We are learning about the life of Karen Williams on the blog today! She lives in West Helena, Arkansas, and she is the executive director of Together for Hope Arkansas, part of a coalition from Cooperative Baptist Fellowship which seeks to help the poorest rural areas fight poverty. Originally born in Detroit, Michigan, but was raised in Helena/West Helena, Arkansas. She graduated from Central High School there, and she married her high school sweetheart, James L. Williams, a few years after that. After they got married, they moved to Oklahoma, where Reverend Williams got his call to ministry and pastored a church there. Their family grew, and they made their home there for about 30 years before moving back to Helena, so Rev. Williams could pastor his home church there. They have served this church for 17 years.

Over the past several years, Rev. Williams has suffered four strokes, which has affected his ability to walk and preach. Karen and their nephew have stepped in to preach at the church in his place. In addition to this, she takes care of her husband. She says, “The Lord has given me strength to be his primary caregiver…My biological father never was in my life, but I can see how the Lord has been my Father—my heavenly Father—and how He’s carried me through all these instances in my life. And with my husband being my partner, you know, we took our vows…’for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,’ so we’ve been through everything…right now, we’re in the ‘sickness and health’ [part].” She credits God for blessing her to be her husband’s caretaker. And she credits her husband for affirming her in preaching and teaching their congregation. “He supports me. You know…women preaching or teaching in the ministry, it’s been a struggle for a long time. He’s my encourager….whenever I get up to speak, he says, ‘let the Lord use you!’ So, he’s not one to hold the Lord back when He wants to use someone!”

When I ask her to tell me the story of how she was led to Together for Hope, she says, “[at that time], I was the supervisor for the Phillips County Developmental Center.” She was also taking care of her husband then, so it was hard for her to find balance. It was very stressful for her. So, at Age 62, she took an early retirement. She spent a long time praying, asking God to provide something for her to do that would allow her to prioritize her caretaking job for her husband, but would also allow her to serve her community. Her daughter had some connections with Together for Hope and told her about the executive director position opening. “I really am invested in the youth in our community, and their families, because if you build up the family, you can have a better community,” she says, with great conviction. This conviction paid off, because she got the job! And she started in March of 2022.

There have been many challenges and many blessings in her work, both at home and with Together for Hope. She says, “I’m a very ‘behind-the-scenes’ kind of person…When [my husband] got sick, I became in the front because of being ‘the first lady.” This is a phrase she says is used in the African-American Baptist church to describe the pastor’s wife. “You can imagine someone kicking and screaming before the Lord, but being obedient…through that…the Lord has given me a sense of maybe caretaking for the congregation because they look to me for support and guidance…” she humbly says, describing the transition in leadership in their church. The congregation has been a huge support for her and her family, but the kids she has helped through her job in Phillips County Developmental Center and Together for Hope have also been there for her. Many of the students she has worked with fondly call her “Mom.” She thinks back on seeing some of them around town, “They would see me and say, ‘Hey Mom, what do you need? Can I help you do [such and such]?’….It’s not me. It’s the love of Christ IN me…even in this interview, I’m like ‘Lord, let her see…you in me because me  ain’t going to look too good!’”

At this point in the interview, I suggested the idea that maybe caretaking is leadership. The Hebrew word for “helper” in Scripture, which is “ezer,” is used in plenty of places for God, Himself.She told me more stories about her experiences, which are too in-depth to discuss here. But she did tell me who her mentors in leadership are. This relates to caretaking in leadership because Karen is the first person I’ve interview who has mentioned her children as some of her mentors. She credits one of her daughters for connecting her to Together for Hope, and for pushing her to apply for that position. She also credits her other children for always supporting their family and for supporting her leadership! Tyris, Tia and Taren are her children’s names and she wanted to make sure they are recognized here. As well as other mentors, like the late Rev. Levi G. Smith and Rev. Victor A. Paul, who have “mentored me into developing into who God is calling me to be.”

Together for Hope is an amazing organization, and Karen has big plans for the future. Many African-Americans have not learned how to swim, for various reasons, and Karen has been excited about connecting the people in her community with swimming as a way to push forward in learning. Volunteers from many places in surrounding states will come help with Bible study, swim camp, sports and crafts, which helps bring people in the Helena/West Helena community together. Another plan she has is helping young people prepare for the future after high school. “Our young people…want to work! …If you’re 17 or 16 years old and you don’t have anything to do for the summer and you don’t have money, you get in trouble!…so that’s my passion…to teach our young people—to educate them—on job readiness.” She continues to say that job readiness not only helps the young people, but “it helps the family, as well.” She mentioned one kid she corresponded with last summer through her work, “He said, ‘I gave my mom some money so she could…get our school clothes.’” Then she added, “I always get teary-eyed thinking about it, but [another kid said] ‘I got this special backpack for school!’ …if you get them excited about going to school, and doing this stuff, they’ll do better!” She added the point that kids are just like us…if they feel good about themselves, they’ll reach for higher goals. So, she wants to reach for higher goals, too! She mentioned a possible partnership with the mayor for this summer youth program. And she addressed the potential youth volunteers needing to learn interview skills, which she would like to educate them on, and involving their families, whether it’s just the mother or just the father, or, if possible, both, “so the kids can have the involvement of their parents.”

Karen has done so much work in her Oklahoma community, and in her Helena/West Helena community, and we thank her for sharing her story here with us!

A Benediction for the Caregiver Leaders

You have given up so much for your people
Your hopes
Your dreams
Your energy
Your time
Your love

Maybe you’re teaching your people
How to hope
How to dream
How to be energized
How to spend time
How to love

To your hopes and dreams and energy and time

You who are deemed “weak,” are our teachers
Thank you

And keep listening to that voice inside of you that says
“Well done, my good and faithful servant.” And…
“many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first.”

-Written by Katie Mitchell

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