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The power of restored joy

United Methodist Ernestine Shepherd, an 84-year-old world champion body builder who has appeared in a Beyoncé video, found her joy restored while struggling with anxiety and depression. Photo courtesy of Yohnnie Shambourger.
United Methodist Ernestine Shepherd, an 84-year-old world champion body builder who has appeared in a Beyoncé video, found her joy restored while struggling with anxiety and depression. Photo courtesy of Yohnnie Shambourger.

“Determined, dedicated, disciplined” is the mantra that Ernestine Shepherd lives by. This 84-year old body builder, who holds world records and recently added a Beyoncé video cameo to her resume, exudes strength and confidence.  

Known for her spunk and candor, the lifelong United Methodist speaks openly about her struggles with anxiety and depression.  

How it started

Shepherd’s fitness story, which began at age 56, is legendary.

Shepherd and her big sister Mildred “Velvet” Blackwell, who was one year older, embarked on a move to shape up after being dismayed at how they looked during swimsuit shopping. The sisters started eating healthy and exercising, including lifting weights at a local gym. Blackwell’s goal was for her and her sister to become professional body builders as a way to inspire others to get in shape and be healthy regardless of age.

One year later, Blackwell became suddenly ill.  Before dying from a ruptured brain aneurysm, she made Shepherd “pinky promise” to continue working toward their goals.

Although Shepherd vowed that she would keep working out, her older sister’s death severely sidelined her.  

“I was the meanest, ugliest person you’d ever meet,” Shepherd admits about how she acted following her sister’s death. “I hated everybody. I didn’t want to be around anybody.”

Anxiety and high blood pressure sent Shepherd to the hospital emergency room multiple times over a seven-month period. She also was struggling with depression.

Alongside receiving medical care, Shepherd credits her deceased sister with prompting the first steps toward helping her through that tough time. God gets the rest of the credit.

“One night, I was asleep, when, all of sudden, my sister came to me and said, ‘You aren’t doing what I asked you to do. Get up and do what I asked you to do,’” Shepherd recalls.

Shepherd figured she was dreaming, so she dismissed it. Two months later, Shepherd found herself attending a revival meeting at a nearby church where she knew no one.

The revival

Shepherd, who has been a member of Baltimore’s Union Memorial United Methodist Church for 63 years, was no stranger to church. But she admits to feeling so uncomfortable when she showed up at the revival that she sat in the back row.

In fact, Shepherd shares, she was preparing to head out the door mid-service when the choir started singing, “Here I am, Lord.”

“All of sudden, I was touched,” she says, sharing how the Holy Spirit affected her. “It was such a beautiful feeling. Something that I had never, ever felt in my life.”

When she jumped to her feet from the back pew, Psalm 51 came to mind and she loudly spoke these words from a song she recalled:

“Restore to me the joy of my salvation. Restore to me the joy of each new day. Give me back the love that I once had for You. And never, ever let me slip away.”

She left the church different than when she arrived.

“I was like a brand new person,” she recalls. “I decided that I was going to do what my sister wanted.”

Almost immediately, Shepherd was back at the gym, taking steps toward becoming a professional body builder. She achieved that goal and many more in the following years. The Guinness Book of World Records named her the oldest competitive female bodybuilder in the world in 2010 and Ripley’s Believe It or Not dubbed her “Six-pack Granny.” She’s appeared on magazine covers, including “Essence,” and has been interviewed on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and “The View.” She can boast more than 325,000 followers across her social media channels and YouTube videos with more than 1 million views.

Ernestine meets Beyoncé

And, then, there’s the Beyoncé video.

In 2019, Shepherd was cast to appear in “My Power,” a new video by the music superstar who herself grew up in a Houston United Methodist church. The timing, as it turns out, coincided with another transformative time for Shepherd.

In September 2019, Shepherd’s husband, Collin, passed away.

“After that, I started suffering with my anxiety again,” she says. “I wasn’t mean and nasty but I didn’t know how to cope without him. We had been together 67 years.”

One month later, Shepherd was in Los Angeles, meeting Beyoncé and rehearsing for the video.

“When it was time to do my part, I had to stand up and do a bicep pose and I recited something about being strong,” Shepherd shares. ”Beyoncé doesn’t know how much she helped me. Doing that kept me on my feet. I felt like I had the power to smile again.”

Back at home, Shepherd continued journeying through her grief. To manage the anxiety, she worked with her doctor to find the right medication. She also starts each day with God, reading, praying and singing. By 6:30 a.m., she and a friend are out the door for a walk that might take her five miles or 20, followed by weight lifting. These days, she’s also caring for her younger sister who has Parkinson’s disease.

It’s a busy schedule but the goal remains the same as the one she and sister set in 1991.

“Just as the long as the Good Lord will allow me, and through prayer,” she says confidently, “I will keep on doing what I’m doing to help as many people as I can to live healthy, happy, positive, confident lives.”

Crystal Caviness works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. Contact her by email or at 615-742-5138. This story was published on December 18, 2020.