Nu My Pham was a woman who loved Jesus Christ with all of her heart, and she was a witnessing disciple for all who passed her way.
This was a spring afternoon in the old Hay Street Shop, and what would be nearing the end of an era along the downtown street, and where inside the shop permeated with the familiar scent of leather.
Nu Pham masked her sadness with her welcoming smile.
“My heart is breaking,” she would say on this next-to-final day at the business, where her late husband, Huyen Pham, opened the shoe shop along Person Street in 1977. It’s where their son, Ben Pham, took over the business after his father’s death in 2008, because he knew his mother could not handle the shoe shop by herself.
Ben Pham, like his father, was the shoe cobbler.
Nu Pham greeted customers from behind the counter of what so many will tell you was something of her pulpit, too.
“She loved Jesus and was never afraid to tell you so,” the Rev. David Blackman told those who gathered on October 17 at Hay Street United Methodist Church to remember and celebrate the life of Nu My Pham. “Nu was never afraid to sing the hymns of faith that were written on her heart or share the scriptures she had memorized.”
The red brick church towers just behind the old shoe shop.
Huyen and Nu Pham arrived in this country in 1975 from their native South Vietnam with an 8-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.
A practicing disciple of Buddhism, Nu Pham was inspired in her Christian faith by the Rev. Vernon Tyson, then pastor at Hay Street United Methodist Church.
“One of the first stories Nu shared with me was about Pastor Vernon Tyson sharing a Bible with her, which she had never seen before, and she was not familiar with Jesus,” Blackman said. “Little did anybody know then how those seeds of faith would be cultivated and blossom into a deep faith for Jesus. These seeds of faith were then sown upon her children, Ben and Caroline. Seeds of faith that grew into an obedient disciple and mighty witness for Jesus in our community and beyond.”
The preacher could close his eyes and see Nu Pham behind the shoe shop counter.
“How many times did I sit in the shoe shop waiting for Nu to finish up with a customer, watching her listen, speak, share and pray love upon the one standing before her at the counter,” Blackman said. “For those of you who remember, there was a sign on the wall that read, ‘We doctor shoes, fix their heels, attend to their dying and save their soles.’ And that’s what happened daily as folks would come in seeking a shoe repair and leave with their souls renewed. Nu had this captivating way with people, drawing you in. She would speak God’s Word right into your soul and never shied from sharing a prayer with someone who needed it, even when they didn’t realize they needed it.”
In the garden
When Nu Pham wasn’t working in the shoe shop, you could find her wearing her visor or straw hat and cultivating the front and backyards of her home that were adorned with colorful and flowering blooms.
She gardened with purpose.
She gardened with passion.
She put her heart into every moment of her labor of love working in the soil, and with eager anticipation of the spring season to come.
“Many of you will know how much Nu loved her garden at her home on Marlborough Road, and all the plants she tended to,” Blackman would say. “How natural it was for her to spend time working in her beautiful yard, which served as an example of her love for the Creator. She understood the need to take time caring for her plants, cultivating them so that they would grow, removing the weeds that would disrupt future growth potential and praising God for the beauty of the color that would come in due season.”
Those last hours of the old Hay Street Shoe Shop were approaching on April 18, 2017.
“My heart is breaking,” Nu Pham would say.
But a mother would look at a son with grateful heart, and a son would look upon a mother with a love like only a son can know.
“He would be happy I was here,” Ben Pham, who gave up a successful banking career to operate the shoe shop, would remember his father. “And he’d be happy I tried to take care of her.”
The shop closed around 3 p.m. on that Friday afternoon, when Ben Pham would take his keys in one hand to close it a last time and hold his mother’s hand in the other.
“Maybe I will go visit people at nursing homes,” Nu Pham would ponder her days to come. “A lot of people are lonely and suffering.”
Nu My Pham died October 13 at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center after contracting COVID-19 at a Hoke County nursing home.
She was 75.
“Too often we place our trust in things that are not worth trusting, things that are temporary, things that do not last,” the preacher said. “I can hear Nu telling me, ‘Pastor, you need to trust in Jesus. We need to pray for his wisdom and share our burdens with him.’ One of the hymns that Nu would often sing was ‘How Great Thou Art.’ I remind us of this stanza as we consider her great faith, the hope she embodied throughout her life and the love she shared in so many ways.
“‘When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart. Then I shall bow, in humble adoration, and proclaim.: ‘My God, how great Thou art!’
“Not only did Nu sing these words, she lived these words as a disciple of Jesus Christ,” Blackman would say. “Thanks be to God for the breath of life he shared with her and the tremendous impact and witness she was to all of us.”
Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or 910-624-1961