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Soul Sisters Want to Shake Up Memphis

May 6, 2014

In the year 2001, two women met at a Collierville garage sale – one white, one black. A deep and loyal friendship began that might just change the course of Memphis history.

It was an unlikely match. To any casual observer, Lorie Affatato and Earnestine Hunt (now Rev. Dr. Hunt) had little in common. But something clicked between them that day, and 13 years later, the two women are described by others as close and alike as “two peas in a pod.” The history of their friendship brings tears and hope and inspiration to those who hear it. It is a story of Memphis and about Memphis and yet set apart from the experiences of most Memphis women.

Lorie and Earnestine are Soul Sisters. Their friendship is a model for the rest of us.

friendship is color blind

When Earnestine Hunt was a student at Memphis Theological Seminary, pursuing a doctorate in faith and health, she looked out the window of the student center one day and saw a typical Memphis scene: a group of white students, talking and socializing, were gathered together on one side of a pole. On the other side of the pole was a group of black students, doing the same. On the pole was a sign. It said:

ornate peace

She pondered, “Now here we are in the 21st century, learning how to minister to the masses, and we can’t even minister to each other.”

“Of course,” she adds, “God asked me what I was going to do about it. So that is how Soul Sisters came about. God laid it on my heart to join with a sister of another race, and for us to establish an intentional friendship to help heal racial relations here in Memphis.”

Lorie Affatato became that sister of another race. Together, the two worked side by side to expand the ministry concept to other women, holding events at churches and in their homes. Their  friendship blossomed, despite many challenges and obstacles set up by others.  When Lorie moved to Orlando, Florida, the friendship continued but Earnestine was faced with finding another Memphis Soul Sisters partner.

Then, a little over two years ago, Earnestine happened to be in the lobby of Methodist University Hospital. She noticed a striking, blond woman, professionally dressed, striding through the lobby. The woman suddenly stopped and spoke tenderly to a little African American girl, three or four years old with a head full of braids, giving her a warm hug. Earnestine did not know the woman but was moved by her kind action. She approached her and said, “You are going to think I am crazy, but God told me to come talk to you. My name is Chaplain Earnestine Hunt. I have a group called Soul Sisters and I am looking for a white woman of some influence to help me with this project.”

The kind, blond woman was Shelby County Commissioner Heidi Shafer, who also works for a radiology practice at the hospital. Heidi says, “The second I heard her dream, her program, I knew  it was something I wanted to be involved in.” So Commissioner Heidi Shafer and the Rev. Dr. Earnestine Hunt became Soul Sisters, and the vision was refreshed.

(l to r) Lorie Affatato, Earnestine Hunt, Heidi Shafer

(l to r) Lorie Affatato, Earnestine Hunt, Heidi Shafer. Photo credit: Lawrence Crozier, Blue Star Photography

 

“I have learned that there are people in this city that have a heart to do the right thing, that love genuinely, ” Earnestine told  Tammy Gaitor Miller on Tammy’s Butterfly Evolution  radio show (Mondays, 8:00 p.m., Blogtalk radio). “And Heidi and Lorie are two of those people. I met Heidi’s heart first .  .  .  She is a beautiful spirit. She didn’t have to take the time to talk to that little child.”

“I love both Lorie  and Heidi,” she added. “I have known Heidi just a short period. Lorie and I had so much warfare, faced so many stumbling blocks when we were beginning our friendship and  Soul Sisters. But Heidi has been able to come in like a rushing wind and make so much happen to move us forward. They are both angels. We want other women to have the same experience.”

“What we believe,” said Heidi, “is that the differences in the races and the divisions that we have are sitting like a dark cloud on our city. Memphis is a great, wonderful place to live. It is largely a Christian city, but this division is keeping us back, keeping us from working together. I see it everyday in medicine. I see it very much in the political realm –  little things, where you wouldn’t think your skin color would make any difference, but it does.”

garbage strike 1968 display

National Civil Rights Museum Exhibit

The three women quickly discovered a powerful common denominator – a strong, traditional Christian faith. That faith informs the vision of Soul Sisters. Earnestine quotes the scriptural verse, “Behold! I do a new thing” as inspiration for the Soul Sisters concept. “We are trying to do a new thing by encouraging black and white women to come together and have intentional friendships in Memphis .  .  . You ask how we overcome (the racial divide). We overcome by love. By loving on each other and understanding each other. Jesus wants us to do that. Jesus said that love covers, and we just want to cover each other with love.”

Heidi adds, “What is unique about Soul Sisters and the vision that God gave Earnestine is that we are relying on the Holy Spirit to do the work that we can’t do. The Holy Spirit can soften your heart. Jesus said, ‘I will make all things new,’ and we are a new creation. Coming together, we can be new creations  .  .  . we can free ourselves by talking about (our issues) openly  and trusting God to do the work. The worst that can happen is that you get some good girlfriends out of this.”

When asked why the program is focused on female relationships, Heidi replied, “We believe women have a particular influence on the culture. Women change the culture .  .  .  We  believe that women, bit by bit, two by two, will have an influence on our city simply by getting to know each other.  .  . There is nothing that will make someone any more human and more open than having a friend. Women are gifted in that. We just want to have some girlfriends and have fun, and build that network.”

group at ss tea

Soul Sisters Tea attendees. Photo credit: Lawrence Crozier, Blue Star Photography

Over 80 new Soul Sister relationships were launched at a Soul Sisters Tea held on Saturday, February 15, 2014 at Harding Academy. Women representing  different races and ethnicities (largely African Americans and Caucasians) enjoyed a bountiful afternoon tea, laughed, talked, made new friends, and were matched with a Soul Sister for a year of “intentional friendship.” No rules or strings were placed on the new relationships.

“If we do this right and allow the Spirit to lead us,” according to Heidi, ” these friendships will mature in a way that is natural. We are not going to force them into a crucible and say you have to meet so many times, or keep a journal and graph it, and do all those things that make it boring. We as women will be able to relate to one another about the things that we share.”

Heidi shared her experiences growing up on a farm in Nebraska, where hard physical labor and frugality were survival skills; then going to an international boarding school where she lived with girls of extremely varied backgrounds, many of them from families of extreme wealth. “I felt very disconnected from that  (lifestyle). What finally helped me to get to a place where it didn’t matter so much, is that I finally realized that underneath, when I got a chance to know them, they were just the same as me. If I could relate to them on a safe and personal level, if I could see them as a child of God, they didn’t seem so foreign to me.”

On Saturday, May 17th, the Soul Sisters will meet at Shelby Farms for an afternoon picnic. New Soul Sister match-ups will share their successes and struggles after three months of attempting cross-cultural bonds of genuine friendship. The relationships are not  expected to conform to an artificial timetable. The organizers know that, while some pairings might find instant camaraderie, as did Lori and Earnestine; others will have to take “baby steps” to find common ground and bridge cultural divides.

paper dolls diversityLorie Affatato shared her experience moving from Memphis to South America, where she lived with her husband for 17 years. “I learned so much about different cultures. I lived in a melting pot among Portuguese, Turks, Arabics, people from all nations. My husband  and his family are Italian, so I was also immersed in an Italian culture within an Hispanic culture. When I returned to Memphis, I felt like I had traveled the world even though I had lived in just one place.

“Until I moved away from Memphis and lived in another country, I never had the opportunity to understand what it meant to be a minority. Living among people with other cultures and other languages . . . I had to learn how to be humble and treat people as I would want to be treated and love unconditionally.  When I came back to Memphis I felt very estranged, like I didn’t belong.   I had a change of heart and a change of attitude about people who were different from me. The change was I didn’t see them as different from me. They had the same pains and joys and struggles as me. Maybe they were different in some aspects, but as far as looking into their hearts, they had the same feelings that I did. For me, it was life changing.”

Rev. Dr. Earnestine Hunt (l) and Lorie Affatato (r) singing at Soul Sisters Tea, February 15, 2014

Rev. Dr. Earnestine Hunt (l) and Lorie Affatato (r) singing at Soul Sisters Tea, February 15, 2014.

“I made a decision to befriend Earnestine in a way that I knew would be a real challenge for me and my family the way I was raised. I knew I was stepping out and firmly making a decision so that my three daughters would see that their mother was befriending someone different from people she was usually around.  I wanted them to experience that in a way that would be life changing for them. I guess I was naïve to a certain point. I didn’t think it would be as difficult as it was, just for my family.  .   .  I had to make hard decisions.”

Lorie explained that her own family and her church family responded to her friendship with Earnestine in ways that caused her deep hurt.

“I’ve moved past it but haven’t forgotten what that felt like” she goes on. “Thanks to God –  and I have waited for Him patiently – He has decided that today is the day to make changes. It’s not hard to love, It’s easy.”

Lorie is currently organizing Soul Sisters International. Her 14 year old daughter, an infant when the original Memphis Soul Sisters met, has started her own Soul Sisters club.

All women are invited to become a part of the Soul Sisters mission to heal Memphis’ race relations, two by two and friend to friend. Follow Soul Sisters on Facebook and sign up for the May 17 picnic at the Facebook event page Soul Sisters Spring Picnic.

cartoon black and white girls


 

This article is part of a continuing series (announced in our April 24, 2014 post, Reflections on a Black and White Memphis) highlighting people, programs and organizations focused on bridging  Memphis’ yawning racial divide.

Know a person or group making a difference in bringing all Memphians together?Email us at eve@backinrivercity.com or use the Comment section below. (Don’t forget, Back in River City is also on Facebook.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jennifer Proseus permalink
    May 13, 2014 11:49 pm

    This is a beautiful story, Eve. Thank you for sharing it!

    ~Jennifer

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