Sister Shirley – A Woman of Valor

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

By Amanda Peterson

It was our usual Wednesday night gathering.

We gathered at Sister Shirley’s, filling her small living room with our presence. Our church life group.

The place was rich with the aromas of hot-off-the-stove soul food. The kind of soul food steeped in butter and rich in Southern hospitality—Southern hospitality in the middle of Portland, Oregon.

Like she did every day, Ms. Shirley woke at four in the morning, went to work, worked a gruelling shift and came home tired to her great granddaughter, all of four years old and full of spunk and sass.

Wednesdays made for especially long days, when coming home meant spunk and sass plus cooking and preparing her home to receive.

But Sister Shirley wouldn’t have it any other way.

She sometimes complained about our Wednesday night gathering, but she knew if she gave it up, if she told anyone she didn’t have the strength to host anymore, she would never come again.

Sunday mornings, her only day off of the week, needed Sabbath solitude. They needed quiet and rest.

They did not need the heart-pumping stomp of relentless praise that echoed through the neighbourhood and filled up our two-story house church. They did not need the throngs of children, screaming as they played on the front lawn. They did not need the orderly chaos of Sunday morning church.

They needed quiet and Sabbath.

But Wednesday, Wednesday needed fellowship. Wednesday needed Bible study. Wednesday needed prayer. Wednesday needed the push to get her through to Sunday.

Wednesdays Shirley sat on her worn sofa, the cushions so misshapen around her they barely looked like cushions anymore. She gently rocked back and forth when she spoke, unconsciously rubbing her hands across the scared track marks lining her arms. Her voice, scratched and deep, told how she needed prayer to be able to love her boss and continue at her job even when she wanted to quit, even when she knew God still wanted her there. She asked for prayers for Woman at the Well, a small nonprofit she was starting for women to do what others had done for her—take them off the streets, out of prostitution and drug use and teach them about Jesus’ great love for them. And she listened to Pastors Lanny and Steve—titles they never themselves used, but she always insisted upon—she listened and she learned and she allowed them to challenge her and to speak grace into her life.

Sister Shirley had, without me knowing it, taken me under her wing-- a freshly plucked college graduate in Portland. 

She taught me about relationship and valuing relationships. She taught me what it meant to be poor and love Jesus. She taught me what it meant to be in recovery and to give yourself wholeheartedly to the One who rescued your life from the depths of the pit. She taught me about grace and love and forgiveness. She taught me about faith in the impossible.

On one of my last Wednesday nights before leaving Portland and moving off to a new adventure, Sister Shirley looked at me and told me how she mistrusted me at first, how I was young and arrogant and how she thought “Lord, here comes another white person to tell the poor black folk how to live.” Then she told me how she had changed her mind about me and how she had seen my arrogance slowly humble. She told me she knew, no matter where I went, among the poor I would always find a place, I would always be accepted because of how I loved and how I accepted people like they are and didn’t expect change.

It was the best compliment I ever received and one I try to live up to.

Here was this woman of valor, a woman with a past yes, but nonetheless a woman of valor, giving her life away so that women like her could become even more like her in the pasts they leave behind and the futures they see ahead—here she was telling me I belonged and would continue belonging no matter where I was because of the way I loved. That way of love learned from watching her and others like her.

Sister Shirley passed away a few years ago.

I like to think of her now, up in heaven, enjoying a lifetime of Sunday Sabbaths and Wednesday gatherings. I like to think of her sitting on Jesus’ couch, telling her story and asking her questions. I like to think of running into her again one day, hugging her tight and laughing at the long years passed. And I hope then, I hope this woman of valor will say to me, “Amanda, just look how you belonged.”



Amanda is a Jesus follower, future adoptive mom and a fledgling writer. She believes in living simply and loving radically and is passionate about adoption and orphan care. You can read more from Amanda, follow her on Twitter at @AmandaEPeterson, and find her on Facebook here.

This post is part of our Women of Valor seriesEshet 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. 

Read the rest of the Women of Valor series here.

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