COLUMBIA — Kenny and Karen Sherin live what might seem to be a normal life. Kenny holds a job and takes classes at MU for his doctoral degree. Karen stays home with their 4-year-old son, Matthew, and works out of their house. The family attends Memorial Baptist Church and volunteers regularly at Central Missouri Food Bank.
Yet spread out across the country, lives are affected by the Sherins' work each day.
The Sherins moved from Oxford, NC to Columbia for their work with Together For Hope.
They have served impoverished counties within these states:
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship established Together for Hope's rural poverty initiative. For more information on how to take part in various service positions go to: http://www.thefellowship.info/Serve
The Sherins are missionaries with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Their everyday jobs are among the most important things they do as missionaries.
The Sherins hold dear to their hearts children who live in situations radically different from their own thanks to Matthew, who just started preschool. For some children, walking to school in tattered shoes without enough money for lunch seems normal because it's how their parents went to school. The scenario is likely to be repeated with their future families. But the Sherins think that can change, and that's what their lives, and now their work, are about.
Being a missionary requires them to be the "non-anxious presence of Christ," a term used by the dean at Campbell University in North Carolina, where both Kenny and Karen Sherin attended divinity school. Kenny and Karen say that trying to be the presence of Christ is a 24-hour job that seeps into every aspect of their lives. It means loving people, not holding judgment, no matter the context in which they interact with someone.
The Sherins realized their work is an endless duty on June 19, when they stood in front of hundreds of Baptists in Memphis from churches across the nation to be commissioned as missionaries. The commissioning, a sign of support from their faith community, was only the start of their work with rural poverty. The Sherins have joined Together For Hope, an initiative of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship that has pledged to help the 20 poorest counties of the U.S. for the next 20 years.
The nation's poorest counties - in the Mississippi River valley, South Dakota's High Plains and Appalachia's isolated mountain towns - are struggling to overcome poor infrastructure, lack of jobs, generational poverty and more. These are not easy problems to fix.
Brian Ford, pastor at Little Bonne Femme Baptist Church in Columbia, has led groups to Together For Hope sites in southern Texas and the hills of Arkansas. "We're looking for long-lasting ways to help, not a Band-Aid fix," he said.
Kenny Sherin agrees.
"It's not about quick solutions, it's about long-term, sustainable projects," he said, referring to the counties' generational poverty, where a child's story is the same as his grandfather's. He added, in a voice solemn with experience: "We believe in ‘teach a person how to fish.'"
What many stuck in the cycle of rural poverty lack is not a work ethic, but hope, Kenny said. When things have been done a certain way for as long as someone can remember, it can be hard to hope for anything better.
Understanding that issue is part of what Karen calls "getting in their skin." People working with Together for Hope, she explained, might look at a family without indoor plumbing and be most concerned about upgrading it from an outhouse. "However, if what that family needs is a way to get food on the table, to them that's more important," she said.
Yet "getting in their skin" might seem hard to do, considering all 20 of the poorest U.S. counties are hundreds of miles from where the Sherins currently live. But, even in Columbia, the Sherins are doing mission work.
Kenny and Karen Sherin are known as affiliate missionaries, meaning the work that they do here, separate from and not paid as salaries by Together for Hope, is exactly what the initiative needs, Kenny said. If what Together For Hope is not doing is applying a bandage to impoverished communities - say it's more of an extensive surgery - the Sherins aren't the ones scrubbing up at the operating table. Instead, they're in the other room, gathering research from a computer monitor on the best and latest techniques that the most successful doctors have used. The couple is currently doing research on ways to help impoverished communities but could be moved to one of the poorer counties in the coming months.
Kenny, who is studying rural sociology and community development, is doing research keep Together For Hope at the forefront of the latest research methods. In one of his most recent conferences, he learned about the difference between an asset-based community assessment and a needs-based assessment.
Finding assets is something that Together For Hope is great at doing, Kenny said. When workers first go into a community, they don't start off on the wrong foot by pointing out what is lacking and what the need is. Starting with the assets, or what is working well, lets people know that they have something to contribute, he said.
He said pointing out what a community is missing is the wrong way to go because the community already knows its problems. "We don't need to tell them. Instead, you say, ‘You have a great library. We can build on that. We can start a literacy program with that.'"
Earlier this month, the Sherins left for a trip to a Together for Hope community in Kentucky to lead a conference with workshop topics on community development and partnerships. Community leaders were invited to speak in a setup where everyone had a say, Karen said.
Karen's affiliate status as a grant researcher and adviser helps Together for Hope best choose the organizations it can partner with.
Jeremy Lewis, manager of Together for Hope, also assists Karen in researching grants from an office in Atlanta. A part of what they are working on right now, he said, is a strategy for using grants without becoming dependent on them. He echoes the initiative's objective, stating that though the grant writing can help each of the target areas, "our hope is that (the program) is locally driven."
Through their work with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Together for Hope, the Sherins believe there are people that can be helped here in the United States, even in their own backyard - and they're ready to assist in that work.