When women are released from the Wilson County Jail, they sometimes have nowhere to go and only the clothes on their backs.

Their situation isn’t something that goes unnoticed

“We have three ladies from three different churches in Lebanon who go to the jail once a week for prison ministry,” Lebanon’s Elaine Pearson said. “They came to us with this idea and gave us the list of items that would be helpful to an inmate when she is released from jail. I took that list, typed it up and distributed it to our PHOEBEs.”

Pearson coordinates the ministry projects for the Lebanon-based group PHOEBE Connections.

November’s project — pack a purse — was carried out last week.

“It was personal-care items,” Pearson said. “We also included stamped envelopes with paper and pens, a gift card from Burger King, because it’s the only thing close to the jail and open at 6 a.m. in the morning. There’s Bibles in it. There’s a list of resources in Wilson County that Compassionate Hands has provided. There’s some information about three different churches who provide assistance if they need resources or a ride to church. There’s snacks, granola and packs of crackers.

“When a woman walks out with nothing, she can have something to help her out.”

That’s nothing new for PHOEBE Connections though. Each month, the women’s group gathers for a new ministry project.

“These ladies are all about serving,” PHOEBE Connections President Ronda Martin said. “They’re very active in the local community. They’re very active in the church. They’re an empowered group.”

However, one word is off limits as far as the ladies are concerned.

“We don’t like the word widow,” Pearson said.

There’s a reason why they don’t care to be referred to as widows.

“We didn’t want to use the word widow,” Martin said. “Let’s face it … it’s a downer. When you think about a widows group, people think, ‘Oh, how pitiful.’ We wanted something to where people would feel empowered. There’s a need to find purpose in life again. We wanted widows to be able to do that again. Serving is a part of healing. When you can serve others, it gives purpose. It’s finding that support they need, finding that encouragement they need, but it’s serving too.”

The name, PHOEBE Connections, came about during the group’s planning process.

“Ronda first felt like the Lord was leading her to do a ministry,” PHOEBE Connections Treasurer Carol Pharris said. “She was a young widow with a young son. She knew Elaine. Elaine’s husband had passed away. They knew each other as widows. Elaine knew me and that my husband had passed away. They called me and said Carol can you help us with this. I said, I have a friend (Glynda Green) who is also a widow. The four of us began meeting, praying and thinking. How could we meet? How could we serve?

“We met with a couple of pastors and talked with them. We wanted to know what our purposes were. The four of us would sit and talk and think about the purposes of our organization. The first letter of (each of) our purposes spelled out PHOEBE. She looked up Romans 16:1 and 2. It’s the only place in the Bible that PHOEBE was mentioned. Paul was complimenting her because she had been beneficial to him in his work. We thought that fits beautifully with our purposes. That was just too much of a God thing. We could not avoid that. It was a beautiful thought.”

Martin is the youngest of the group. She was 41 when her husband, Eddie Martin, died.

“I truly believe it was just divine providence,” Martin said. “I lost my husband in 2005 to a motorcycle accident. We had a 4-year-old son at the time. Then, a couple of years later, I started seminary. I got a masters in thelogicial studies online. I began praying asking, God, ‘Where would you have me serve?’

“I was at Immanuel (Baptist Church in Lebanon) at the time, and we had a missions night. I prayed, ‘Lord, where would you best have me serve?’ Nothing really clicked. That night, the pastor got up and told a story about visiting with a widow. She said, ‘When does it stop hurting?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never been through that. I looked at my watch and thought that He (God) usually doesn’t ask that quickly. I went up to him (the pastor) after the service and talked with him, and he told me, ‘You need to come talk to me.’ I took Elaine Pearson with me, and we talked about what we could do to help widows.”

Fruitful … in a different sense

Martin was interesting in doing something that she felt would be more impactful than some of the things that she experienced after her husband died.

“I remember after my husband died, a church brought me a fruit basket, and I found that so offensive,” Martin said. “I thought, ‘I don’t need a fruit basket. I need friends who will support me. I need someone to be involved in my life. I need friends to help with my son.

“When you become a widow, your social status changes forever. People drop you like a hot potato, because you’re a widow now. Most of the women in the program have experienced that. I wasn’t a part of a couple now. I was by myself. It’s amazing how your social status changes. Widows need a support system.”

Martin isn’t the only one who has experienced those social challenges.

“It is super important to me,” Pearson said. “When I lost Mike (Pearson, her husband, in 2006), I lost my identify. I was a pastor’s wife. I was a director of missions’ wife. Suddenly, I was just me. You lose friends, because our friends were couples friends. For a while, they invite you, but you’re just a third wheel. Eventually, that stops. So, you’ve lost friends. You’ve lost your identity as to who you are. You begin to look at yourself in a totally different way, as far as what is your role now. I’ve been the pastor’s wife. I’ve been the director of missions’ wife. Now, I just sit in a pew.

“We as widows have different experiences in the way we lose our husband. I cannot identify with a lady whose husband is ill for a long time. Ronda and I both got the (sudden) phone call. You start with the shock of it all. We as widows share that and can support that. We can just be friends. It’s been such a blessing.”

Pharris is one of those who didn’t get “the call.”

“My husband (Don) had a stroke in 2004,” the 79-year-old Pharris said. “It was pretty bad. He was disabled some, and it got a little worse. It went for about five years. He had been a pastor. I was an owner and managing broker of Cumberland Real Estate. His stroke kind of slowed us down. I continued at the real estate office for a couple of years, but then, I retired.

“For five years, he needed care. During that time, my life got very small. It was centered around him and his care. My world got very small. Whenever he passed away, it was in 2009. When they asked me to get involved, my skills are in administration and organization. Also, it was important for me to build new relations. When they asked me, ‘Do you want to help us?’ It just fit it perfectly, because I myself was reaching out to build new relations. The Lord was just opening doors for me to have an impact and to build relationships with other people.”

Growing up

Pharris entered the picture after Martin and Pearson met with the pastor at Immanuel.

“Elaine looked at me and said, ‘What are you thinking,’ ” Martin said. “I said, ‘We need an administrator.’ Elaine said, ‘I know somebody who is an administrator.’ So, she called Carol.

“People think I am in charge. Really … I just do what Carol tells me. Carol brought a friend with her named Glynda Green. She’s a social butterfly and the life of the party. We just kind of began talking things out, and we realized that God was doing something here. We all realized that we had talents that we could contribute. Between the four of us, all of our husbands were active in church leadership. We thought God has brought together people in church leadership to create something.”

What is now known as PHOEBE Connections started with those four ladies.

“We would talk about what do we want this ministry to be,” Martin said. “I’d write it down, and I’d give it to them. They’d make edits.”

Pharris added, “The four of us started inviting some other widows to come and talk with us while we were figuring out what to do. We had eight coming. Then, there was 12. I’m sure we had 20 or 25 at our first (official) meeting.”

Now, in its 11th year, the group has grown to the point to where that there was approximately 40-50 active members prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, the monthly meetings have approximately 30-40 attendees.

“It has been so encouraging from the relationships that have been formed,” Pharris said. “I know there’s widows who didn’t have a support system around them, who didn’t have family. They have come and gotten involved in our ministries and built relationships and friendships. That’s been a very valuable part. It’s them doing things that are benefiting somebody else. That’s always a good thing.”

However, there’s many more widows among the PHOEBE connection family than simply the individuals who attend the meetings.

“They’re very dear to me,” Pharris said. “I have developed some real good friendships from that. I am very active in a church. I have a lot of friends from my Sunday-school class. That and my PHOEBEs have developed into my closest friends. It’s one way I can build relationships. It also has helped me feel that other people value the relationships with me.

“It’s given me a way to serve the Lord through helping to build this organization. Part of my purpose is helping women to know their place in this life. Part of that is knowing who Jesus is and knowing what your purpose is in life. It’s helping people live out their life to have purpose and meaning. It has helped me to impact other people’s lives in serving other people.”

Faith … front and center

They are all quick to point out that the group places a heavy emphasis on Christian faith.

In fact, the P in PHOEBES stands for, “Point people toward Jesus Christ as their healer, comforter, provider and Savior.”

“We are a faith-based organization,” Pearson said. “We want to help widows begin to find a new identity, to begin to find a sense of purpose for their life and a way of serving and sharing with others.”

Martin added, “Everybody hurts in their own way at times. It’s all about a relationship with Christ. We point them to Christ . You either run to Christ at this time, or you run from Him. We want them to run to Him.”

Martin has written a devotional book, “God’s Word to a Widow’s Heart.”

“I’ve had the opportunity to see God work directly in me and through me,” Martin said. “Just the excitement of being able to hear from God and see Him pull it all together is amazing. Seeing that same message resonate in others, knowing that what God has put in me is in her, that’s so exciting. It’s a message that resonates.”

However, the group is not affiliated with any certain denomination.

“We have Baptists, Church of Christ, Methodist, non-denominational, Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran,” Martin said. “We found that it doesn’t matter what denomination you are. All of them have widows.

“At first, we didn’t get the support from the church community that we hoped to get, but as the ministry began to grow, now, we have good support from the churches. We began meeting in churches so that people could get to know us.”

More fellowship than food

The 58-year-old Martin is the youngest PHOEBE.

“They’re a fun group of women,” Martin said. “People who come to speak to our organization, we’re not what they’re expecting.”

Martin is still among the workforce, while many of the other PHOEBEs are retired, affording them the opportunity to gather on a more regular basis.

Some of the members gather at Lebanon’s Jimmy Floyd Center each week to walk together, followed by lunch at an area Wendy’s location … which may be filled with more fellowship than food.

The PHOEBEs feel that the fellowship is invaluable.

“One of our PHOEBE ladies is our card lady,” Pearson said. “We have a list of all our birthdays. She sends a card on their birthday. One of our ladies is in charge of prayer needs. She gets our prayer lists and prayer requests on Monday or Tuesday of each week. We are supporting each other that way. Birthday cards are encouraging.

“If we want to go somewhere, my first inclination is to call a PHOEBE sister. If you want to go to a movie theater or a play or whatever, you don’t have to go by yourself anymore. You have a PHOEBE sister you can call.”

In addition the monthly meeting (which is often held on Saturdays), there is also a monthly luncheon, with the November location being Painturo’s.

However, the most rewarding endeavors may be the monthly ministry projects.

“That was an integral part of what we chose to do,” the 79-year-old Pharris said.

Those ministry projects have consisted of helping local churches with their food pantries, delivering cookies to first responders from Mt. Juliet to Watertown, supplying food for children who are forced to temporarily stay in the Department of Children’s Services office, helping animal shelters, and working with Uncle Pete’s Truck Stop with helping to distribute personal-care items to area veterans.

“One of our objectives has to do with ministry,” Pearson said. “Me as a widow, one of the best things to do is to get out of my shell and help others. The ladies flourish. They enjoy doing these ministry projects and sharing with others.

“We did not miss a month of ministry projects during the pandemic. It might be driving up in a church van. Since COVID, the ministry projects that we do have them on-site. The ladies then see where they’re benefiting and where they’re helping. I like bringing it to a site, because they can put eyes on where they’re helping.”

PHOEBE Connections’ biggest fundraiser takes place in September, which includes the PHOEBEs purchasing tables for a 250-person evening of fun at Immanuel Baptist Church. It includes dinner and music, a silent cake auction and a live cake auction presided over by realtor/auctioneer Jeff Hallums.

A cheesecake made by Judge Barry Tatum raised $2,750 in 2019, and another cheesecake brought in $2,500. A coconut cake resulted in a $1,200 donation as well.

“We see people donating to our ministry,” Martin said. “We see churches giving to our ministry … and we see people giving $2,700 for cheesecakes.”

The event raised approximately $39,000 this year, with those funds going toward scholarships given to the children of widows. According to Pharris, the group has been awarding those scholarships for six or seven years now.

There were 14 scholarships of $2,000 given in 2021.

“If their mother is a widow and they apply, we get them a scholarship,” Pharris said.

And that’s yet another part of the great fulfillment and joy that the women have in giving back … which goes against what many might expect being around a group of widows to be like.

“You don’t need a box of Kleenexes to come to PHOEBEs,” Pearson said.

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