Ephie Johnson’s life began during a historic time in Memphis, both within her own family and the city as a whole. As the impact of Dr. King’s assassination deepened civic challenges, Ephie’s parents, Monroe and JoeAnn Ballard, committed to a life of ministry. They first opened their home to children in need in 1968 — eventually fostering 75 youth for at least a year at a time — and then JoeAnn accepted the call to lead the newly formed Neighborhood Christian Centers (NCC). Growing up in this environment of service, Ephie first became a teacher. She then realized she could best fulfill her purpose by following her parents’ example and expanding the reach of the NCC. She now serves as the organization’s president and CEO, in addition to founding and operating Pop-A-Roo’s Gourmet Popcorn Shoppe and pursuing a vibrant singing career. As she prepares for the organization’s enormous Compassionate Christmas project, serving 40,000 Memphians, we sat down with this week’s unstoppable FACE of Memphis, Ephie Johnson.
Where were you born, and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in Collins Chapel [Connectional Hospital] on April 10th, which is six days after Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed, in 1968. My father, because of the curfews, couldn’t visit me as often after my mom had me. I was born into a very unique time in history, and so I always thought, Okay, God, You have a plan for that.
My mother was orphaned at birth, and my father was one of eight children who was raised in their little two-room house in Mississippi, so they had those very humble beginnings. My parents began to identify people in the community who needed help, and people would ask them, “Can you help my kid?” My parents took a two-bedroom home and turned it into a nine-bedroom home with five bathrooms. They felt like children who were disenfranchised, or who had issues in their upbringing, needed to have their own space, their own lock, their own house code. They never kept us from having, but they gave everybody else what we had. We all equally shared. To this day, I am very passionate about the underdog — the person who needs a chance.
When did you know that you wanted to move into having an official role with the organization?
Well, I was “voluntold,” first thing. I had been teaching school in Memphis for two or three years by this time. My window faced the main street where lots of people drove by, and I would say, “What are those people doing? Why are there so many people driving back and forth during this time of day while I’m here in this one space? Am I making a difference?”
My husband came and said, “Your mom wants to know if we will move to Decatur, Alabama.” We got commissioned by the organization, and we moved there, and we planted that office for over two and a half years. Going there was what helped me to see that what I was longing for was being cultivated. I was like, “Oh, I love doing this. I’m responding to what’s needed out there.”
What did you learn from watching your mother in that leadership role?
I saw strength and strategy. I saw love and sacrifice and selflessness. I saw creativity and ingenuity. You need money; I believe that. But she and my father taught me that there are ways you don’t have to have money to get things done. And that’s through relationships — investing in people. It takes time, but it doesn’t require more money.
Is there a specific story that represents Neighborhood Christian Centers’ ability to change an individual or family?
There’s a young lady who was one of my original cases. I’ve been working with her for probably 22 years. When I first started working with her, she probably had one kid, and there were environmental influences that I couldn’t take out of her path. She went to jail. She would come back, we would work with her, and I would not stop. I kept working with her until her kids got old enough to be in our programs. The oldest one — we got him certified, and so he’s off working. Then one brother chose another route, but he didn’t go to jail. And the last child, the daughter, is in college today. This is her first semester in college.
Her mom came up to our college meeting, and she said, “Y’all stuck with me until I could see my kids better off than me. You didn’t let me fail.” Even though she had moments of failure, we didn’t let her fall out of our circle. It’s been a blessing to see her succeed. We strive to work with families like hers, as long as they’ll let us be with them and as long as the Lord lets us stay open.
With all of your other responsibilities to manage, what inspired you to start your own business, Pop-A-Roo’s Gourmet Popcorn Shoppe?
Well, I wanted my children to understand what it meant to start something from scratch. They never saw Neighborhood Christian Centers from its beginnings. They didn’t understand what all we did. They couldn’t appreciate what I did or where I came from as a child to be a part of this.
It evolved from teaching my children to wanting to create entry-level jobs for primarily women who have gone through hard times — who have to restart or can’t work but a few hours a day due to other situations. It’s most definitely entry-level, but my goal over the next few years is that it becomes something significant for them. Something that they could do on a higher level.
How does singing help you balance out all the demands of your professional life?
Singing is my way of worship and my way of meditation. It’s a way of bringing me back to my center. What I do in music helps to not only encourage others, but it helps to encourage me. It helps to build me up, gives me peace when I’m stressed, and it’s my way of communicating to God. It’s probably my prayer language in some ways.
What are your favorite places to take visitors to Memphis?
Cozy Corner, Beale Street, Overton Square, Elvis Presley … I mean, I cover all these. But Cozy Corner restaurant, that’s just my jam. I love a four-bone rib plate and sweet potato pie. My husband and I like Central Barbecue too. And Crosstown Concourse. Of course, I’m in Crosstown Concourse, but it’s also just a really cool place.
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What is your best advice?
Know your business, listen, and take action.
Other than the big stuff like faith, family, and friends, what are three everyday things you can’t live without?
High heels, sparkling water and crème brûlée
Thanks to Ephie for the interview and Abbey Bratcher for the great photos!
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