A former Ryman Auditorium employee was fired last Thursday after trying to raise money to host a prayer vigil for ailing country singer Joey Feek.
Joey Feek, one half of the country duo Joey + Rory, was diagnosed with cervical cancer in May 2014. Despite an intense treatment strategy that included multiple surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, Feek revealed that the cancer had spread and she would stop treatment to enter hospice care, surrounded by husband Rory and their 20-month old daughter.
The country world has rallied around the Feeks upon hearing the devastating news. Kimber Engstrom, who began working at the Ryman’s new Café Lula shortly after it opened in June, proposed a night of prayer in support of the duo, an idea that soon took off in the community.
According to a source familiar with the story, Engstrom spoke to the Ryman and was given the proper documents for securing the venue when she had the money. She was told the only night available was Nov. 19, and the cost to rent the space would be approximately $18,000. Engstrom designed a poster to help raise funds, but the Ryman told her she could not use it because it used the Ryman name prior to securing the venue, so she nixed it.
Engstrom started a “Go Fund Me” campaign to raise the necessary $18,000 to rent the Ryman Auditorium for a night of prayer. When Engstrom arrived at work last Thursday (Nov. 12), she was met by personnel from human resources and immediately terminated.
Ryman communications manager Lisaann Dupont told Wide Open Country in an email, “We did receive an inquiry, but no formal request was made. The inquiry did not come from [the Feeks]. Without our knowledge, a Go Fund Me campaign was started using the Ryman name. The campaign has since been removed and our understanding is that refunds have been issued. We have been blessed by our relationship with Joey + Rory for many years and our thoughts and prayers are with them at this difficult time.”
Dupont confirmed Engstrom was no longer employed with the company, but the Ryman did not further comment on her firing.
Engstrom plans to meet with an attorney and could not offer specific comments on the situation, though she stressed her love and admiration for Joey + Rory.
“We wanted a night to honor them, pray and build them up,” says Engstrom. “But the Ryman will sit silent this Thursday evening, and that’s wrong.”
Supporters found it curious that the Ryman would not offer the space for a reduced rate, since much of the city has spoken out in support of the Feeks, and the vigil would not be a commercial endeavor. When news of Engstrom’s termination circulated the inner circles of social media, many were appalled.
Veteran songwriter Bernie Nelson, who has been a part of the community for 30 years and written hit songs for artists such as Conway Twitty, Kris Kristofferson and Kenny Chesney, told Wide Open Country, “First I was very disappointed to find out the Ryman was asking for $18,000 so that the country community could come together for a night of faith and prayer on behalf of Rory and Joey Feek. Then I was outraged to learn that the person responsible for attempting to raise that money was fired from her job at the Ryman for using their name on social media.”
Others went a step further, calling Ryman management insensitive, greedy or heartless given the context of the situation.
“They showed a total lack of human interest on multiple levels,” says Nelson, “And they are in for a reality check once the media gets this out there.”
Now one of the most famous music venues in America, the Ryman Auditorium began construction in 1885 and completed in 1892. The auditorium served several purposes over its history, including being the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974. Ironically, the Ryman was originally a church for many years, designed to offer a safe place for revivalists to gather — earning it the nickname, “The Mother Church of Country Music.”