In 2009, after years of living a life of isolation and depression, Carol Herbin found her voice and a new life at the United Methodist Church For All People in Columbus, Ohio, but tragically died in a house fire on Saturday.
"The fire department was called out early to her house Saturday morning — heavy smoke and flames and she didn't survive. By the time they found her she had already died," explained a wistful Donita Harris, a pastor at the Church for All People, in an interview with The Christian Post on Tuesday.
Columbus Division of Fire officials won't officially identify Herbin, but said the fire is still under investigation.
"She did die alone, she was alone, she lived by herself. She has no siblings and no children, so she definitely lived alone. But she lived a full life as a member of our community, as a lead singer in our praise team, our Sunday worship team," Harris said of Herbin, who was 63.
And that's the part of Herbin's life that Harris wants the world to know. Herbin was beloved, and had experienced a full life, a rich life — thanks to God's love and her church family.
News of Herbin's death led to deep sorrow in her church. It was also greeted with the stoicism reserved for such occasions of grief in the community where she lived.
"We're situated in the south side of Columbus, Ohio, where there are lots of hard living folks. Folks live on the margins, so tragedies happening aren't all surprising as they would be in the suburbs," Harris explained.
When news of Herbin's death spread, "this community quickly came together and started reminiscing," Harris explained.
"I don't know a lot of who she was before we met her. When we met her she had self-disclosed that she had been living a pretty isolated life. And you know, like all of us, had thoughts of depression. I really do believe the nature of our community and nurture of our community helped her find herself in life again," Harris said.
"When she introduced herself to the community, when she started coming to things that church programs were having, I think she had probably been through a period of isolation for some time. And then through the acceptance and warmth and non-judgmental stance that our faith community takes, she found a place where she could be comfortable. And [was] encouraged to appreciate her singing voice," added Harris.
Eileen Howard, who was a music director at the church at Parsons Avenue and Whittier Street for 10 years, told The Columbus Dispatch she first heard Herbin's voice around 2009.
Herbin offered a prayer request during a service. At Church For All People, members often sing their requests, so when Howard heard Herbin sing, she was moved.
"She was so fantastic, I came up to her and said, 'I would love for you to sing with the band,'" Howard, who now lives in Atlanta, said.
She eventually learned that Herbin, who had been laid off from a longtime job at Nationwide, was having financial problems and "was deeply depressed."
With the help of the church, Herbin, who had some experience singing in her earlier years, began getting coached again in her mid-50s.
"She came to a program we had called 'Music Mic' night on Mondays, where you get coached and voice lessons, and she started being a regular member there. And she gained her confidence back. She had a deep faith, a real connection with how God has been by her and how God brought her through," said Harris.
Soon, Herbin was moving crowds with her voice through soothing jazz and gospel performances.
"I think she found a newfound faith in the depths of faith that she didn't know she had," Harris continued. "She talked about being raised in the church but then there were years she didn't go. And I just think when you find life again, when you sense that there is a community that cares for you and respects and accepts you — not judgmental about your flaws but really embraces your gifts — I think that makes a lot of difference. I think she became more and more authentic. I think she developed a deeper faith and believed there is a God who loves all people."
A memorial service is expected to be planned when the church's senior pastor and 30 other members return from a trip to Israel on Thursday.