A Time to Serve: Decatur woman finds purpose serving the community and church

By Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus

When Jo Ann Gentry spearheaded the creation of the East Acres outreach ministry in her mid-40s, she had no idea that the ministry would run for 21 years and impact hundreds of lives.

“All I wanted was for it not to be a one-time thing. My heart was that we would build relationships with the families at East Acres and show them that people really did care,” the 70-year-old Gentry said.

During her 50s and 60s, the outreach event peaked, hosting Christmas, Easter and back-to-school gatherings each year, reaching, at times, 150 children and adults, and involving dozens of volunteers from First Baptist Church in Decatur, where she attended.

“The senior adult group at church would come out and make and serve the meals. For some of them, that was the first time they had seen or interacted with people living in low-income housing,” Gentry said. “We need to know we all can be useful. Senior adults need to know they are still relevant and have so much to offer.”

For Gentry, the East Acres ministry was personal.

In the early 80s, as a single mother of three young sons, Gentry lived at the East Acres housing project in Southeast Decatur. She saw the struggles families encountered, she saw the grandparents raising their grandchildren, she saw the single parents trying to juggle full-time jobs with playing with their children.

“We lived there for three years. It was not the most ideal place, but we made it home,” Gentry said. “When I would get out and play ball with my boys, within 15 minutes we would have kids from everywhere coming out to play with us. When we finally were able to move and find better housing, I remembered those kids and how they longed for one-on-one attention.”

When the Young Professionals group at First Baptist was searching for a project, Gentry, who taught the group, mentioned the children and families at East Acres.

“That’s how it started. We went out there and gave the kids a safe, fun time. We had crafts and food. It was a huge success,” Gentry said.

From the outreach project, the connection between Gentry, First Baptist and the families from East Acres deepened. Gentry drove women to work and doctor’s visits and provided gift cards for food. Women from the church provided furniture for new residents in the neighborhood, and members transported residents from East Acres to the church on Sunday mornings for breakfast, Sunday school and service.

Gentry shared the story of two young boys who the bus driver picked up one morning.

“They were living alone. From them starting to come to church, they got connected with Alabama Baptist Children’s Home. One has earned a master’s degree and the other is working on a degree in physical therapy kinesiology,” Gentry said. “It’s a great story of how God, through the East Acres ministry, opened doors for other ministries that have impacted lives.”

When Gentry retired from Calhoun Community College in 2016, her outreach work expanded in the community and the church. She volunteered at the Neighborhood Christian Center, the Community Free Clinic of Decatur-Morgan County, wrapped gifts for the church’s Love in Action program, which provided gifts to 120 children, led prayer walks in Connecting Women’s Ministry and volunteered for the Alabama Baptist Children’s Homes’ Camp of Champions, which served 260 foster parents and 500 children last year.

“I always wanted to be useful. I even felt working was a ministry for me. That was my place where I could reach out and love people and serve,” said Gentry, who worked in financial aid, with Veterans Assistance and as administrative assistant to the dean of health sciences at Calhoun. “When I retired, I knew I wouldn’t just sit at home. I don’t think we are ever to just retire and do nothing. We all want to feel useful.”

While she typically works quietly in the background not wanting any attention, Gentry’s commitment to others serves as an example to others.

“Jo Ann actively seeks ways to minister, mentor and serve others. She intentionally looks for ways to help others in need spiritually, physically and emotionally,” Carloss Bauer, Gentry’s Sunday school teacher, said. “She welcomes the many opportunities to make a difference in the lives of families and children around Decatur.”

Blake Kersey, pastor of First Baptist, echoed Bauer.

“Jo Ann Gentry is the most compassionate person I have ever been around in my 20 years of ministry. She not only takes time to notice the needs around her, but she also sacrifices her time and effort to meet the needs God places in front of her,” Kersey said. “There is no one in our church who has served more individuals than Jo Ann. I have told multiple people that she is the Mother Teresa of Decatur.”

The desire to serve is innate in Gentry.

“It’s just who I am. It is a way I can spread God’s love,” she said.

As for her faith, Gentry attributed that to her father’s mother.

“My grandmother was probably one of the finest Christian women in the world. She had a real servant’s heart. She taught us how to pray. I think my sisters and I are where we are today as Christians because of her impact,” Gentry said.

Gentry, who grew up in Pensacola, Florida, moved to Decatur at the age of 26 with her three sons to be close to her sister.

“My late husband was a Vietnam veteran. Like so many men who came back from Vietnam, he was not the same. We separated because he got to be violent and used drugs,” Gentry said. “My sister came and got me and the three boys when the youngest was six weeks old and brought us back to live with her in Lawrence County.”

After she experienced her first summer in the un-airconditioned upstairs of her sister’s home, Gentry and her sons moved to East Acres.

“I remember one time a group came around East Acres and offered to pick up the kids for vacation Bible school. That was meaningful to me that someone would come and do that. I think that is one of the reasons I wanted to offer something to the families at East Acres,” Gentry said.

Along with her grandmother and sister, Gentry found support and inspiration from Full Life Fellowship, the church she attended when she moved to Decatur, and the older women of First Baptist Church.

Gentry, who is married to Michael Gentry, has three sons and grandchildren ranging in age from 5 to 23, hopes to continue serving her community and church. She plans on applying to volunteer at Decatur-Morgan Hospital and attends Bible study with two younger women.

“I love how God put us together and has allowed me the opportunity to share some of the life lessons God has taught me and that I’ve learned over my 70 years. They also minister to me and keep me plugged in and current in this fast-paced new world,” Gentry said.