MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - While hauling in the groceries on a recent Monday morning, Bennetta Carter let her tears fall quickly, but without commotion. She has responsibilities, so it's a skill she learned to quickly release the grief when it comes. Her children - four of her own and the two she's been raising since her sister died in 2013 - shuffled in and out of the kitchen, catching glances of the woman who has continued to make a way for them, despite all that has happened.
Their home, filled with the spirits of lives lost, as Carter put it, was recently rebuilt and refurnished thanks to the generosity of strangers. In February of 2019, Carter and the kids woke up in time to make it out of the house before flames engulfed their bedrooms. Carter's husband, Larry, did not.
"Nine years, just literally gone," she said about their relationship. Overnight she became the sole provider for six babies who had already gone through immeasurable trauma.
They all moved two houses down to live with their grandma, who was Carter's right hand in helping to raise the kids until she twice contracted COVID. Fearing for her life, she hasn't left the house since.
Amid the grief of another death, through the hardships of losing her home, and then, having to navigate all that came with the pandemic, Carter said she couldn't help but wonder why God was putting so much on her. What had she done to deserve all of this?
Something had to give, or she wasn't sure she was going to make it, Carter said. Her faith had been tried, repeatedly, and she was doing so much all on her own.
Things began to change after she was invited to lunch by a woman named Brooke Freeman.
Freeman founded Beauty by Fire Ministries, a nonprofit dedicated to helping hundreds of widows throughout the River Region. She didn't know much about Carter's story, just that she'd been through a lot.
Looking around the beautiful home that she moved back into on Christmas Eve of 2020, Carter pointed to the furniture donated by people who'd also been widowed. They learned of her testimony through Freeman's group, a ministry that spearheaded the effort to rebuild the home for Carter and her children.
"I would have not believed from that one phone call to now that so many people would have cared about me and my family and my situation," Carter said.
"Everything was here, down to the toothbrushes," she recalled.
To Freeman, it wasn't about building a house, but creating a home that Carter could someday feel comfortable in. She asked which pictures to frame. She selected motivational sayings to scatter throughout.
"This was not just a project for her," Carter said. "You can paint and do all of those things but it's not like she just came in here and said, 'bloop.' We sat down, we prayed. ... She did so many things that had nothing to do with this physical environment."
Carter's home is the largest project Freeman has taken on, but her thoughtful approach can be seen in all that she has created through the nonprofit.
Because of her ability to think deeply about another woman's story, her willingness to keep her own grief raw to connect with others, and the selflessness she has shown in her dedication in caring for widows, Freeman is the Montgomery Advertiser's July Community Hero.
"If it weren't for Brooke and everyone who comes with her, I would have given up," Carter said. "She truly saved my life in more ways than one."
PROTECTING THE MOST VULNERABLE AMONG US
Freeman was 28 when she became a widow and quickly learned that status came with emotional implications, as well as practical ones.
In the first several weeks, widows are swarmed with support to help on both of those fronts. Then things tend to slow down.
"All of the calls and cards kind of subside, and reality sets in," Freeman recalled.
It was Thanksgiving Day in 2007 when her first husband, Jason, was killed in a tractor accident. Freeman then had a small child and a six-acre farm to tend, on her own.
After such a sudden loss, all of the responsibilities, "they become so big in front of you," Freeman said. "It became a moment in my life when my faith was almost clouded out."
But, "The Lord was very gracious and patient with me and saw me through that season," she said.
In 2014, Freeman was asked to meet with a woman who was recently widowed - a request she believes represented a larger calling that was placed on her heart.
"'I'm ready to start using you. I'm ready for you to start loving others and have good come from Jason's death,' " she felt God was telling her.
Scripture calls for extra care to be given to widows, Freeman pointed out.
She had no idea then where that one lunch would lead. Six years later, her ministry is rooted in an organized network of about 300 women that walk alongside one another as fellow widows. Because of the many partnerships that Freeman has established, they are receiving support, both emotionally and practically.
There are the monthly luncheons, the service day projects, the Thanksgiving meal that is provided, the care packages, the biblical counseling and so much more.
"It's about entering into life with them - to sit across the table with them and to clean their toilets and organize their cabinets. To just be a presence," Freeman said.
All of this, she said, is a sweet way to honor Jason's memory.
"He was probably one of the most giving people that I knew. ... He was always very willing to give up his time to other people, and I think that he would be very honored to have his memory served in this way. He would be on the front lines if he were here. He'd be right there doing it as well."
'YOU CAN STILL LIVE AND YOU CAN STILL GIVE'
Ahead of July, Jean Knight had a stack of greeting cards addressed and ready to be sent out throughout the month to some of the women in her care group. With the ministry growing in such high numbers, Knight and about a dozen other widows were asked to take on the role of community care leaders. Their job is to ensure no widow in their care group feels unseen or unheard.
Knight's cards acknowledge birthdays, anniversary dates and widow dates - each date for each widow labeled in an organized binder.
After joining the ministry, Knight remembers the first time she received one of those cards.
"It helped me get through that date," she said. "It just makes you feel like you're not out floundering in the water."
Grief, she explained, can come in waves - like you are in a calm stretch of water one moment then thrust into a chaotic downstream the next.
Her husband, Ozzie, died three years ago after a lengthy battle with skin cancer. The pair were married for over 50 years. He came home on his lunch break most days and the two met up for afternoon coffee breaks, too.
"I just started crying and crying," Knight said about the first football season to roll around after Ozzie's death. She hadn't expected a game to be such a trigger, but they'd watched football together for decades.
"They'll just blindside you," she said about these moments. "But, then you get through it and you go to some of these ladies and you laugh and you say to yourself, 'There's nothing wrong with me.'"
Being a member of the group, she said, has helped her in many ways. Having spent so many years as a caretaker, she'd stress about leaving Ozzie at the house alone after he got sick, but then he was gone. Becoming a care leader gave her a new purpose.
"It lets you know you can still live and you can still give," Knight said. "It lets you know you can be useful for the Kingdom of God and you have a place."
Additionally, "the camaraderie - that you're not alone and you have others you can call on, too ... This is not a club we want to be in, but this is our lot in life that God has chosen for our husbands to go on before us, so we just help each other."
THEY ARE SEEN
Freeman recently met with a widow in the ministry after learning about the conditions of her home.
Joined by members of the Home Builders Association, they went through the house and took note of what needed to be done: The toilet had been leaking; the electrical and lighting fixtures were finicky; there were holes in the drywall throughout the house.
"We will talk through and pray through how all of this will work," Freeman told the widow.
It might feel overwhelming and slow at times, she added, but in time their lives would be easier with a safe and more functional home.
Thanks to the support of the builders association, much of the labor and material costs will be covered.
This partnership, along with the countless others that have been established, is the only way Freeman's nonprofit is able to assist so many of the widows who often don't have the means or don't have a trusted person to call on.
The fellowship is what allows the ministry to understand what needs each widow has.
"The most common thing that is told to a widow after (her husband's death) is to 'Call me for anything,' and they mean it. It is genuine, but the reality is that widows won't call," Freeman said.
In knowing this firsthand, she is now offering churches throughout the community formal training on how to better minister to widows. The training is focused on how to build relationships in ways that will allow the needs of a widow to come out without her having to directly say it.
"It is our privilege and our desire to come alongside and lighten some of the loads that crowd Jesus out," Freeman said of the ministry's main purpose. "And at the end of the day, if we can take one to two things off of her or help in a small way so that she can experience Jesus more fully, then I feel we are walking in our purpose."
For women who have lost their husbands, whether just recently or years ago, she said she wants them to know they are seen.
"When you experience such great loss, you can sometimes feel forgotten or isolated, and I want to remind them that it's not us that sees them, it's the Lord that sees them. He sees their needs, their grief, their loneliness, and he makes provisions for all of that. He meets us in whatever place we are, and in his timing he allows us to come alongside one another."