“I’ve got 56 unread text messages and 42 missed phone calls,” Sharkeeta Stevenson says as she unlocks the doors of New Outreach Christian Center in west Charlotte.
She’s joined by her father, Norman Stevenson, the chief bishop of the church. He moves around the dim sanctuary stoically, seemingly in his own world.
Though the father and daughter appear okay, they won’t deny they’re hurting.
A day earlier, the family’s matriarch, Pastor Brenda Stevenson, died at the age of 66 at Novant Presbyterian Medical Center, surrounded by her husband and two adult children, Gerald and Sharkeeta Stevenson.
Sharkeeta, the eldest of the two, said her mother’s death was preceded by a series of events that started a week earlier.
The siblings had plans to take Mrs. Stevenson to the movies — her favorite outing — to see “Respect,” the new Aretha Franklin biopic starring Jennifer Hudson.
Mrs. Stevenson was excited and wanted to get ahead of the pain she often faced as a wheelchair-bound amputee, so she took something she rarely did — prescription pain medication.
For two days straight, Mrs. Stevenson took the prescription medication, which unbeknownst to her, expired in 2018, her daughter said.
“With the prescription medication and her taking (other) over-the-counter (medication), it caused her to have kidney failure, and with diabetes, it was hard to recover from that,” Sharkeeta said.
As Mrs. Stevenson’s health deteriorated, her family and doctors prepared for her transition.
In the moments leading to her death, Sharkeeta said, the family played gospel music and had a “shouting good time.”
“She was peaceful, and she went with a smile,” Sharkeeta recalled. “She wasn’t in pain. It looked like she was just sleeping like an angel — a real life angel.”
Brenda Stevenson was born on July 23, 1955, in Eden, N.C. She attended school in Eden before moving to Charlotte, where she graduated from McArthur Academy in 1971. In 1974 she married Norman Stevenson.
The young couple was newly married when hard times hit. One Christmas, Mrs. Stevenson got laid off from her job at a daycare. The Stevensons had no money to buy gifts, so they decided to stand in line at a toy giveaway.
At the very last minute, after a hefty wait, they received gifts for their children.
“My mother said, ‘One day I’m going to do this’ from that experience. And she did. She did this in our community, all of my life,” Sharkeeta said.
Mrs. Stevenson’s philanthropic efforts in Charlotte can’t be denied. She did it all, from starting a food bank to helping the homeless. But perhaps the biggest achievement was founding New Outreach Christian Center in 1982, with her husband and co-pastor.
The church, steeped in serving the needs of the needy, called the north side of Charlotte home until, in 1995, it became the target of what was alleged to be a racially motivated arson.
The ministry found a new home at 3900 Gossett Ave in west Charlotte, and Mrs. Stevenson kept going with her mission — being there for the hungry and those in need.
Lucille Puckett, a community activist and former Charlotte mayoral candidate, spoke during a telephone interview of Mrs. Stevenson’s philanthropic spirit.
“She had an open heart, a giving heart, a giving spirit,” Puckett said. “She was a resource for everything, for all. If there was a need or if there was a gap, she was that filler. She filled the gap.”
Puckett recalled how the pastor remained an ever-present giver and encourager, ever since they met more than a decade ago.
Whether it was volunteering to officiate her son’s wedding or encouraging her to run again for mayor, Mrs. Stevenson was a constant voice and hand.
“She was a mother and a mentor, and that’s why I called her “Mother,’” Puckett said. “The last time I spoke with her a couple of weeks ago, I was talking about my run again for mayor, and she told me I had to do this — to do what God has for us to do. I said to her, ‘I will,’ and I will.”
While Sharkeeta turns on an industrial fan to cool off the sanctuary, Mr. Stevenson ambles up to the pulpit and takes a seat in his designated chair. He sits quietly and unassuming.
“That’s where he and my mother sat for the past 30 years,” Sharkeeta says, looking on. “Now he’s sitting there alone. I know he’s thinking about her. They spent 48 years together.”
The church door creaks, signaling someone has arrived. It’s Gerald Stevenson, Sharkeeta’s brother and the Stevensons’ son.
Gerald says his mother’s death has been a whirlwind of emotions, between knowing that she’s okay and present with the Lord, but also hurting and missing her physical presence.
“I miss mom,” he says, “mom’s embrace, wisdom, strawberry pies, her love, her caring, her example as a role model. That often comes upon me, and then God comes back and strengthens me.”
Gerald says he finds strength in the memory of his mother’s encouragement and her legacy as a trailblazing woman who “didn’t back down from a challenge.”
“As a woman pastor, sometimes she wouldn’t be received, but she was one that didn’t mind having the odds against her,” he said.
One of those times came in 2020, during Mrs. Stevenson’s run for an at-large seat on the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioner. In the Democratic primary, she garnered 12.4% (48,475) of the vote, finishing fifth out of eight candidates.
Gerald said his mother’s political ambitions were purely to do more for the poor and less fortunate.
“Her heart ached for the hungry and those that are needy,” he said. “She wanted to make a difference on a higher scale. She knew that her political influence would be able to help more needy people and impact more in the county. She just didn’t cut it that time, but the fact that people were rallying behind her was a blessing.”
Sharkeeta’s iPhone is now dinging with messages of condolences, while Mr. Stevenson remains seated in the pulpit. He’s quiet as the industrial fan hums along.
The family is at the church to “look for papers” to make arrangements for the funeral service.
On her death bed, Mrs. Stevenson made a request.
“She said to us, ‘Take care of your father, and don’t let the church go down. Keep the outreach going,’” Sharkeeta recalls.
Mr. Stevenson remains pensive. The Stevenson children, despite the circumstances, are in good spirits. They say it was “embedded” in them.
“Mom’s favorite words to live by was, ‘Don’t worry; everything will be alright,’ says Sharkeeta. “And that’s truly what we believe.”
A public memorial for Mrs. Stevenson was held Saturday in the church’s parking lot.