A woman on a mission: What led Reverend Elaine Sanford to care for Memphis’ most vulnerable | Opinion
This article was originally published in The Commercial Appeal.
Elaine Sanford is a woman on a mission. And she refuses to allow the COVID-19 pandemic to slow her down.
From the time she awakens in the morning until she finally retires at night, she is focused on helping homeless and needy women and their children achieve better lives, to become stable and self-sustaining.
As founder of HER Faith Ministries Inc., the Reverend Dr. Elaine Y. Sanford offers programs to empower and protect needy women and children while helping to strengthen their ability to succeed.
“Our vision is to aid in the reduction of poverty, food insecurity and other deprivation by providing such basic needs as emergency food, seasonal changes of clothing, assistance with rent and utilities to prevent eviction, and offering assistance with transportation,” she explains.
Over the past 12 years, the ministry has served countless women and children throughout Memphis and Shelby County, where the poverty rate is almost 30%.
Sanford says the results of her work motivate her. When women whom she has helped pull themselves out of poverty, she is motivated to keep going. When a struggling young mother finally secures a job that pays a livable wage, that’s motivation.
When a family moves out of deplorable housing into safe and affordable accommodations, that’s encouraging.
“And when families no longer need our help because they can meet their challenges of food insecurity, we know that what we are doing is helping to make a difference in people’s lives,” says Sanford.
Sanford says she was called to the ministry in 2007 after she had repeated dreams in which she heard herself preaching. One of 11 children reared by her grandparents on a farm near Little Rock, Arkansas, Sanford says her grandmother always told her she was “different.” And she was inspired by grandparents who shared food from their farm with neighbors. Her grandmother was a midwife and often cooked for people who were sick.
After her calling, she worked in prison ministry, and that led her to establish HER Faith Ministries. An ordained minister in the Tennessee Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Sanford earned Doctor of Ministry and Master of Divinity degrees from Memphis Theological Seminary.
In 2017, Sanford entered the ministry full-time and founded the non-denominational Park Avenue Christian Church, which operates out of HER Faith Ministries headquarters on Park Avenue near Highland.
Sanford started the church because the women she sought to help did not have a spiritual home and were not comfortable worshipping at most churches because of their poverty. The church does not push for people to make financial donations. “At our church, people are concerned about learning about Jesus and becoming emotionally, physically and spiritually strong,” Sanford says. “We keep it simple and go back to the model of how Jesus ministered to people. He preached where he was.”
A good day for Sanford is when the pieces of the puzzle fall into place for the families with whom she works.
For example, in spring 2020 HER Faith Ministries was assisting a mother and teenage son when the pandemic hit. They could not find emergency housing because everyone became overly cautious about COVID-19.
A portion of their office space quickly was transformed into living accommodations for the mother and son, who remained there for six weeks until an apartment was found. HER Faith Ministries assisted with move-in expenses so the family could become stable.
In another situation, the ministry found temporary housing for an immigrant mother with two daughters. The family now have their own apartment, and the mother has a job. “It’s always a good day when things fall into place as we hope they will,” says Sanford.
The past year of the pandemic has made Sanford’s mission even more difficult, but it has not diminished her commitment. She says the most critical way the pandemic has affected her work is the “psychological and emotional impact” of not being able to personally interact with people.
For safety reasons, she and her staff have limited direct contact with the women and children they serve. She misses the personal interaction, for that is how she got to know the women and their needs and was able to coax them into coming up with solutions to their problems. She regrets she has not been able to “offer love, prayer, guidance and support face to face over the past year.”
In addition, the pandemic has hampered Sanford’s ability to hold fundraising activities to support their essential programs. HER Faith Ministries also temporarily has suspended accepting donations of clothing and household goods. The agency’s Clothes Closet is well-known throughout the community.
People in need come in for garments, many wearing their new items when they leave. It is especially busy at the beginning of the school year, and church buses full of elderly people come often. That effort was curtailed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“But on the positive side,” she says, “we have seen an increase in general support from the public since the onset of the virus.”
Prior to accepting a call to ministry, Sanford enjoyed a diverse career in broadcast journalism and healthcare marketing. She feels that the work she performs now to help impoverished women and children is what she is “called to do.”
“The work of ministering to the poor or to those in prison is not something that everyone is called to do,” she says, adding that others are caretakers to children or to the elderly, while still others are nurses, doctors, lawyers, teachers, food handlers or police officers.
“We are all called to one vocation or another,” she emphasizes. “I think that God calls us to step up to ‘go the extra mile’ when he needs us to do so. These are the acts of those who answer the call to be the hands of God in a particular situation.”
Though she may not think so, Elaine Sanford is a special woman with a noble mission. We need more like her and the staff that supports her.
As she emphasizes, every action by an individual, business or agency makes a difference in the world. She says, “If we could all do just a little, then no one has to do a lot.”
Lynn Norment is a Memphis journalist who previously was an editor and senior writer for Ebony magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published in The Commercial Appeal.