Street preacher who changed lives through boxing, service mourned during anti-violence vigil
Tika Hemingway’s life changed the day she met the Rev. Sheldon “Sarge” Stoudemire on a street corner in Pittsburgh’s North Side about 15 years ago.
Then 17, Hemingway had been getting into dangerous situations. She’d been caught stealing and getting into fights with men nearly twice her size.
She was strolling in her childhood neighborhood with a friend when they spotted Stoudemire dressed in military fatigues and holding a Bible. Hemingway recalls cracking jokes about what he was wearing when the friend told her that Stoudemire was known as a famous boxer and a preacher.
Hemingway, an all-around, solid athlete who had never tried boxing as a sport, approached him. She threw a few punches into the air playfully and asked if he would train her.
At first, the former Army Ranger and amateur boxing champion dismissed the teen, saying she didn’t seem like she was taking the prospect seriously. When she kept pressing, Stoudemire challenged her: “Let’s go to the gym right now.”
“From that night on, he trained me every single day for, like, the next five years,” Hemingway said.
Hemingway went on to become a four-time national champion and joined USA Boxing’s national team.
Hemingway knows she’s among many people from across Western Pennsylvania whose lives have changed for the better with the guidance, support and persistence of Stoudemire, who was killed in a shooting last month.
‘He was my angel’
It wasn’t until years later, while she was traveling on a plane to an international boxing competition in Argentina, that Hemingway reflected on how the night before that initial encounter with Stoudemire, she had prayed to God to give her the strength to change. She remembered that she didn’t want to make her mom cry any more. She wanted to find a new path but wasn’t sure what it might look like.
She realized that she’d unexpectedly stumbled across her version of salvation — an anti-gun violence street preacher who introduced her to the boxing ring.
“That’s when I knew he was a godsend. He was my angel,” said Hemingway, who was raised by a single mom while her dad served time in prison. “We read the Bible, talked about God, watched classic boxing films of Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali. He would mentor me, he was teaching me about life. He taught me how to put God first and to never give up, and he taught me to treat everyone with respect.”
Hemingway, 32, now lives in Tarentum, where she’s raising a 2-year-old girl, Solara. She clinched her most recent title in May, a Golden Glove from the tournament in Chattanooga, Tenn.
The Heinz History Center has a permanent exhibit honoring her achievements.
“Boxing changed my entire life. It changed my mindset on everything. It gave me something to strive for,” Hemingway said. “I went from being a troubled teen in and out of Shuman (Juvenile Detention) Center, to traveling all over the world. I went from fighting and going to Shuman, to fighting and getting accolades.”
Anti-violence vigil honors a peacekeeper’s legacy
On Sunday afternoon, about 200 people gathered outside the Northside Common Ministries center on Brighton Road to honor Stoudemire. They prayed for an end to gun violence and for Stoudemire’s legacy of street ministry to go on.
“This strengthens our resolve like all the pain of murder,” said George Spencer, president of the Greater Pittsburgh chapter of MAD DADS, a faith-based group dedicated to combating drugs, gangs and violence in Allegheny County of which Stoudemire was a founding member. “Sheldon Stoudemire, if you take a look at our Facebook page, you can see him in action. You’ll see what lengths he was willing to go to keep peace.”
Shortly before 3:30 a.m. on July 27 — not far from where Stoudemire and Hemingway met — Stoudemire was shot in the chest at Northside Common Ministries’ Pleasant Valley homeless shelter. Stoudemire, 57, had been working there as the night supervisor a few times a week. The accused shooter is Gerald Adams, 19, of Braddock, who has been arrested and charged with homicide.
Hemingway felt her heart sink when she got the text message about what had happened. She’d been planning to visit Stoudemire this summer to show him her latest championship belt. He had just given her a pep talk a few months ago.
“Why do you do that to him, of all people?” she said of the suspect. “The exact person that’s the demographic of people that he was trying to help killed him.”
Forgiving his killer, because so would he
Karol Stoudemire, who married Sheldon Stoudemire in 2007, said she forgives the young man who killed her husband.
She said she forgives him because that’s what her husband would have done had he survived the incident.
“I don’t want this man (the suspect) to lose his life,” she said. “His mental state was clouded by Satan.”
Saturdays are especially rough for her, because that’s when she and her husband would take spontaneous trips.
“We are going to get away from the familiar,” he would tell her, and the couple would end up in places from Detroit to West Virginia to Niagara Falls.
One of their first dates was on a street mission in Hazelwood where she watched as Sheldon helped dissuade the police from disrupting a group of youths.
“He was always reaching out to the young people to tell them to put their guns down,” she said. “My husband loved what he did, and he had to die for this passion that he had. He’s my hero. I lost a hero, but God got one up in heaven.”
His daughter, Tiffany Roberson, said that few people realized she was Sheldon Stoudemire’s only biological child because he had mentored so many youths.
“He was a warrior, somebody who was just made of strength and unstoppable,” said Roberson, 33, of Swissvale. “I remember in the basement of my grandma’s house, I used to watch him box and preach. … He’ll talk to you for hours about anything.”
Stoudemire graduated from Swissvale High School and studied theology at Geneva College. He had been working in the social service space for decades and preaching on the streets of Pittsburgh’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods day and night since 1993.
He served six years in the Army, won 14 amateur boxing titles and wrote four books — including “The Street Ministry Experience” in 2011 and “Ministering to the African American Female” in 2016.
Fellow volunteers say that Stoudemire could be tough and strict. But he also had a way of breaking the ice with young men and getting them to listen, whether it be by challenging them to a foot race or teasing them about how if they really want to deal drugs they should become a pharmacist.
“You can’t replace a Stoudemire,” said Ernie Bey, who worked alongside Stoudemire with the Greater Pittsburgh Coalition Against Violence. “There is nobody who can do what he did.”
Late last year, he made a bid for local politics by applying for the open mayoral position on the Braddock Council to replace Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who happened to be Stoudemire’s neighbor.
Fetterman described Stoudemire as “a guy that walked his talk.”
“He cared immensely about young people, he cared about the community,” Fetterman said. “I’m just struck by the bitter irony that the exact kind of person that he would reach out to and care about and forgive for what happened, that ultimately was the one that took his life. It’s another absolutely senseless tragedy around gun violence.”
At the memorial service
Sunday’s memorial service ended with well-known Pittsburgh bagpiper George Balderose playing “Amazing Grace.”
Several ministers spoke at the event, including Pastor Darrell Robinson Sr. of Duquesne City of Hope Church of the Nazarene. He worked alongside Sheldon Stoudemire as part of Word on the Streets Ministry, where Stoudemire served as an associate pastor, amid his various other roles doing volunteer and social work.
Like Karol Stoudemire, Robinson said that Stoudemire would have forgiven his shooter.
“Sheldon would love him,” Robinson said. “That’s how we end gun violence, by going out into the streets and telling young people, old people, that you will love them. We cannot just sit back and not let people know that they are loved.”
The crowd marched down Brighton Road with police escorts toward North Avenue.
When the procession reached Allegheny Commons Park’s Lake Elizabeth, mourners stopped to leave white roses in Stoudemire’s memory.