It was an interesting month for Kimber Engstrom, the former Ryman employee who was fired by the company for trying to raise money to host a prayer vigil for Joey Feek.
“It all started Oct. 26th, the day after I heard Joey was stopping cancer treatments,” says Engstrom.
She had started working at the new Café Lula inside the Ryman several weeks before the Feeks shared their devastating news. “I would do whatever I could to get inside the Ryman to feel that atmosphere,” says Engstrom. “An atmosphere heavily drenched in the roots of true country music…and faith.”
Knowing how strongly the music community was rallying around the Feeks in their time of need, Engstrom got “a fire in her belly,” as she puts it, to bring everybody together for a truly special night.
“I saw a night where Joey was honored, lifted up and loved on — and as she was built up, I was hoping we could all be built up,” she says.
The cost, according to the Ryman, would be about $18,000 for one night. “The amount of money didn’t really register or play a part in what was in my heart,” says Engstrom. But it definitely mattered to the community, who found it curious the Ryman would charge so much money to host a prayer vigil for a country star who had played the Ryman.
Engstrom set out to raise the money, and was ultimately fired for it — as we detailed earlier in the week.
The move led to an outpouring of support for both Engstrom and the Feeks and ultimately had the Ryman management backtracking: first, by hosting a last-minute vigil after an “Opry at the Ryman” performance on Tuesday (which Engstrom attended), and then by offering Engstrom her job back.
Engstrom ultimately declined returning to work for the Ryman. “I just don’t share the same heartbeat as those who wanted to charge $18,000 for the prayer gathering,” she says.
But she did counter with another offer.
Engstrom asked that every year on Nov. 19th (the night the vigil was supposed to take place), the Ryman donate the building to be used as a benefit night in Joey Feek and hit songwriter Tim Johnson. Johnson was a close companion of the Feek’s who passed away in October 2012 from cancer.
Again, the Ryman declined the suggestion, but mentioned that Engstrom was welcome to their “Sam’s Place” series, a recurring Sunday-night concert series dedicated to artists performing songs with uplifting messages.
Ryman General Manager Sally Williams had this to say in a statement about the situation:
“After reviewing the events leading up to Kimber’s separation, the Ryman management concluded we acted hastily when we terminated her for violating company policy. It is clear that Kimber’s intentions came from a genuine desire to help by organizing an event for the community. We are in contact with her and are working on a way to honor the spirit of her original request by incorporating a time to lift members of the music community in need up in prayer through our Sam’s Place concert series. We did offer Kimber an opportunity to come back to work, and while she has declined that offer, we wish her all the best in her future endeavors.”
Though some may have been discouraged by the Ryman’s initial actions toward an employee with good intentions and a desire to uplift a family in its time of need, good came from the struggle when the community stood up for Engstrom and the Ryman management realized the error of its ways.
And despite the nature of the whole ordeal, Engstrom remains encouraged and optimistic that the community will always rally around those who seek to do the right thing.
“Honestly, I’m only out of a job — I have so much to be thankful for,” says Engstrom. Again returning the focus to Joey + Rory, she offers a final positive thought on the situation: “I hope Joey feels the love from all this, cause love, just like prayer, heals.”