“It was a God moment.”
That’s how Debbie Hert, executive manager of My Cup of Tea, described recent events at the opening prayer she conducts daily with staff before work begins.
“I had told the workers that we would be getting two new employees and that they would fit in just fine,” Hert began. When the new hires arrived, Hert and the other 10 MCOT employees learned that Charlesetta Ferguson, a MCOT employee since November 2016, and LCool McClain, one of the new employees, already knew each other.
The women had met before—at 201 Poplar, the facility known as the city jail. In the 1980s, they did time together at 201, as the building is called locally, as well as at the penal farm. Ferguson was convicted on drug and prostitution charges and served two years. McClain was convicted on drug and fraud charges; McClain remembered she served “eleven months and some days.”
Fast forward to now, 2018. Both women are changed. God certainly worked in the intervening years. The women’s lives now express excitement, health, and confidence. Each has repented. Each has received Jesus as her Lord and Savior. Each absolutely glows with happiness.
Amid hugs, and tears, and exclamations of joy, the two shared their stories during opening prayer time.
Listen as they recount a bit about their lives. Let’s start with McClain, a small woman with a pleasant voice.
“Charlesetta and I remember each other from standing in line for food at 201,” McClain said. “I remember that she talked about living in Orange Mound, and that’s where I lived too.”
During her time at 201, McClain learned she was pregnant. That meant she was not under lockdown and could go about the facility with some freedom. “I delivered commissary items to the women and got to know them,” she said.
Today, McClain never stops smiling, greets everybody with a hug (“I do not shake hands,” she smiled), rents a house in Orange Mound, and is the proud grandmother of seven. But her life as a child was hard. From early on she lived with her grandmother. “I started drinking when I was eight,” McClain said. “I started when I visited my mother.”
The other part of her life was going with her grandmother to Keel Avenue Baptist Church in North Memphis. McClain remembers the fun of participating in Sunshine Girls. Her given name is Lisa; it became Lisa Cool in elementary school and was shortened to LCool at Hamilton Junior High in South Memphis. The nickname stuck.
As a teenager, her life went from alcohol to drug abuse. McClain credits her grandmother, now 98 and still in her own Orange Mound home, with changing her life. “My grandma told me she never gave up praying for me,” McClain said.
McClain proudly says she has been sober “since November 1, 1996.” She began the Twelve Step Program for addiction in Arkansas. “I had to get into a new environment and away from Memphis. I’ve been sober for almost 22 years,” she smiled joyfully. “I know that God can turn a life around!”
Now it’s Ferguson’s turn.
While listening to McClain, Ferguson noted that her time at 201 was much different. She was often in deadlock and isolation because of fighting. “I didn’t like being around women,” she said. “I had an attitude.”
Ferguson was named for her father but grew up without knowing him. “He left when I was three or four. It devastated my mother. She never recovered,” Ferguson said. It turns out that her father had another family; Ferguson discovered 35 years later that she has eight half-siblings. She met one of them, a half-sister, in prison.
As a teenager, Ferguson was in foster care and got pregnant at age 13. She says now that she went with older men because “I was looking for the love of my father.” She credits her foster care mother with helping her graduate from high school. By age 19 she had six children. She now has a total of eleven children. “They are all living. I never lost a child. None were crack babies,” she said.
Ferguson resorted to prostitution to feed her children. She hung her head as she said, “I hated it. I hated it.”
Her conversion came gently for someone who describes herself as a tomboy and a fighter. One fall day when walking the Orange Mound streets she felt the presence of another but no one was there. She turned around several times. Looking down on the sidewalk, she saw only one set of prints in the leaves. “It was then I realized the Lord was carrying me,” she said.
Fundamental life changes likewise came gradually. She frequently passed The House at Orange Mound and knew its reputation as a Christian resource center for women. She went in and kept going back. She took classes. “I thought that if I could do time for two years, I could do months of classes.” She stuck with it, learned about tea, passed the job qualifying exams, and was hired.
Ferguson has left the life of the streets of Orange Mound. Yes, she passes the same men on the same corners who used to use her, but everything has changed. “They respect me now. They’re glad I have a new life. I’m never going back. I don’t have to do that no more. I’d be crazy to go back to that life when God has blessed me so much. God has delivered me from all that,” she said.
Hert weeps whenever she retells this “God moment” that made a routine company prayer time absolutely unforgettable.
“Who am I that I get a chance to see such redemption?” Hert asked with wonder in her voice. “I saw the Kinsman Redeemer God at work.”
- Robin Gallaher Branch