Carmel Lynn Hemphill was a teenager with an angelic voice the last time she stood on the Marion Cultural and Civic Center stage. Wearing a flowing white dress, she conjured up the image of a beautiful Snow White singing her way through a musical fairy tale, leaving her audience spellbound.
Called “Candy” from birth, she was born into Southern Gospel royalty as the daughter of Joel and LaBreeska Hemphill. For many years, The Hemphills have been one of the top groups in the industry.
Candy Hemphill quickly became a powerhouse lead vocalist in the family band. After marrying dynamic evangelist Kent Christmas, and assuming the real name of Candy Christmas, her stature continued to grow and she dreamed of becoming a true gospel music superstar, like Amy Grant or Steven Curtis Chapman.
Despite being widely recognized as one of the best female vocalists in the business and a regular participant on the immensely popular Gaither Homecoming series, when her career didn’t reach the heights she had hoped for during a rigorous decade-long effort, she became clinically depressed to the point of nearly needing to be medicated.
In the middle of her pity party, a friend took her on a ride in her hometown of Nashville and told her to look at the Jefferson Street Bridge. Throngs of cold and hungry homeless people were crowded under the structure. As she gazed at the needy, Christmas instantly realized her calling was not to be a platinum-selling artist. It was to tend to the flock under the bridge.
In 2004, she started The Bridge Ministry. It had humble beginnings. Her first visit was with a large pot of jambalaya, and seven people showed up. The next week, she brought more food and clothes to hand out. The crowds started to grow as she won their trust. In a city with 11,000 homeless, the need was great. She started soliciting donations, and the project rapidly grew.
Services start at 6:00 p.m. each Tuesday under the bridge in Music City, with a check-in for volunteers at 5:30 p.m. Special speakers and musical guests are invited each week. Attendance ranges from 200-250, but has peaked at 500-plus.
“I always had a desire to help homeless people, I just didn’t know where to start,” Christmas said. “It is literally a church under a bridge. We set up a sound system, chairs and lights and have a ministry under the bridge. We feed a hot meal to homeless people and give them all the groceries they can carry.”
The business of operating The Bridge Ministry is the primary focus of her life, but she still finds time to record and hit the concert trail.
Christmas displays her pitch perfect vocals on recent album release “Hymns of Heaven: First Love.” It contains 12 of her favorite gospel tunes, songs that ring through Southern Illinois churches every Sunday morning, like “Sweet Beulah Land,” “In The Sweet By And By,” “Eastern Gate” and “Precious Memories.”
The album “On the Other Side” was released in 2010 and was her first new recording in seven years. It contains touching original “There is a Blessing (On the Other Side),” written by her daughter Jasmine, as well as reworked classics like “Jesus On The Mainline,” “Since I Laid My Burdens Down” and “Orphans of God.”
Listening to her infectious voice, dripping with Southern charm and hospitality, it’s easy to tell why she has personally won six Dove Awards from the Gospel Music Association. Soon after appearing in Marion in the early 1980s, she joined the band Heirloom and won another Dove Award.
Her album “Heart Afire” was nominated for Contemporary Gospel Album of the Year in 1984.
Christmas likes to say she was “born into a record contract.” Singing is definitely in her genes. Her grandmother was a member of the iconic Happy Goodman Family. Candy recorded her first record when she was 13.
It has taken over 30 years, but Christmas is returning to the Marion Cultural and Civic Center. She will be appearing at 6 p.m. on Feb. 9. The Galloways will serve as the opening act. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door. For more information, call 618-997-4030.
All proceeds from the event will be donated to The Lighthouse Shelter in Marion, a faith-based organization started in 2007 to provide food and shelter to the homeless in Southern Illinois. Operating from a defunct nursing home in northeast Marion, the facility can provide services for up to 60 people at a time.
Christmas says it is basic human nature to want to help others going through hard times. Giving is therapeutic. Her depression is gone. She urged individuals to pitch in with a donation to The Lighthouse Shelter.
“People say I’ll give when I get rich or when I when the lottery. We can’t wait. There are people that need our help,” she said. “We have to take action now. Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Find a bridge in your community. There is always someplace to start.”
The Bridge Ministry has produced much fruit. There are many success stories of people rescued from the depths of drug abuse and, through contact with the bridge ministry, have rebounded to a productive live. Christmas details many of these stories in her book “On the Other Side.”
VINCE HOFFARD can be reached at 618-658-9095 or email@example.com.