Listeners know her as Carmen, the cheerful female voice of the Morning Cruise on the Joy FM, 91.5 in Tampa. For nearly a decade, she has chatted with and about top Christian music artists on air from 6 to 10 a.m. weekdays. In some church circles, she is a celebrity.
To orphans 1,000 miles away, she is a stranger with a gift.
Carmen Brown, of New Tampa, recently returned from Honduras, where she spent a week delivering more than 8,000 pairs of shoes, donated by listeners, to children in need. It is her fourth year traveling with Buckner International's Shoes for Orphan Souls ministry.
Trip one, she went alone to Guatemala. Trips two and three, she brought a few fans and friends to Peru and Guatemala. This year, about 100 people applied to go along, and 32 made the journey to Honduras.
Times staff writer Sarah Whitman spoke with Brown, 40, about transforming listeners of WLPJ-FM 91.5 into missionaries and seeing the world with new eyes.
Is there a readjustment period returning home from a trip like this?
There is definitely a re-entry period. I came back exhausted, slept 14 hours and cried, literally, for the next two days. I cried for the children there, and I cried for our kids, too. There is so much wealth in this country. They don't even know they need Jesus.
Why do this? What made you decide to take that first trip?
I was having a casual (off-air) conversation with one of our artists and he told me about this organization he was working with, Buckner International. He said, "You're going on this trip." And I went. And I saw. And no amount of pictures can paint that picture.
I grew up in government housing on food stamps, and I thought I knew poverty. Then, I saw true poverty. These kids don't even have shoes.
One of the first little girls, I put socks on her feet and handed her another pair. She said, "Dos?" She was so grateful. And I'm thinking, my kids lose socks in the dryer.
What is it like leaving the day-to-day behind?
It's time to unplug. Sometimes your cell phone works. Sometimes it doesn't. Going to the orphanages, being with the kids, it brings you back to the basics of humanity.
How do you bring what you do to the orphans?
They know what radio is, but they don't have radios. The last three years the band, Mike's Chair, has come with us. They play songs, and you can really see the healing power of the music.
People have this romanticized idea about orphans, and a lot of times with the younger kids it's that way. They hug on you and are so happy you're there. But when you go into a girls' home where the girls are 12 to 18 years old and they have been sexually hurt by their dads, or brothers, or uncles, a new pair of shoes isn't going to heal those girls. A new pair of shoes is almost an insult. But you can see how the music affects them. They hear the message.
Do you keep in touch with the children?
I've kept in touch with probably half a dozen.
There was a girl in Peru who really loved my Joy FM hat, but it had my name on it. When I got back, I was able to get her a hat and send it to her.
Has serving as a missionary changed your world view?
The world feels a lot smaller to me. The Gospel is more than the American version of how we see it. I used to think it was going to church on Sunday. Now I understand that pure religion in the eyes of the Lord is taking care of the widows and the orphans. There's a difference between hearers of the word and doers of the word. The Gospel has a whole new meaning.
Coming off such an emotionally charged experience, how do you go back to being cheerful Carmen on the radio?
A lot of prayer. I cry a lot. I journal a lot. It's a process. There's a verse in John where God says I will not leave you as orphans. I have to rest in the knowledge that God loves them. As much as I am hurting, God loves them and hurts for them more than I do.
I came back, and my husband's here. My daughter still needs me to drive her to basketball practice. I'm stepping back into life, maybe even a little faster than I'd like to.
To read more about Carmen Brown's trip and Shoes for Orphan Souls, visit thejoyfm.com/carmen.