For Kim Bowman Newlen of Richmond, Virginia, a 1979 graduate of Erskine College, it all began with “an honest prayer outside Carnegie Hall” when she was a freshman.
She became a teacher, wife, mother, founder of a women’s outreach ministry, breast cancer survivor, fashion designer, and devotional writer.
She is the owner of a pink truck emblazoned with the initials “BSSYP,” standing for the words her father often spoke to her, words he added to the letters her mother wrote her during her college years: “Be Sweet, Say Your Prayers.” The truck also reveals her identity as “Miss Tea Party,” a role she took on when she was teaching third graders and invited students into her home.
Her most recent accomplishment, The One Year Sweet and Simple Moments with God Devotional, loops back to that day in 1975 when Newlen resolved to “walk each day with the Lord.” It is a book of 365 daily devotionals to be released by Tyndale Momentum, an imprint of Tyndale House Publishers, in September.
Before that, she founded Sweet Monday®, “creative evangelism in a nutshell,” as she describes it, which began in her home 18 years ago and now spills over into stadiums, at least occasionally; and patented a post-surgical garment for breast cancer patients.
Surprised by loneliness
Newlen’s devotional book, as well as her other ventures, flowed out of her own experience and her desire to reach out to others.
“Sweet Monday” started when Newlen decided to stay home with her young daughter, Kali.
She loved her teaching job, had taught happily for 10 years, but “wanted to live my priorities,” she said.
“I knew I didn’t want to live with regrets, and I was willing to eat beans every day if I could be home.”
She was prepared for some financial sacrifice, but was blindsided by the loneliness that came with the stay-at-home territory.
“When I quit teaching, I did not have one thing on my plate, except I had a baby at home,” she mused. “What surprised me most was that I had never felt any kind of loneliness before, and I was in my mid-30s at the time. I remember asking my husband if there was something wrong with me.”
In her experience of isolation, Newlen—who remembered Professor of Bible Dr. William F. H. Kuykendall writing “Sin equals selfishness” on the board at Erskine and took that truth to heart, especially in her marriage—knew she had to step outside herself.
“If I had everything in Christ and had a family and friends, and I was lonely,” she thought, “what were the other women in the world doing?”
What can I do about it?
Sweet Monday®, now trademarked and identified with a pink logo and the tagline “Women’s Socials on a Shoestring…Tied to a Generous God,” was launched in her living room.
“I opened my home the first Monday night of the month to women in my neighborhood, church family, friends and acquaintances — really to whoever wanted to attend. I served one simple dessert full of fat, decaf coffee and tea, a dose of inspiration from God’s word and candy for the women to share or eat on the ride home.”
Twenty women showed up that first night.
It was simple, but it clicked. She continued hosting Sweet Monday in her home “even through chemo,” though that’s getting a little ahead of the story.
Reflecting on those early days, Newlen said she knew “God made us for relationships with Him and with others.”
She invited believers and unbelievers.
But as an isolated young mother, “Not one thought went through my mind that what I was starting was ‘creative evangelism,’” Newlen said.
“No one was more surprised than I was that God would multiply ‘five cupcakes and two pieces of candy’ and plant Sweet Monday outreaches around the world.”
As “Miss Tea Party,” Newlen had opened her home to her young students; later she entertained at birthday parties and other events wearing a hat that resembled a birthday cake, complete with candles to be lit and blown out. Tea parties became part of her Sweet Monday schedule of
socials, along with annual clutter auctions and other themed events.
Sweet Monday and Miss Tea Party came together in 1995 with the largest tea party then on record—7,250 guests at the University of Richmond’s Robins Center—celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Sweet Monday ministry and breaking a Guiness World Record at that time.
Campus life as crucible
Despite founding a burgeoning ministry in her mid-30s and later battling cancer, Newlen still looks back on her first year at Erskine as “such a turning point in my life.” Just as Sweet Monday was started as an antidote to loneliness, her Erskine experience, too, centered on the truth that “God made us for relationships.”
First, there was the magic of visiting Erskine.
“I had never heard of Erskine, but when I stayed the weekend in Carnegie I decided I was going there,” she said. “It was the relationships.”
She can rattle off the names of friends and roommates from those days, and recalls the surprise of being chosen homecoming queen in her junior year.
Second, at Erskine there was growth in the most significant relationship of all.
“I remember vividly going outside one morning, it had to be a weekend,” Newlen said. “I remember looking up in the sky and saying to God, ‘I want to be Your girl every day. I don’t know what that means. I don’t want to be just a Sunday Christian. I wish You would write something in the sky. Will You do what it is that You do to let me know?’”
There were no instant results, but Newlen “began to read the Bible and grow.”
“I’m sure I still made poor choices at times,” she admits, “but this was a turning point.”
Third, there was a gradual untangling of Newlen’s knots of fear and uncertainty, which helped prepare her for life after Erskine.
“I was so afraid of failure, of getting up in front of people,” she said.
“At Erskine, you had to take a speech class to graduate in education.” The night before she was scheduled to give her speech, she stayed up all night “saying that verse that begins, ‘I can do all things through Christ.’”
In the morning, Newlen walked into her professor’s office, burst into tears and said, “I cannot give my speech.”
Her professor, Katherine Baker Chandler, cited along with Kuykendall as “a major influence on me,” told Newlen, “Kim, we will do some things in class to help you get over your fright.”
Newlen does not remember giving the speech, but she remembers the kindness of her professor.
Her fears extended beyond the demands of the classroom.
Her mother had paid for her to have voice lessons at Erskine, but she did not take them because she would have to sing in front of the teacher.
She stayed out of intramurals “until I could be the ineligible guard who did not hold the football,” she said.
“I had such fear,” she said. “Some cute boys at Erskine would ask me to play tennis but I never went once. I was afraid of what I would look like on the tennis court.”
Never asked for it
Newlen now speaks even to large crowds, having addressed groups of women in her home for years as part of Sweet Monday®. She has helped to train and equip many “Home Sweet Monday Home” missionaries through Billy Graham School of Evangelism global conferences, Salvation Army officer trainings, women’s retreats, local churches, and other organizations, including Campus Crusade for Christ, now known as CRU.
“I never wanted to speak, did not want to write,” she says emphatically. “I had no idea God was going to give me a big pink platform with women all over—with Sweet Monday and even through breast cancer, too!”
By the time cancer struck, Newlen was no longer a fearful freshman, or even a lonely young mother. She had endured being what she calls “the princess in the pit” when “our roof fell in, my husband was bedridden for two months, my car was stolen.” She had grown in her faith and in her marriage, faced fertility problems, embraced the joy of an only daughter, and started a ministry.
Kim Newlen’s journey from fear to confidence began at Erskine and continued during her struggle with cancer—surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
When she received her diagnosis, she figured she would just pull the covers over her head. Instead, “I got bolder as I got balder,” she says in a video released by Christianity Today. “God gave me courage.” The film follows Newlen through a medical check-up and meetings about the post-surgical garment she designed. You can watch the video here.
“Look Better Than You Feel,” her trademarked post-surgical camisole, had its genesis in her experience of “going home in my bathrobe” after surgery. There had to be a better way, she thought, and so she worked with a designer to create one. She describes the result as “Medical Made Pretty,” an attractive camisole (worn as an outer garment) that gracefully hides medical gear, and is easy to put on after surgery. She has established a program for giving the camisoles to breast cancer patients.
Looking forward to the release of The One Year Sweet and Simple Moments with God Devotional and thinking about her forays into creative evangelism, fashion design, and writing, Newlen says, “With all this, I am as green as I am pink!” She jokes that she “did not even know I was an ‘entrepreneur,’” until asked to speak to a graduate class at the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond.
Since she learns “most from the Bible, but after that, from women,” Newlen has found Sweet Monday® rewarding. But there is a different satisfaction in writing a devotional book. “It was the biggest surprise—a sweet surprise” to be asked to write it.
“The most precious thing for me was that God gave me confidence that I could do 365 devotionals,” she said. “It’s been…well, I can’t think of anything more encouraging than being a devotional writer.”
One of the biggest lies she believed as a young Christian, she says, was that “just doing the right things means that life is going to be wonderful.” But she has seen God’s hand through it all, even the hardest times.
“I am doing things I never saw myself doing,” she said. “My life does not look anything like I thought it would look.”