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Shirley Sheppard first sang in a church choir when she was about 11 years old.
Her family didn’t attend church regularly. In fact, she says, “we weren’t even the Christmas-and-Easter-type people.” But with an uncle who was a pastor, and an aunt who would talk about a cousin who was “so good that she would certainly go to heaven,” Shirley had frequent reminders of her own inadequacies when it came to spiritual things. She knew she wasn’t good enough.
Over time, her mom started sending the kids to church on Easter at the small black Baptist church located through the block from their home. “She didn’t go with us, but she’d dress us up and send us,” Shirley remembers.
And in her own desire to somehow do better, Shirley decided one year that she would go to church on Easter but that she would start a week earlier and attend on Palm Sunday as well—and that after Easter she’d keep on going to church. She suspects, however, that her good intentions might not have lasted—but for an invitation from a girlfriend to join the church’s junior choir.
“God really connected me to that junior choir,” she says. “We’d have practice every Saturday, and if we weren’t singing on Sunday, they’d have us help usher. I didn’t really understand much of what was going on, but every week I was in church because of the choir—and over time I started to hear the Gospel, and it started to sink in.”
One week, the church’s regular pastor—a stern man who was more than a little scary to Shirley—was away. Filling in that Sunday was the prison chaplain, a man who “just talked,” Shirley says, as he was giving his sermon. “It was like he was up there in the pulpit and we were just having a conversation.”
Shirley realized that day that she could never be good enough and that she needed to ask the Lord to save her—but she hesitated, wanting to think about it a little more.
The next week, when her regular pastor was back, the Lord continued to speak to Shirley. Even so, she resisted. “But this time the Lord said, ‘No. You need to make that decision now.’”
So when the pastor invited those who wanted to put their faith in Jesus to the front of the church, she walked forward, and there she invited Jesus into her heart and life.
A Church Home
Even after Shirley graduated from the junior choir to the adult choir, that little congregation continued to be her church home through her teen years, and it was there, during a week of youth revival services, that Shirley saw her mother come to Christ as well.
Once again, it was music that played a role, as her mom made a last-minute decision to attend one of the meetings that her daughter had helped to plan. And although her mother had no problem with the contemporary music being sung, it was an old hymn, “Just as I Am,” that brought her, weeping on her daughter’s arm, to the front of the church. It was there that she prayed a prayer of repentance and asked Jesus to be her Savior.
When high school graduation neared for Shirley—and it was time to think about college—she didn’t have a clear idea of what she wanted to do next. But when a friend started to talk about nursing school, Shirley was interested.
Her father, who was a nurse himself, had no encouragement for his daughter as she considered a nursing career, especially when she said she was considering going overseas to be a missionary. Even so, she completed nursing school and then headed to Moody Bible Institute for additional training.
Her dad eventually came around—at least to the idea of a career in nursing—and was very proud of his daughter’s accomplishments.
Shirley never really left Chicago, realizing over her years at Moody that what she had interpreted years before as a call to the foreign mission field had more to do with a firm push from her pastor back in Pennsylvania, who had a strong desire to send “one of his own young people” overseas as a missionary.
“God kind of changed that whole plan,” Shirley says.
Living in the city, working with ministries including Inner City Impact and launching her nursing career, Shirley continued attending Moody Church, as she had throughout her years of study at Moody. But because there were few other black people in the church, she decided to be part of a predominantly black church that had been planted by a Moody professor. There she became deeply involved in the music program—even helping the small church obtain new choir robes for use in Sunday services. But one day she felt a definite tug to return to the larger—almost entirely white—Moody Church.
“That first Sunday back,” she says, “I looked up in the choir loft, and there—although I didn’t know it at the time—was my future husband.”
Where did you come from? I wondered.
A friend, who knew of Shirley’s musical talent, wondered why she never joined the Moody Church choir. “Because you have to audition,” Shirley told her friend. But at the friend’s urging, she overcame her reluctance to sing for the choir director.
Leaving the choir room the night of her audition, Shirley had her first meeting with the young black man from the choir. His name, she learned, was Isaiah.
Shirley joined the choir, and she and Isaiah sang together every Sunday—but a full year passed before they actually had a conversation. “For that first year,” she said, “we barely spoke to each other. I think it was because we were pretty much the only two black people our age. And I thought, People are just going to put us together.
The pattern of silence was broken one evening when Shirley was visibly upset about some things going on in her life. Isaiah noticed and asked how she was doing.
“I told him I was going through some changes, and he said he would pray for me,” Shirley says. “That was the beginning, and over time, God used that choir to bring us together.”
Marriage and Family
Shirley and Isaiah eventually married and started their family, but a series of teacher strikes and other problems made the Chicago school system worrisome to the young parents, so they went looking for a home in the suburbs.
Hearing about an agency that would help them find a home, they made contact, but they learned that the group’s goal was to assist black families in moving into communities that were more than 99 percent white.
The Sheppards had some concerns, but they knew someone from the Moody Choir who lived in Downers Grove—a town that qualified—so they proceeded with house hunting, found a home, settled in, and loved it. They’ve stayed for more than 25 years.
It wasn’t long after moving that they realized they needed to find a church that was nearer their home. At the recommendation of a friend, they began attending Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington. Their children flourished there, and the family carted van loads of kids and friends to services and youth programs.
And while there was no opportunity for Shirley and Isaiah in the worship ministry at Willow Creek, their young daughter—extremely shy at the time—found the same kind of connection to music that had marked Shirley’s ties to the church in her own preteen years.
In a music/drama program for kids, their daughter came alive, and demonstrated remarkable talent and on-stage charisma. “When we saw her perform,” Shirley said, “I was in total shock.” Today, that once painfully shy daughter is a professional actress.
The drive from Downers Grove to the South Barrington church had always been a challenge, so when their son was invited by a friend to visit a church near their home, the whole family ended up attending—and Mom, Dad, and Son soon joined the choir.
“One Easter service,” Shirley says with a smile, “there were actually five of us singing in the choir.”
The Sheppards were so pleased to once again be part of a music ministry—which made it especially disappointing when a well-loved choir director left to help launch a music ministry overseas and when, not long after, the church made changes to its worship style and ended the choir.
Even so, Shirley and Isaiah continued to sing with a community choir, where they met up with an old choir friend named Charlene.
Shirley was really missing the opportunity to be part of a church choir and was surprised to learn from her friend that such a choir existed—in a good Bible-teaching church not terribly far from their DuPage County home.
“Charlene told me that her church had a choir of about fifty voices,” she said, “and that they have an orchestra almost every week! Are you kidding me? What church has a choir anymore?”
Today Shirley and Isaiah are at home in the Wheaton Bible Church choir loft during Thursday-evening rehearsals and Sunday mornings during the 8:15 traditional worship service.
“Ross Heise is the director, and his standards are high,” she says, smiling. “But what I’ve found in this choir is what I’ve been dreaming of: a heart of wanting what God wants for us. Seeking the Lord’s heart and following it.
“Since we came here,” Shirley adds, “we’ve never looked back.”
When Isaiah and Shirley prepared for a duet, singing a Gospel song along with the choir, she was really nervous. “I was terrified,” she said. “But the other choir members were just holding us up. What ended my fear was coming to the place where I felt as if God had given me permission to sing that song. It was one of those stunning moments,” she said of the way God took away her nerves.
Music isn’t the only way God has confirmed that He brought Shirley to WBC. Earlier this year, she was a member of a GO Team to Soddo Hospital in Ethiopia, where God used her medical training and experience in an unexpected way.
As the GO Team headed to Ethiopia, the others on the team knew that Shirley is a pediatric nurse at the University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago. But Shirley and another woman on the team, who is an occupational therapist, had been told that they likely would not be using their medical training on the trip.
It was only after the team arrived at the hospital in Soddo that the others learned of Shirley’s extensive knowledge and skill in wound care—a much-needed specialty that was put to great use with patients there.
It was Shirley herself who saw all the patients who had wounds that needed treatment and offered to help. “I hadn’t expected we’d even be doing any nursing there, but they kept me busy the whole time.”
Although God long ago redirected Shirley’s path from overseas to Chicago, His rich plan for her included the opportunity to see how He used her in His work in Ethiopia.
“It was amazing,” said Susan Wegner a member of the GO Team and WBC’s Global Outreach associate, “to see how God used Shirley there in Soddo Hospital, in ways we had never anticipated—and using nursing skills we didn’t even know she had.”
From a childhood invitation to join a choir, God has drawn Shirley toward Himself and deepened her connection to His church. She and Isaiah became members of Wheaton Bible Church earlier this year, finding in this local church the perfect place for this stage of their lives—a place to grow and to serve together in an area of ministry that brings them great joy.