 9th, 2013
By Alexandria Fisher, Volunteer Writer
I'm a teacher, and I often discuss the difference between first world problems and third world problems with my students.
I explain to them, "In America, a bad day is losing our keys and getting stuck in traffic. To us, ‘starving’ means you purposely skipped a meal to lose weight or you were working and lost track of time. In other countries, a bad day has an entirely different meaning."
Liberia, an actual third world country in Africa, torn by civil war and genocide, has problems much more serious than I've ever had to deal with in my very coddled, lower-middle-class life.
Kellita Sherman is from Liberia and attends Brentwood Baptist. You probably pass her in the hallways each week, but you'd never know she has a story that could blow you away. As I sat down and began to talk to her, I couldn’t help but compare her story to my own.
Where I'd struggled and fought with demons, mostly of my own making, she'd truly struggled and fought with very tangible demons that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy (and I really, really loathe the person I consider my worst enemy).
Where I'd lost faith, complained to God about how unfair life is, and doubted His word, Kellita had literally stood on the Bible and declared her faith in the Almighty One, our Jehovah Jireh, our Provider.
Never have those words meant more to me than when I listened to this incredible woman of strength tell her tale. “God writes on a crooked line. You never know what God is up to,” Kellita said as she began.
How It Began
Born in Liberia, Kellita's mother died when she was five years old, so she went to live with her grandmother and father. As a 17-year-old high school student, she met her future husband, John, who was attending college on the same campus.
“He was walking by and asked my name. He said, ‘I will marry you.’ But he was in the school of forestry, looking rugged, and I [didn’t like him],” she said, shaking her head ruefully. “I couldn’t stand him in the beginning. We started as friends.”
She told me of their courtship and how John got a scholarship to study in India. He had to go away for a while but said he'd bring her back a gift. When he returned, he gave her an empty jewelry box and promised to put a ring in it someday.
When he finally asked Kellita to marry him, her father said "no" because John didn’t have enough money. Her grandmother prayed about it and insisted they both seek counseling to discover the duties of a husband and wife. So that's what they did.
When they'd completed counseling, and were able to explain to her their responsibilities, Kellita’s grandmother gave her blessing and permission to move forward. They married in 1971.
The next year, the newlyweds moved to America. John was given a scholarship to attend graduate school, but expected to return to Liberia after his education was complete and work for the government.
He first went to Pittsburgh University then transferred to Harvard. And after graduation, he and Kellita returned to their homeland where he became the Minister of Commerce.
For several years, the Shermans tried to have a child. Kellita recalled the feelings of angst, watching her friends have children while she waited and waited to have a baby. But they finally had a son, John Jr.
The reason she had to wait on God to give her the baby she longed for was made clear much later—almost 10 years later.
One night in 1980, she and her husband rented a movie and planned to spend a peaceful evening at home. But then, they heard gunshots. She said, “All hell broke loose. It was the shifting like an earthquake. In one minute, in the blink of an eye, it looked like everything was gone.”
John decided to go see what had happened. He came back and told her the president had been assassinated, dead bodies lined the streets, and they had to be ready for anything. She said, “The radio came on and they were calling people in…”
I didn’t understand what that meant, so Kellita explained. The people who had enacted the coup were calling in members of the overthrown government and putting them in prison or executing them.
“John decided to turn himself in, even though he hadn’t done anything wrong and he was a native," Kellita said. "He thought [if he turned himself in], they wouldn’t come to our house.”
John was cleared by every person in the new government. He was just about to leave when the last person he had to answer to said, “Oh no. We can’t let you go.”
They sent him to prison for two weeks. But even during that time, Kellita saw the favor of God.
"The man in charge…his mother had been dying, and my husband got an army plane to pick up his mother [at a hospital] and bring her back,” she said.
That made the prison guard indebted to John, so Kellita was able to take him food and drinks. She said, "As far as I know, I was the only wife [doing that]…"
One day, Kellita had a vision that her husband would be free. She says a the radio came on and a voice said, "John Sherman will be free at noon today." When she went to take him food, John knelt down in front of her.
He said, “Kellita, I have seen our life before me. It has been like a movie. I met Jesus. I prayed for three things in this life: an education, a good wife, and a son. I’m not here because I stole money or abused my office. I’m here because I mistreated you. I need your forgiveness.”
That day, she forgave him. And that day, his name was put on the execution list.
Kellita watched as her husband was taken by a bus to the beach. She watched as men were lined up, tied to poles, and shot.
When John’s turn came, he refused to be tied. He turned to the ocean and lifted his hands. He took off his shirt and stood by the pole without flinching. Three men tried to shoot him, but each time the gun failed. Finally, one man took a gun, walked up to him, and shot him in the chest.
“If a pin had dropped, you would have heard it," Kellita said. "[It was] like my feet weren’t touching the ground. I reached up my arms and screamed, ‘You promised to set him free!’ … I curled up in a corner of [someone’s] house and didn’t see my child for two or three days… [I thought] there can’t be a God to allow this to happen.”
During this time, the strangest thing happened—Kellita says she lost her education. She couldn’t remember how to read or write and her mind went blank.
Several friends were able to get her and her son plane tickets to America. For a while, John Jr. stayed with his aunt while Kellita grieved. But, eventually, she took him and they moved to Fall River, Massachusetts.
For a couple of weeks, Kellita worked at the Salvation Army, cooking and cleaning. She rented a run-down apartment for $250 a month. But it was so bad there were roaches crawling everywhere.
At night, Kellita and John Jr. slept on the floor. She laid on a bed of blankets and laid her son on her chest so the roaches wouldn't touch him. During the day, she'd take the blankets, shake them out, and tie them up in a black trash bag to keep the bugs out.
“I [walked]...to the Catholic school and asked if my son could go [there]," she said. "They said, ‘OK.’ I was shocked… John made an Italian friend who brought two sandwiches and two milks every day, and [he] fell in love with my son’s plain tuna sandwich.”
At lunch, John and his friend decided to split their food. Kellita attributes that to God's promise to take care of the widowed and fatherless. When she had no way of giving her son the nutrition he needed, God provided.
Eventually, the mother and father of John's new friend found out about their deplorable living conditions. The dad knew the landlord of their complex and threatened to take him to court.
After that, the couple fought for Kellita and John, securing them a much nicer apartment and making arrangements with a Catholic thrift shop to provide them with furniture.
When Kellita visited the store, she chose a bed, table, and some bedding. But when they arrived at their new apartment, movers showed up with enough furniture for a whole house.
The priest told her no one had ever taken only what they needed when offered free stuff. He was so moved by her humility that the church donated everything they could ever want.
On top of all that, Kellita said, “When I got a job and went to pay the school, I was told there would be a scholarship [for John] for as long as he went there.”
Later that year, John's teacher told him to ask his mother for help with an assignment. Kellita was forced to tell her son that she couldn't read or write anymore. So John went back to his teacher and said, “You’ll have to teach me so I can teach her.”
Remember all those years Kellita wished and prayed for a child? At the moment, she realized God had known this day would be coming.
If John had been older, he would've been embarrassed by a mother who couldn't read. As it was, he just wanted to help. He told her, “Mommy, you will make it. Don’t worry.” In fact, Kellita said her son was the one who helped her fill out applications after that.
When they later moved to Nashville, Kellita got a job working in a cafeteria at St. Thomas Hospital. She wanted another, better job and asked God for one, but He told her, "How can I transfer you from one place to another until you accept this place as yours?"
After that, Kellita's attitude changed toward her job. She prayed unceasingly and did everything for God's glory. She blessed the tables and floors. She asked God to open the eyes of the people who ate there so they'd see Him.
One day, she went to check on an employee. Out of nowhere, a manager stopped her and asked if she wanted desk job. She said didn't have any computer skills, but the manager replied, "If you can learn computers, we'll teach you."
The job was hers. "My entire life really has been trusting the Lord for everything," she said.
Testimony of Faith
Kellita closed her story by telling me about her first Christmas in the U.S., when John was still in kindergarten.
“The whole eighth grade class had adopted John," she said. "We had the best Christmas tree in the neighborhood. People would stand out in the yard to see it. At noon on Christmas Eve, people started bringing gifts and didn’t stop until midnight.”
John ended up with so many toys that Kellita gave many of them away to other children in the neighborhood. She said, “God just showed Himself out… I opened my Bible in the middle of the floor and stood on it. I said, ‘I’m dependent on it and believe every word.'"
Even when Kellita couldn't read a word of the Bible, she knew it to be true. Even during the times when it didn't feel like God was with her, she believed He was.
God writes on a crooked line—some more crooked than others, some more spectacular, some more devastating. But, God is always in control. She said, “He will give you enough that you’ll be able to share with others. That’s God and that’s how he works."
Kellita’s faith is a model for believers like me—believers who often doubt God’s ability, grow suspicious at the first sign of trouble, or struggle because we're not getting what we want.
Even when her husband was cruelly executed right before her eyes, Kellita said, “As much as it hurt, even at this time, God knew what He was doing. It was time for [my husband] to go home. Nobody knows better than God does.”