Non-profit News Restaurants

Restauranteur’s Prayer Leads to Bigger Things

Cynthia Hart was driving down the interstate on her way to Wisconsin when she said a prayer she had repeated so many times before.

“What now, Lord?”

She had already established a successful business, Cyn Shea’s Cafe and Catering, but was considering retirement. Her grandchildren had all moved back to the area; her husband was retired, and Cynthia was wondering if now was the time to slow down.

“And you’re going to have to give me something bigger than grand babies,” Cynthia prayed.

As Cynthia cried out to God for an answer about where her life would go next, she flipped to a radio station that was playing something different. It was a woman, Carolyn Parr she would later find out, singing the entire biblical book of Revelation from memory.

Cynthia wondered: Had God really given this woman such gift of memory? “What more, Lord, do I have to give?” she prayed.

She listened to the song and the following interview as she drove through Nashville. These parts were moving at once—the prayer, the song, the solo drive across the country and the growing mystery of her future—and in weeks, those parts merged in what Cynthia says was a clear sign from above.

The Cookery

A few weeks later, Cynthia returned to Nashville on a business trip. This time, a tiny, hole-in-the-wall diner caught her attention. It was just another diner, like the dozens she had seen on her way to Wisconsin. But, as she drove through downtown Nashville, she couldn’t shake the feeling she needed to visit that particular one, The Cookery.

At the hotel, Cynthia picked up a copy of Edible magazine. There, in the glossy pages of a magazine that could feature any one of the thousands of eateries in the metro Nashville area, was a feature on The Cookery, that same restaurant Cynthia had just driven past twice.

There was no ignoring it. She could have shaken a feeling, but she couldn’t bypass such a tangible sign. Cynthia left the hotel and headed for The Cookery.

“By the time I walk in, I’m trembling,” Cynthia said. “I know I’ve been called by the Lord’s design.”

She learned The Cookery isn’t an ordinary cafe. The restaurant operates a 501(c)(3) ministry providing employment opportunities and education training for the homeless population in Nashville.

Cynthia met Brett and Merari Swayn, founders of The Cookery, who had aided more than 90 men in their move from homelessness to employment through their program in culinary and catering education.

Cynthia wondered if this could be the answer to her prayer.

She had hundreds of questions for Brett and Merari regarding their program, so Cynthia invited Chef Joey Kindred and her friend Fran Fluhler to join her on another trip to Nashville in a pursuit to learn more about The Cookery’s ministry.

And what a Sunday afternoon it was—three hours of questions and answers as the cafe owners began to meld a new friendship. Before departing The Cookery, Merari prayed.

“She prayed over me and the new revealing that was taking place. Then, she concluded with an even stronger prompt from the Holy Spirit by inviting me to return the following Tuesday, just two days later,” Cynthia recounted. “She and Brett were hosting a friend and missionary from Turkey that Tuesday evening who would be singing the entire book of Revelation by memory.”

It was Carolyn Parr, the same woman Cynthia heard on the radio. Everything was coming full circle.

If you’re listening to Cynthia tell the story, this is the moment the hairs stand up on your arms—a chill hits your spine and runs through your hair. The seemingly random moments came together when Cynthia heard Merari talk about Carolyn.

“We both knew this was the work of the Spirit, and He had our full attention,” Cynthia said.

Singing Revelation

There are 9,851 words in Revelation, the last book of the Bible, and Carolyn can remember every single one. The former missionary to Turkey decided to memorize the book in the event she ever got arrested by the increasingly anti-American government in Turkey. Like many Christians, Carolyn believes Revelation serves as a guide to the end of the world, predicting what will happen before Jesus returns, so she memorized the book to keep up with what was going on if she did get imprisoned. 

Carolyn affected so many people overseas, but her reach isn’t only for people in war-torn, Middle-Eastern countries. Carolyn’s talents are also used here, in the United States, to change the lives of women like Cynthia.

Serving Hope, Inc.

Cynthia made several other trips to The Cookery later to learn more over the next few months. She asked dozens of questions before ultimately deciding to create a similar model in Huntsville. She started Serving Hope, Inc., a program that reaches into the disenfranchised communities of Huntsville and trains residents in the skills needed for a successful food-service career. It was the answer to that original prayer—“What now, Lord?”—coming to fruition.

“The Lord convinced my heart that we still had more to do for this community with an even greater purpose,” Cynthia said. “I have the opportunity to pour some Jesus into some hurting people, while helping them find employment, change family structure and (give them) a long-term hope understanding this industry is not going to go away.”

Cynthia dissolved her 23-year-old business and formed Alabama’s first non-profit cafe and school—Serving Hope, Inc. The seven-month program trains people on everything from food safety to hygiene to finances.

She knew it wasn’t going to be easy to get the program started. It took thousands of dollars and more than a year working with an attorney and the IRS to get her 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. When it was finally awarded, her attorney confessed his office had been betting against him. They didn’t think it was possible.

While the 501(c)(3) was important, it wasn’t everything. Cynthia knew she would need divine intervention to make Serving Hope, Inc. happen.

“There is no business that can easily say, ‘I want to bring 17 students per year through our program at the cost of $8,700 per student’ and think that a panini is going do that.” Cynthia said. “Only God can do that.”

And He did. Over and over again God has proven Serving Hope, Inc. would be provided for, but they still need to apply for grants and ask for donations.

What started as a simple prayer turned into a calling, a new chance to share hope with the people of Huntsville.

And yes, this one was bigger than she could have ever imagined.

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