Realtors will tell you that East Nashville is trending right now, with vintage homes selling for sky-high prices. Craft breweries, hot restaurants, young professionals … it’s a happening place. But all of that seems light years away from the Community Care Fellowship (CCF) ministry, a single-story building just a block off Shelby Avenue.
CCF caters to the poor and homeless. The building is attached to the back of Nancy Webb Kelly United Methodist Church and tucked into a space next to the James Cayce Homes. Its mission is to provide meals, shower and laundry facilities, education, advocacy and more.
The customers here aren’t likely to frequent the upscale eateries in the area, unless it’s to scrounge the dumpsters out back. This is the domain of Rev. Toi King, a fountain of enthusiasm who supervises operations from her alarmingly well-organized office, and who can’t go for more than five minutes without uttering her catchphrase, “God is good.”
King, who also serves as pastor of Nancy Webb Kelly UMC, is currently wrapping up her studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Between that and her duties at CCF and in the church, she’s a busy woman. But she’s more than eager to stop and reflect on a career path that she firmly believes is divinely inspired.
“I wanted to be an accountant,” she laughs. “But God had other plans for me.”
Road to ministry not a straight path
King studied at Nashville State Tech, and then began doing computer accounting work for Shoney’s corporate office. Over time she also worked for other companies, and eventually for the state of Tennessee’s corrections department. Around this time, she developed complications during a pregnancy — she has three children, two daughters and a son — and found herself at home with time to think about her future.
“I was asking God where he wanted me to go, and grow, once these babies were older,” she recalls. “And then my husband decided he no longer wanted to be married to me, so my life took a very sharp turn.”
That was 2001, and suddenly King was a single mother of a middle-schooler, toddler and infant. She was living in Donelson and knew that she needed to go back to work right away. A longtime member of Nancy Webb Kelly UMC, she took solace in a sermon about Lazarus.
“I felt dead, too,” King says. “But I knew that God wanted me for something. I was watching a sermon on television where the pastor said that if you want something, you need to reach for it, ask for it. So I stood up in my living room, threw my hands up and began praying out loud while the babies just stared at me and my teenager rolled her eyes at Mama screaming and shouting again.”
New jobs, new direction
That Monday she began temping in accounting services, and eventually landed a job with a local company that provided for her and her family. Then, in August of 2007, the company moved all accounting functions to its corporate offices and she found herself two weeks away from being out of work. Just prior to that, she’d been thinking once again that perhaps number crunching wasn’t where she meant to be, and she’d begun exploring new avenues.
“God has blessed me with people skills, and sitting in an office all by myself wasn’t the best way to be a people person,” King says. “Not long before my job ended, I was listening to the radio and a commercial came on asking, ‘Do you want to go back to school? Are you unable to keep traditional school hours?’ I said ‘yes’ and kept on typing, but then I picked up the phone and asked my pastor if the church could help me with the application fee if I wanted to go back to school. That’s how I wound up at Aquinas College.”
Two weeks later she was standing by her car, box of desk supplies in hand, newly unemployed, in jeopardy of losing her house — and a new college student. Once again, her faith was her rescue and refuge.
“I was in a bad spot, but I knew if God closed one door, he’d open another,” she says. “I took the kids to school and came on over to the church. I walked upstairs to Community Care Fellowship, because I didn’t really know what they did here. All this time I had been a member of the church, and knew they helped the homeless in the back and upstairs, but that wasn’t anything to do with me. I wasn’t homeless, you see. But within a few weeks I would lose my house, move in with relatives, then stay in hotels, and then be homeless. So suddenly I knew what CCF was all about.”
King was unable to access any assistance programs because she did not meet various entry criteria, and eventually applied for public housing while she began volunteering some hours at CCF. Then came the day the executive director at the time, Rev. Shirley Majors-Jones, called her up one day to see if she could work her shift.
“I didn’t know what to say, but she told me all I had to do was pray over the food and tell people to lower their voices, and I knew I could do that,” King says. “I was so scared, but I blessed that food in a big way, and it all seemed to be OK. I’ve been here ever since.”
That was in October 2007, and she eventually became CCF’s full-time associate director in early 2008 when Rev. Majors-Jones retired. She now shares duties with Rev. Pat Freudenthal, who serves as executive director. Soon she began to see that CCF was the perfect place for someone with an eye for detail and solid people skills.
“Things began to unfold for me,” King says. “I watched how things run. I noticed that all these guests needed help, and that some were more eager than others to get it. I saw where there were gaps, where there were services available but the guests couldn’t connect to them. I began to see what my purpose might be.”
The ‘look-up’ girl finds her niche
Every question deserves an answer in King’s world, and so soon she became the ‘look-up’ girl, a source of information on everything from bus routes to who to contact within the Social Security administration regarding disability assessments.
“Different agencies would come in, and I began looking more closely at them,” she recalls. “One guy came in from a halfway house and made all kinds of promises about housing and jobs if our guests would live there, and afterward two gentlemen came to me and said, ‘Miss Toi, don’t send anybody there. It’s not a good program.’ I told them I would take ownership of these things. Now I talk to any agency that wants to come in here and make sure they know not to come into this building and promise our guests anything they can’t deliver on. If you tell our guests you can do something, you make sure you do it. I log it, and I hold you to it.”
That goes for guests, too, because CCF’s resources are too precious to be wasted on those who won’t take full advantage of them, she adds.
“I am an advocate for our guests, and that means making sure they get to where they are supposed to be, and do what they are supposed to do,” King says. “I have covenant with the agencies and with our guests. I have made friends and developed contacts within many agencies, and we invite them here to hold classes and use our space to help connect guests with services. We also make sure that when we get a blessing, such as the donations that fund our bus-pass program, that those guests use those passes wisely, and get to where they are supposed to go. In all things, I have to be a good steward.”
Divinity school completes the circle
King’s recent background in homelessness and the social-services system made her an ideal conduit between CCF guests and the larger community, but soon she once again had that nagging feeling that there was another portion destined for her plate.
“I was working here, and I was lay leader at the church, so I was here a lot of the time,” she says. “I grew up around homeless people, and if Jesus could have been an African-American woman, then he was my grandmother. I wasn’t afraid of this environment, but I just knew there was something else.”
Once again, the tap on the shoulder came from Rev. Majors-Jones, who asked King to preach a sermon. King said no. Then, as she was moving laundry from the washer to the dryer at home, an inner voice told her to preach every fifth Sunday. This time, she took the hint.
“She just asked me what I was going to preach on,” King says. “I had no idea how to construct a sermon, so I just talked from my personal experience.”
The subject was ‘Get ready, get ready,’ and once she took the pulpit King figured out what was next on her learning curve.
“It was very liberating,” she says. “It was just me talking, and I knew I wanted to do it again. But I still didn’t want to be a preacher. I thought I might be a lay pastor, or deacon. But everything was being shaped by my job, and I soon figured out that I’d need to be an ordained minister to make that happen. I say ‘I figured out,’ but what really happened was, I got tired of running and accepted what God wanted me to do with my life.”
As she explored divinity-school options, Vanderbilt’s program soon became a clear favorite. She sent an application along with a $50 money order to cover the fee (both prayed over extensively), and soon after received admittance along with an academic scholarship.
“I was in the car just carrying on, and people were knocking on the window to see if I was OK,” she says of the day she got the good news. “It’s been on ever since.”
King completed a local-license program in 2013 in order to become associate pastor at Nancy Webb Kelly, and became senior pastor this year. She shares CCF duties with Rev. Freudenthal, who now also is senior pastor at Trinity UMC. In between her church and CCF work she has become supervising director of the church’s Dare To Dream afterschool program, so it’s a rare day that she’s not onsite for one reason or another.
“I am baked into this pie now,” she laughs. “But I love it. I am not sure where God will take me down the road, but this is it for me now. I am past content — I am happy. Everything I need to do is right here.”
Her commute is shorter these days, as she lives nearby with her two youngest children, the eldest having finished school and moved to Clarksville. Her at-home daughter attends the Nashville School of the Arts magnet school, and her son is at Meigs Magnet School.
“Everything we’ve tried to do, we’ve achieved,” she says. “Every door has been opened for us. We have had a hard struggle, but God has been faithful to my family and me. God is good.”