Cover Story: Gary Palmer

Cover Story: Gary Palmer

Congressman Gary Palmer’s American Dream

Congressman Gary Palmer took the oath of office for his second term representing Alabama’s Sixth Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives earlier this year. As the country adjusts to policies under the new Trump administration, he will continue to serve as the voice of Jefferson, Shelby, Blount, Bibb, Chilton, and Coosa counties in Washington, D.C. A Christian since childhood, Palmer has used politics as a platform to demonstrate respect, conservative values, and the exciting realities of the American dream.

Palmer and his wife Ann live in Hoover and attend Briarwood Presbyterian Church. Their children, Claire, Kathleen, and Rob, graduated from Briarwood Christian School and then attended Auburn University.

A native of Hackleburg in northwest Alabama, Palmer says growing up in a rural part of the state meant playing in his grandpa’s barn with his brothers and the boys that lived down the road. He hunted in the woods and worked in the gardens on the family’s 40-acre farm, raising cows and picking strawberries. Palmer’s father had grown up during the Great Depression and dropped out of school in the eighth grade, so when Palmer made education a priority and graduated from the University of Alabama in 1977, he was the first member of his family to receive a college degree. “For me it was an opportunity to open the door for the rest of my family,” he remembers, noting that his younger siblings followed his lead and went into careers in banking and engineering, then his mother went back to school as well. “My mom had finished high school but always wanted to be a nurse. She went to community college and got a nursing degree. It was a transformative moment not just for me but for my whole family.”

While at Alabama, Palmer was a walk-on wide receiver for Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. He still carries with him the lessons he learned on the field. “I remember us losing the first game of the year in 1975 to Missouri; it was on a Monday night, and it was a team that I think had only won one game the year before.” The three-hour scrimmage Coach Bryant put the team through the following weekend was one of the hottest, toughest football practices Palmer had ever attended. The turf burn on his forearm left a scar that didn’t fade for 15 years. “We went undefeated the rest of the year. Losing that first game illustrates how you’ve always got to be prepared. You’ve always got to do your best, and you can’t take anything for granted. Losing that game probably cost us a shot at the National Championship.”

Gary Palmer is one of at least 75 members of the House of Representatives who sleep in their offices in Washington, D.C. He says Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy do the same. “Our work load is extremely heavy,” he says. “I also do it because I don’t want to be a resident of Washington, D.C. I am a resident of Hoover, Ala., and I come home every week.”

Palmer earned a B.S. in Operations Management and worked in the private sector for 12 years before attending a summer Counseling Enrichment Program at Focus on the Family that inspired him to found the Alabama Family Alliance. Now the Alabama Policy Institute, the non-profit research organization is a “conservative think tank” that informs Alabama citizens on legislative issues being debated in Montgomery and Washington, D.C., and challenges public policy with research, analysis and recommended solutions.

Palmer’s involvement with Focus on the Family also gave him the chance to meet American philosopher and Christian author Dallas Willard. Willard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines made an impact on his commitment to spiritual practices. “A lot of people are disciplined in what they eat and their exercise regiment and it’s all about the body and health—I’m all for that, I do that myself—but there’s also spiritual disciplines that help develop the whole person,” he says. Palmer writes devotionals based on personal reflection and Bible study and says that while they are mostly for his personal benefit, he shares them via e-mail with his peers.

Elected to the House of Representatives for his first term in 2014, Palmer says faith directly overlaps with his duties as a Congressman because faith defines his character, and character influences every decision he makes. Some people expressed surprise when he shook hands with Hillary Clinton at the conclusion of the 2017 Presidential Inauguration. He says simple courtesies are a matter of living out his faith. “It’s never wrong to show respect. It speaks more about your character how you treat people you do not necessarily agree with or do not like than it does how you treat people you do agree with or do like. In politics, we need to pay more attention to [the fact that] we have an obligation, particularly as a Christian—especially as a Christian—to treat people with respect.”

As he enters his second term representing Alabama’s Sixth District, Congressman Palmer uses Facebook, Twitter, and to inform local citizens on important national issues, his committee work, and new bills and resolutions sent to the House floor for consideration. He also makes stops like this one in Hoover a few weeks ago to meet with constituents face to face.

Citing the 1 Corinthians mandate that believers are to be the aroma of Christ, Palmer says after a particularly tough meeting with some of the Democrats in Washington, D.C., he recently reminded another member of Congress that their goal should be calm collaboration. “I said that Romans teaches us that as much as it is possible for us, we are to be at peace with all men. An aroma is not a stench—it’s pleasant.”

Reflecting on how far he’s come since his boyhood days in Hackleburg, Palmer says the opportunity the U.S. affords its citizens is perhaps unmatched by any other country in the world. “There is very good ingenuity among the American people. They are hard workers. They are confident workers, and I see that in the people of Alabama. They are good neighbors,” he says. “Here’s a guy that grew up pretty much dirt poor with a dad who was a logger with an eighth grade education, and now he is in Congress. I don’t know that there’s any country in the world where that could happen. And I’m not the only story like that up here [in Washington, D.C.]. That’s one of the beautiful things about this country is that if we’re willing to work hard, we’re disciplined, we’re willing to make some sacrifices, we have patience—we can go as far as our abilities will take us.” Palmer is quick to point out those abilities come from God and he leans on God daily for direction. “Prayer is like breathing,” he says. “It’s really been helpful to me knowing that my future is not in my hands or any human hands. It’s in His hands.”

  • Camille Smith Platt 

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Special Feature: Laura Story

Special Feature: Laura Story

WORSHIP with Laura Story

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Laura Story won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Christian Music Song, “Blessings” in 2012 and a Dove Award for Inspirational Song of the Year, “O Love Of God” in 2015. She is a native of Spartanburg, S.C. where she sang in the church choir as a child and played bass and keyboard as a teen for the band Silers Bald.

GRAMMY award-winning artist Laura Story was launched into the spotlight when her single “Blessings” spent 28 consecutive weeks as the No. 1 hit on Billboard’s Contemporary Christian chart in 2011. The song was inspired by her husband Martin’s diagnosis with a brain tumor, and it resonated with an audience that admired her candidness about adversity. Martin had survived treatment and surgery—but not without significant damage to his brain. What Story thought would be a detour in her husband’s health ended up the “new normal.”

Preparing to release a new album on March 3 and perform in Birmingham at Shades Mountain Baptist Church on March 9, Story celebrates the milestones she once wasn’t sure her family would reach 6 years ago. While still impacted by vision problems, short-term memory loss and a suppressed immune system, husband Martin has been able to work part time as a baseball coach. The couple also has three children—a four-year-old daughter and twin two-year-old sons. The Senior Worship Leader at Perimeter Church in Atlanta since 2005, Story says strong relationships in the church and the pursuit of a deeper understanding of worship have strengthened her as a mother, a wife and a songwriter in recent years.

“I was just with a group looking at Psalms 73, which talks about as believers the perspective change we experience as we come into the presence of God. And not just the presence of God—it talks about the sanctuary of God, referring more to corporate worship,” she says. “It’s a perspective change that happens when we meet in God’s presence with God’s people. That has been a lifesaver for me because when I do have those low moments, [I know] that if I belong to the Lord then I’m not walking through this alone. I have both His presence guiding me and comforting me as well as His people surrounding me and pointing me toward Him.”

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Laura Story and her husband Martin Elvington live in Atlanta, Ga. with their three children Benjamin Cary (2), Griffin James (2), and Josie (4).

Story published a detailed account of finding deeper intimacy with Jesus amidst her fight for her husband’s health in the book When God Doesn’t Fix It in 2015, and last year she began classes for a doctorate degree in worship at The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. Focusing on how God’s people have worshipped Him throughout the ages and what God’s Word says about how He should be worshipped today, Story says what she is learning is helping her grow in her ability to coach her younger fans on being intentional about how they come together before the Lord. “The Lord continues to open up doors for me to be equipping this next generation. I don’t want to tell [them] this is how you worship, because I feel like God’s doing a new thing there,” she says, “but I do think there are good biblical principles I can instill in these young’uns then step back and see what God might do through them.”

Biblical principles of worship, Story explains, include prizing the reverence of God and making sure a worship service becomes a meeting place between God and His people, “where they get to hear the voice of God through the sermon, through the truths, and then they get to respond to Him through prayer and song and celebrate the things that He’s done.” She calls leading worship a “weighty responsibility,” a job not to be taken lightly or handed off to any person with musical inclinations.

At home, Story says teaching her children truths about God’s presence and expectations has been a blessing of its own. “As much as we strive to be good parents, we [will] fail, but [we point] them to the God who never will fail,” she says. “That’s what my parents did for me, and that’s what I’m trying to do for my kids.” Besides giving her children chances to catch her living out her faith or reading her Bible, Story makes home an atmosphere of grace and repentance. “I think about a time I lost my patience: my daughter was being unbelievably disobedient, and I totally lashed out at her. I went to her and said I need to ask for your forgiveness. I yelled at you, and I want to be more patient. Now it’s your turn. So she apologized to me for being disrespectful, and I said let’s pray together and ask God to make both of us more patient and more respectful.” Story admits, “It’s kind of a new concept for me–parenting like that–but gosh there’s so much about parenting that I’m learning, and more than anything I am just staying on my knees asking Him to show me the mom He wants me to be.”

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Hear Laura Story sing songs from her new project Open Hands and old favorites, March 9 at Shades Mountain Baptist. Her new project is available for purchase at Sanctuary Christian Books and Gifts in Alabaster beginning March 3.

Story’s new album, Open Hands, is a product of seeing worship not just as the words she sings but the very posture of her heart. “True worship is more than adoration; it’s coming before a faithful, trustworthy Father with open hands. Whatever comes, let me not respond with clenched fists as if I know best. It’s not just saying, ‘Hey you’re great God,’ but saying, ‘Because you are great, I want to give my life to you. Because you are trustworthy, I’m going to trust you with this hard thing.’ We buy into that myth that greater peace comes when we have greater control. But the Bible actually teaches that greater peace comes when we get to a point of letting go.”

Join Story in worshipping God through song March 9 at 7 p.m. at Shades Mountain Baptist in Hoover. The concert will benefit the Samford University Legacy League, which provides scholarships for students with significant financial need and challenging circumstances. For tickets, call 205-726-2853 or visit


-Camille Smith Platt

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Choose Joy

Jesus Calling Author Sarah Young


Sarah Young is seen here in the sunroom of her Nashville home- her favorite place to sit and focus on God and pray without interruption. She emphasizes the importance of quiet time with God particularly when we are deeply discouraged and don’t understand His ways. “It’s crucial to stay in communication with Jesus—clinging to Him and His Word,” says Young.

Rejoice always! This is one of the shortest verses in the Bible, but it is radiant with heavenly Light. I made you in My image, and I crafted you with the ability to choose Joy in the moments of your life. When your mind is going down an unpleasant, gloomy path, stop it in its tracks with this glorious command.” – Excerpt from Jesus Always

Best known for her 365-day devotional Jesus Calling, author Sarah Young ’s personal journey toward joy in the Lord has been forged through unbelief in her youth and chronic illness in adulthood. Specializing in devotions meant to be read slowly with the Bible open, her newest book, Jesus Always, encourages readers toward intimacy with Christ as they look for joy in every circumstance. Young recently shared with Birmingham Christian Family about her life experiences and intentionally choosing joy in 2017.

As a philosophy major at Wellesley College in the 1960s, Young was a non-Christian searching for truth. “Each time I began studying a new philosophy I’d get excited, thinking this one might end my quest. However, further study always revealed flaws,” she says. “Eventually, I became disillusioned and concluded that there was no absolute truth.” A few years later, however, Young’s brother gave her a copy of Francis Schaeffer’s book Escape from Reason. Reconsidering some of the existential questions she formerly considered unanswerable, she became a student at L’Abri, Schaeffer’s international study center and residential community in Switzerland. Surrounded by a magnificent view of the Alps, staff at L’Abri helped Young seek answers to life’s difficult questions as she intensely pursued apologetics and a Christian worldview. “There, I found a wonderful combination of intellectual integrity and a caring Christian community…. Finally, I had a solid foundation on which to build my life!”

After her conversion, Young met her husband, Stephen, while they were both students at St. Louis’s Covenant Theological Seminary. The couple spent eight years working as missionaries in Japan and later moved to Australia to work with Japanese immigrants. Young began her signature practice of journaling while in quiet communion with God when living in Melbourne. In 1996, while on a retreat based on Peter’s walk on water to Jesus (Mark 14:22-23), she made a commitment to compile her writings for what would eventually be published as Jesus Calling in 2004. Even at 12 years old, the book continues to see an increase in sales. It is even distributed to inmates at U.S. prisons, including those in Alabama. She explains that the feedback she has received from readers has been exciting and humbling. “Readers have told of how Jesus Calling gave them hope when they didn’t think they could go on. Those struggling with illness, death, and grief have said the book brought them comfort in their darkest hours,” she says. “People battling addictions have found courage in their struggle to break free…. Many readers have said that using Jesus Calling helped them develop a love for the Bible. I give God the glory for all of these things!”


Sarah Young’s books have sold 17 million copies across all formats (including e-book, large print and Spanish translation) with sales growing exponentially over time. Her latest book Jesus Always: Embracing Joy in His Presence (Thomas Nelson, $15.99) is available at Sanctuary Christian Books and Gifts in Alabaster.

Even with the knowledge of Jesus’ redeeming love, however, many Christians struggle to feel joy over anxiety or discontentment or despair. For some, Young says, it’s modern distractions that make it difficult to keep the beautiful truths of the Bible in the forefront of our minds. “It’s essential for us to take time to step away and focus on the Lord. It may help to go into another room or to sit outside for a while—listening to the sounds of God’s creation,” she shares. “Try to find a way to make quiet reflection a reality in your daily life. Sometimes it helps to have a special place in your home where you can be still and pray without interruptions. My sunroom is that place for me.”

Written in the same gentle tone as Young’s other books, her newest book Jesus Always guides readers through 365 days of tips for joy-filled living. Entries include encouragement to stay in communion with Jesus, to trust that Jesus loves you and delights in you, and to consider challenges a joyful opportunity.  For Young, challenge often comes in the form of illness. She has struggled with Lyme disease, an unusual form of chronic vertigo, low energy, allergies and dietary restrictions since 2001.  She says all of her devotional books have emerged from her weakness and struggles. “This keeps me looking to the Lord and His strength—seeking His Face. I look not only to Him but to His Word for strength, help, and encouragement…. I need a lot of prayer preparation before I attempt to begin writing. I always ask God to connect His infinite sufficiency with my utter insufficiency—so that I can write according to His will. So my health struggles help me rely on Jesus and work collaboratively with Him.”


Sarah and Stephen Young with their children and grandchildren at Christmas. The couple continues their ministry to the Japanese at a multi-cultural church in Nashville, Tenn.

Young sees challenges as opportunities.  “Sarah Adams’s beloved hymn begins with the words ‘Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!’ Most Christians’ hearts resonate with that desire. But the content of the next line is perhaps less popular: ‘Even though it be a cross that raises me.’ I think my constant health struggles have been a cross that lifts me toward Jesus,” she says. “So I view my writing adventure and chronic illness as a package deal. As much as I long to get healthier, I have received this ‘deal’ joyfully.”

Young emphasizes that Scripture memorization is key to pursuing joy because it reminds Christians that they never face anything alone—Jesus is with them at all times. She has recently been focusing on Psalm 33 and Romans 8:18-39 and also recommends Philippians 4:4-8 to Christian Family readers who want to specifically make a joy a priority in 2017:

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things”

Camille Smith Platt

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A Christmas Quest

Christmas Time.Christmas candle and decoration. Christmas border design on the wooden background. Christmas fir tree with christmas candle and decoration.Christmas traditions have united the followers of Christ around the world for centuries. They have brought families, friends, communities together every year. Did your family have traditions they held to every year for Christmas? Growing up, I was ecstatic to help light the candles on the Advent wreath and decorate the Christmas tree. Now with my own family, my wife and I have begun to craft traditions our family will follow for years. We have pulled from both of our individual family traditions to make something new. I want to delve into the history, myths, and legends around some of the most popular Christmas traditions. Grab your family and embark on this quick quest with me. For as Hilaire Belloc once said, “To comprehend the history of a thing is to unlock the mysteries of its present, and more, to disclose the profundities of its future.”

Closeup of artificail christmas wreath with poinsettia flowers and natural pinecones. Square crop isolated on white Christmas Tree, Advent Wreath & Yule Log. St. Boniface of Crediton was a British-born bishop and missionary born in the latter half of the 7th century A.D. At the age of thirty, he left the comfort of the life he lived to become one of the greatest missionaries to the Teutonic tribes who inhabited modern day Germany. Arriving in Hesse, Boniface announced he would destroy the barbarian’s gods. He strode straight up to the sacred Oak of Thor, a tree located in a hallowed grove, which no man could cut down. Legend states after four ax blows the tree shattered into four pieces, revealing a center that was rotten. The growing crowd of onlookers expected their gods to destroy Boniface immediately, but they soon came to see their gods were powerless to defend their own shrines. Boniface used this opportunity to spread the Gospel of the One who died on a tree centuries before.

Three nights later, a young boy, who heard of Boniface’s audacity, ran from a neighboring village to tell the saint his own sister was to be the vestal sacrifice of the gods that night. Boniface and the boy ran back to the village and came to the sacrificial altar just as the druid was bringing down his blade. With only a small wooden cross in his hands, St. Boniface jumped forward, catching the blade with the crucifix and saving the girl’s life. Speaking quickly, Boniface proclaimed the ultimate sacrifice had already been made, rendering all others needless. The crowd listened intently as he explained there was no need for further sacrifice because of Christ. Boniface began to cut fir branches off of nearby trees and told the families to take them home in remembrance of the complete work of Christ so many centuries before. He told them the sacred grove could be cut into logs for their home to remember the final sacrifice of Jesus. Boniface ultimately reformed the entire Frankish church, eventually giving up his life while sharing the Gospel. From the fir branches cut on that cold winter night spring the traditions of the Christmas tree, advent wreath, and Yule log.

When you hang a wreath on your door or stand a Christmas tree in your house, let them be reminders of the work of Christ on the cross. Honor that sacrifice as well as the life of St. Boniface of Crediton by continuing these traditions. Also consider including the tradition of the Advent wreath. The season of Advent is carried over the four Sundays preceding Christmas. The wreath holds four candles which are lit one by one on each Sunday. The candles remind us to prepare our hearts for celebration of Christmas. The wreath is carried down from the bold actions of Boniface.

Mistletoe. In the forests of Europe, mistletoe blooms when all else has succumbed to the harshness of winter. So over time, the small berries became a symbol of hope and life to men of the middle ages. Over the centuries, sprigs were brought into the homes of Christians and hung on doors as a reminder of the Hope of Christ in this dark world. Lovers would kiss under the arrangement and pick one berry as a sign of their love and covenant toward one another.

Holly & Ivy. According to the book Christmas Spirit by George Grant, “Throughout the Celtic lands of Brittany, Cornwall, Wales,
Scotland, and Ireland, holly and ivy were symbols of victory won. Holly, representing masculine triumph, and ivy, representing feminine triumph, were often woven together as a sign that men and women need one another. Homes were decorated during Advent with both—often woven together—as a picture of a healthy family under God’s gracious providential hand.” Holly and ivy are symbols of God at work through man and woman. We are all vessels of His glory during this season.

Christmas Tree and Gifts. Over white backgroundChristmas Gifts. To modern children, who is the greatest gift giver? Santa Claus. Jolly Ole Saint Nick actually finds his roots in a fourth century bishop and martyr, St. Nicholas of Myra. We do not know much about the early life of St. Nicholas, but we do know he most likely came from a wealthy family in the Roman province of Lycia. His fame grew quickly due to several climactic events: he was imprisoned for a strong profession of faith made during the persecution of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, he reportedly slapped the heretic Arias at the first counsel of Nicea, and he saved three young women from being given to prostitution by their father. According to legend in Nicholas’ hometown of Patara, a prominent family lost their fortune. The father had three young daughters ready to marry, but he could no longer pay a dowry. He was ready to give them to prostitution, but something miraculous happened. For three nights, Nicholas walked by the man’s house and threw a bag of gold coins in through the window. Each bag became a dowry for the three daughters, allowing them to be married the very next day. Nicholas’ generous and good gifts are one of the origins of our modern-day gift giving. According to George Grant, “Through the centuries, the traditions associated with Nicholas have proven to be an inducement to steer clear of the twin pitfalls and pratfalls of materialism and aestheticism. In the midst of the whirling change of the modern world, we need those traditions more than ever. The efficacy of tradition to offer stability, continuity, and guidance is indubitable. Connections to the past are the only sure leads to the future.”

In a day of the new-is-better mentality, we must remember that our Christmas traditions are designed to turn our eyes back to the greatest gift ever given: Christ Jesus. While celebrating in these ways, we are remembering that our God descended into this very world and was born in a stable among the animals in order to save us. If we are to have an impact on our culture, we must first learn where we have come from so that we can apply these lessons to our present and ultimately change the future. A babe in a manger, two thousand years ago was born to save you. He was born so that you might share His story with a desperate and lonely world. He was born so that all of creation might be redeemed. Continue the redemption by telling one story at a time.

O Jesus, shine around us

With radiance of Thy grace;

O Jesus, turn upon us

The brightness of Thy face.

We need no star to guide us

As on our way we press,

If Thou Thy light vouchsafest

O Sun of Righteousness.

~~William Walsham How (1823-1897)

-Thom Coghlan

Thom is a free-lance essayist, poet and a lover of old books. He teaches Latin, Literature, and Aesthetics at Franklin Classical School, where he also serves as Athletic Dir. He, his wife, Jenna, and their daughter Mary Lee live in Franklin, Tenn.

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Special Feature

Phyllis Hoffman DePiano & Her Southern Ladies


“It really has been a journey—a real journey of faith and stepping out,” Phyllis Hoffman DePiano says of growing Hoffman Media since 1983. The company offers titles in both print and digital editions but the majority of her subscribers prefer print. “Our readers are twofold: those who love the experience of turning pages and those escaping from screens,” she says. “The tactical experience of reading printed pages brings such joy and satisfaction.”

In 1983 Phyllis Hoffman toted a pillowcase full of checks into a Birmingham bank to open a business account. The act spoke of her unconventionality as a business woman in the 80s starting her own company and publishing a magazine. Retired from public accounting and parenting twins, she decided to launch Just CrossStitch with her sister and two friends. They needed 3,500 subscribers to break even on publishing costs each month, and she had 3,500 subscribers, paid up front, before the first issue even went to press. Since then, Hoffman Media has grown to 12 women’s interest and lifestyle magazines including Southern Lady and Cooking with Paula Deen and Phyllis’ life has become permanently woven into a community of talented Southern women whose stories often hinge on faith.


“She always says God has a sense of humor,” Birmingham publisher Phyllis Hoffman DePiano says of friend Paula Deen.

Her Southern Ladies. As the President and Chief Executive Officer of Hoffman Media, Phyllis has developed relationships with some of the South’s most talented and reputable women. She has sung “Amazing Grace” on stage with Designing Women actress Dixie Carter and has been a prayer partner with television journalist and legal analyst Nancy Grace, who went to law school to become a felony prosecutor after her fiancée was murdered in 1979. However, Phyllis is perhaps best known for her relationship with Paula Deen. She featured the celebrity chef and television personality in Southern Lady as “Southern Lady of the Year” in 2004 then worked alongside Deen to launch the magazine Cooking with Paula Deen in 2005. In one of their earliest photo shoots, Phyllis recalls a disaster with a slippery bubble bath that still makes them giggle to this day. “Paula wanted to do a photo shoot of her in the bathtub, which cracked me up. But I said we’ve got to have a lot of bubbles because it’s got to come up to your neck,” she remembers. “When Paula got in the tub, she sank to the bottom. All I could see was her blue eyes peeking out of the bubbles. She couldn’t sit up because it was so slick, so I had to drag her out. She’ll tell you today I tried to drown her, which is so funny.”


DePiano’s twin sons serve as co-presidents at Hoffman Media. Eric (left) is also Chief Operations Officer, and Brian is Chief Creative Officer. They are both graduates of Briarwood High School.

Her Strength in God. Raised in a Christian home, Phyllis attended Lakeside Baptist Church with her parents and became a church organist and pianist in the 8th grade. She still plays today, as a substitute organist for Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Homewood, and says while there is a danger of complacency when growing up in the church, faith often becomes more personal when saddled with a major life change. For Phyllis, change came in the form of divorce from her first husband in 2008. “You don’t grow up planning to be divorced. You don’t grow up planning that you have a broken home. No one ever thinks, ‘I am going to have a major problem in my life,’” she says. “The beauty is God forgives us and wipes the slate clean, and we have an opportunity to start over. The foot of the cross is level. There’s not a pyramid of better than thou, holier than thou. We are all sinners, and we are all forgiven by the blood of Jesus, and that’s where I find my strength.”

It was Phyllis’ work on Cooking with Paula Deen that led her to her second husband, Neal DePiano, who is a Battalion Chief with the Hoover Fire Department and worked as a contractor on Deen’s kitchen remodels in his off time. “We had worked together for years on a professional level where he would handle the construction and working with the designers,” Phyllis remembers. “He had gone through a divorce and then when I did, we started dating. It was like wow, dating one of your friends… then we realized we were in love and God had brought us together.” The couple married at Neal’s ranch on Dec. 23, 2009.


The DePianos will celebrate their 7th wedding anniversary December 23. Neal met Phyllis while working as a contractor for Cooking with Paula Deen. He is currently doing a total restoration on an English stone home in Birmingham that will be featured in Cottage Journal and Southern Home next year.

Her Message for Women. People love to try new things, Phyllis says, and that’s part of what has solidified the success of her magazines and Birmingham’s success as a publishing town in general. Women with beautiful gardens are willing to try their hand at turning their flowers into a beautiful centerpiece. They want to learn to bake fresh bread. They want to decorate for the holidays in new ways. And when Phyllis’ readers take a new skill or hobby and turn it into a business, it makes her proud. It’s reminiscent of her segway into business ownership in the crafting sector more than 30 years ago. Besides encouragement to take a chance on creativity and entrepreneurship, Phyllis says the greatest message women need to hear from friends and mentors is that nothing can separate them from the love of God. “My life is a testimony of grace and mercy and forgiveness and love. All Christians struggle at some point in time with something. And that’s where your faith has to come in as restorative,” she says, noting that older Christian women need to realize the impact they can have by sharing this reassurance with the younger women in their lives. “If there’s something that’s happened in your life that has kind of shaken you from your roots, you [may] realize at the end of the day all you have and all you need is the Lord. Everywhere in the Bible when people encountered Jesus and were touched by the Master, their lives started over. You can’t relive your life—it’s not a do-over—but it always is a start over. Whenever you need that forgiveness and starting over in your life, God is faithful. Everyone has that same opportunity.”

– Camille Platt


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Rise Above Rebellion, Sherman Williams

After retiring from the NFL, Tide National Football Champion (1992) and Super Bowl Champion (1996) Sherman Williams was sentenced to 15 years in prison on drug and counterfeiting charges. Released in 2014, he now helps Alabama youth and former inmates find freedom in Christ.

There was a time when Sherman Williams would sit on the roof of his mother’s house in Pritchard, Ala., holding a .22 caliber rifle. Wary of rumors of a possible drive-by shooting in his neighborhood, he was 16 years old and no stranger to gang activity. His parents had divorced when he was in the third grade. The youngest of four children being raised by a single mother, he had a passion for academics, but his peer group was bent on smoking, fighting and hustling drugs.


Courtesy: Crimson Tide Photos/UA Athletics

Despite his rebellious nature, Williams was a remarkable football player. He became the first running back in Alabama high school history to rush for more than 3,000 yards in a single season. An LSU fan for much of his life, he initially committed to play for the Tigers, then changed his decision to the University of Alabama. “It was their tradition, the winning atmosphere, the camaraderie, the coaching staff—everyone made me feel like we were going to actually win a championship,” he remembers.

In Tuscaloosa, Williams lived with David “Deuce” Palmer, who grew up in Birmingham and joined the Tide with Williams in 1991 to play for Coach Gene Stallings. Williams scored the first touchdown in the Tide’s 1993 Sugar Bowl victory over the Miami Hurricanes. He also secured a Citrus Bowl win over Ohio State when he caught a pass from Jay Barker and ran 50 yards for a touchdown with only 42 seconds left in the game.

Success continued for Williams in the NFL (1995-1998), where he was a part of the Dallas Cowboys’ Super Bowl XXX championship team, but he struggled to stay away from the habitual mischief of his youth. He was arrested in 2000 and found guilty by a federal jury on charges related to conspiracy to distribute marijuana and passing counterfeit currency. He spent 15 years as inmate No. 07520-003,
serving time in Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia.

A decade and a half in prison was a mental challenge, Williams says. “You’re thinking about the longevity, thinking about the crime, thinking about missing home. You’re thinking about people you are missing out on—relationship building—and the time and commitment [you could have] put into something that would have been worthwhile.” Scripture, weekly worship services and memories of his mother’s faith eventually changed his outlook on the future.

“My mother was a faithful Christian woman,” he remembers. “I did vacation Bible studies in the summertime when I was a young kidscreen-shot-2016-09-28-at-5-15-38-pm went on church picnics, played church teams in softball. Christ and faith and God was always heavily preached in our household. That was the foundation that gave me the strength I needed to make it through those 15 years,” he says. “But I had some ups and downs—having faith and knowing that God is real but choosing to let the flesh overtake the spirit, or being disobedient and suffering the consequences. When I was serving that time… I was able to form that bond and that relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It gave me the inspiration I needed to carry on and be the person that I am today.”

Throughout his imprisonment, Williams stayed in touch with former teammate David Palmer. Before Williams’ release from prison in 2014, the two developed a plan to give Alabama youth the tools they need to avoid the pattern of self-destruction often prevalent in neighborhoods defined by poverty and crime. To avoid the mistakes of his past, Williams says, young people need to be ushered toward God, education, personal responsibility and respect.


Courtesy: Palmer-Williams Group

Today the former Tide roommates’ non-profit, Palmer-Williams Group, operates athletic camps, cheerleading camps, financial literacy programs and a youth football program in Mobile County. LifeSync Academy, targeting ages 9 to 14, focuses on deterring juvenile delinquency and repeat offending by addressing alcohol and drug abuse, gang-related psychology, teen pregnancy, childhood obesity and the value of the law in 10 weeks of workshops, community service projects and counseling. They also offer financial seminars in Montgomery. Williams hopes to expand operations to the Birmingham area soon.

Williams also has a heart for adults exiting the prison system. This month he will speak at a fundraising banquet at Briarwood Presbyterian Church for Shepherd’s Fold, a Birmingham based prison re-entry ministry. “We focus on recovery and re-entry from the inside and out,” explains Shepherd’s Fold Executive Director Jack Hausen. “Sherman Williams fought his way through life to achieve a pinnacle of success that is only a dream for many. He inspires men and woman to strive for success, teaching them how not to make poor decisions that will affect them for the rest of their lives.” Williams says he has found new purpose in sharing his story of how a childhood compromised by delinquency forged a path to prison—then God forged a path to freedom. “My story is a testimony to what it would take to become a professional and also a testimony to what it would take to become a prisoner. You can learn from my story on both sides,” he says. “My life purpose is to be a benefit to others, to help others become the people that they would like to be.” For more information on Williams’ appearance in Birmingham October 20 and attending the event, contact Shepherd’s Fold at 205-780-6211 or

– Camille Platt


Former University of Alabama and Dallas Cowboys running back Sherman Williams will speak and sign copies of his book, Crimson Cowboy, at a fundraising dinner in Birmingham for the Shepherd’s Fold prison re-entry ministry. See Calendar page 28 for more details. Courtesy: Crimson Tide Photos/UA Athletics


“Gene Stallings is one of the great influences and motivators in my life,” says Williams, who took his youngest son Sebastian (5) to meet his former coach at a reunion in Tuscaloosa last summer. Courtesy: Crimson Tide Photos/UA Athletics




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Birmingham Christian Family Magazine January 2016

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NFL standout Charles Tillman shares his mission of ministering to middle schoolers and winning Super Bowls. Plus, Top Tips for Faith and Family to help you make the Most of 2016. Click and Read more now in this latest issue of Birmingham Christian Family Magazine, your Go To for Good News for more than 15 years.






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Finding Significance in 2016

How can I make the most of 2016? This is a question many of us ask ourselves. One place we are given help on this subject is Psalm 90.

See the Significance of Each Day. The psalm begins with a reflection on how short life really is. The initial reflection can be summed up as, “The most my life will add up to will be 70 years, maybe 80, but then I am swept away like dried leaves and brought before my Creator to answer for my life.” So far we are not given much hope. It is a gloomy reflection on life, one most would rather ignore, but it is an honest reflection on life. If we give much thought at all to our lives, many of us will feel this very same thing. We feel like life continues to move along, even speeding up as we get older, and we are just trying to make it count for so
mething. But we are not left to despair in our lives. The psalmist says, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” What an insightful prayer! When many in our culture would rather ignore the truth of life as presented in this psalm, Scripture tells us to accept and embrace it. Admitting that my life is limited allows me to see every day as significant.

Make Each Day Significant. It is one thing to say each day is significant, but it is another to live as if each day truly counts. The psalmist’s prayer to be satisfied by the steadfast love of God shows us where to start. True significance does not begin inside us, but with the sustaining love of God. Make each day significant by seeing the work of God in your life and the lives of your children. Teach your children to look for the “glorious power” of God in their lives. Encourage them to see the significance in each day and make each day significant.

-Drew Phillips
Covenant Classical Schools and Daycare
To learn more about Covenant Classical Schools, please visit

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Birmingham Christian Family Magazine December 2015

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Grammy Award Winning Singer Songwriter Amy Grant reflects on Christmas traditions, performing with the Alabama Symphony and the simple prayer that carries her through busy times. Plus, great gift ideas from local businesses, Christmas recipes, area students giving back, what to wear for the holidays, and much more.







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