by Mark Frost
“She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.”
May 1, 1998. The speaker, Jack Reese, was relentless. He was addressing a church conference at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, one of the wealthiest enclaves on earth. My wife, Cheryl, and I were among the crowd of 3,000 mostly-white, middle-class suburbanites listening as Dr. Reese pounded away about Jesus’ dire warnings to the wealthy and His passion for the poor. Jack wouldn’t let us off the hook. He insisted that we were the rich people against whom Jesus inveighed. He offered no simple salve to assuage our guilt, no easy formula to help us justify our hoarded bounty. Instead, he demanded that we wrestle with two key questions: what would Jesus have us do with our wealth, and how are we—in concrete terms—to be Jesus to the poor folks we so easily overlook?
At last, Dr. Reese’s diatribe came to a merciful end and we filed out of the auditorium, grateful to be able to focus on the tasty lunch provided by the university. But Cheryl grabbed my arm and stopped me short.
“I know what I’m going to do about that sermon,” she said, matter-of-factly, “And it’s going to cost you a lot of money.”
Prophetic words from a true eshet chayil. I asked Cheryl what she meant. She explained that Emma, a friend from her days as a school principal, had recently sought her advice about starting a day care center in Detroit. The law in Michigan had recently changed, requiring every able-bodied welfare recipient to seek employment. Emma had witnessed first-hand the unintended consequence of this policy: single parents going off to work and, in the absence of affordable child care, leaving eight-year-olds to watch three-year-old siblings. She knew she had to do something. And Cheryl, during Dr. Reese’s talk, had concluded that it was not enough to merely advise Emma; she needed to dive right in and devote her considerable talents to addressing the need.
From that day on, I had a front-row seat as this woman of valor, along with Emma, founded a ministry called Children’s Outreach. I frequently doubted her sanity during the three years that she labored, without pay, to secure funding and approval for a small day care facility in the poorest section of Detroit. Then I watched, amazed, as she opened another center, and then another, ultimately serving over 100 children and their families.
Soon, Cheryl began hiring women from the communities served by Children’s Outreach, providing them with training and, most importantly, confidence. As they gained skill and experience, they too became women of valor, providing strength and security for their struggling families. Children’s Outreach never missed a payroll, largely because Cheryl never drew a paycheck for the first ten years of its existence. And Cheryl’s prophesy that day at Pepperdine did indeed come true: I wrote a lot of checks to Children’s Outreach over the years, often without knowing how we would meet our own family’s obligations. But God always provided.
Cheryl was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last July. On March 17 of this year, I kissed her forehead and said a final goodbye to my eshet chayil. My loss is, of course, beyond words. But there’s one thing I have learned: women of valor leave legacies that multiply blessings to families and communities. Children’s Outreach continues as a family-service organization specializing in child-abuse prevention and empowering mothers to rise above the challenges of poverty.
Cheryl also left her mark on our daughter Caren. She has inherited her Mom’s deep compassion as well as her entrepreneurial savvy. Each week, Caren invests hours of volunteer time working as the Director of Business Development for Hill Country Hill Tribers, a non-profit that empowers Burmese refugee women to become women of valor. HCHT provides the resources for them to design, create, and market beautiful handcrafted items, using skills passed down for generations.
As a father, I find special joy in seeing my daughter develop into the same kind of eshet chayil that her mother was. And I know another father who experiences the same joy. He’s Jack Reese, the speaker whose challenge spurred Cheryl to found Children’s Outreach fourteen years ago. Jack also has a daughter. She and my Caren are closest of friends. Her name is Jessica, and she is HCHT’s Executive Director. Who could have known that Jack, through his challenging words, was awakening the woman of valor in Cheryl, while at the same time, through his life of faith, shaping a woman of valor growing up in his home? Or that Cheryl’s example would lead her daughter to enter a partnership with Jack’s daughter that would inspire and equip countless more women of valor?
Mark Frost is a semi-retired minister who has served churches in Brockport, NY, Cincinnati, OH, and Trenton, MI. He currently serves a church in Petoskey, Michigan. He enjoys flying, cycling, and playing with his grandchildren.
This post is part of our Women of Valor series. Eshet chayil—woman of valor— has long been a blessing of praise in the Jewish community. Husbands often sing the line from Proverbs 31 to their wives at Sabbath meals. Women cheer one another on through accomplishments in homemaking, career, education, parenting, and justice by shouting a hearty “eshet chayil!” after each milestone. Great women of the faith, like Sarah and Ruth and Deborah, are identified as women of valor. One of my goals after completing my year of biblical womanhood was to “take back” Proverbs 31 as a blessing, not a to-do list, by identifying and celebrating women of valor. To help me in this, you submitted nearly 100 essays to our Women of Valor essay contest. There were so many essays that made me laugh, cry, and think I’ve decided that, in addition to the eight winners we featured in August, I will select several more to feature as guest posts throughout the fall.
We have honored a single mom, a feisty professor, a midwife, a foster parent, an abuse survivor, a brave grandmother, a master seamstress, a young Ugandan woman who reached out to a sister in need, and many more.
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