Cheryl Prewitt Salem
Through Eyes of Faith
When Cheryl Prewitt, Miss Mississippi 1979, paraded down the runway in Atlantic City on the final evening of competition for the Miss America crown, the longtime emcee Bert Parks announced that a contestant’s chance for winning were one in seventy thousand. Those statistics did not rattle Cheryl in the least. She had already defied a few significant and seemingly impossible odds in her lifetime.
The journey from the backwoods of Mississippi—as a little girl with a crippled leg and crooked teeth—involved one extremely unlikely event after another. Her confidence on that last evening was not in herself, but it was in God’s plan and His purpose for her life. In those final moments, as the judges’ decision came down to five Miss Somebodies, Cheryl was praying that if God could use her as Miss America, then please let her win. If God could use her better as Miss Mississippi, then that would be fine, too. And she meant it.
She was 22 years old, but she had developed more true faith in her two decades than many discover in a lifetime of four scores! Now 38 years later, her faith story includes a few more chapters—some of them not so fairytale like—but all rich in this principle: God’s word is true and His grace is sufficient.
Cheryl was the second of four children born to Carrie and Hosea Prewitt, the proprietors of a mom and pop country store about eight miles outside of Ackerman in Choctaw County. Hosea was an in-demand carpenter and that left Carrie to run the store by herself much of the time. The family lived upstairs above the store, and from her preschool days, Cheryl and her siblings helped Mom in the family business. Whether it was sweeping the floor, pumping gas, or helping a deliveryman unload his truck, Cheryl’s hands were never idle. Even today she attributes her “Type A” work ethic in large part to her mother.
“Sometimes if Mama got caught up in the store with a customer, and it was getting time for supper, she would look over at me and say, ‘Go cook supper.” Cheryl would begin to ask 1000 questions wanting very specific instructions, but her mother basically said, “Go figure it out.” She learned quickly to do exactly that although she confesses that her family ate a lot of really bad cornbread in the interim.
“We were not well-off folks in terms of money, but we had a lot of love in that house,” Cheryl says. The Prewitts were a close-knit group who shared work, play, worship and everything in between. Those years taught valuable life lessons and principles that shaped Cheryl’s faith and character ever after.
One of the most appreciated and practical lessons Cheryl remembers learning as a tiny little girl involved handling money. Even though the Prewitt family did not have a lot of “stuff” materially, everything they had they actually owned. Hosea Prewitt did not believe in debt, a core value he successfully transferred to his children.
Cheryl will never forget one Christmas as a little girl staring wistfully into a store window filled with shiny toys. Her dad slipped up beside her and said gently as if reading her mind, “Don’t ever want what you don’t have money in your pocket to pay for.” That simple statement stayed with her. She later discovered that advice came straight out of scripture. “Owe no man anything, but to love one another,” Romans 13:8. To this day she has never had any debt.
Music was a big part of the Prewitt household. Each had been gifted with a natural ear and the ability to either sing, play or both. Cheryl was just five years old when she climbed up on the piano bench and, to everyone’s amusement, began to play with both hands some of the tunes she had learned in church. She was left-handed and just naturally played chords and rhythm with her right hand and melody in her left. Piano lessons traditionally did not begin until the age of 8, and by that time, Cheryl had been playing for three years! Learning to read music and put the melody in the right hand presented quite a challenge when formal lessons began. She had to slow her hands down to give her mind time to read notes!
Word spread around Ackerman and other communities close by that the Prewitt family could put on a gospel concert second to none. They began to get requests for revivals, church services, and even to sing on the local radio station. You could say Cheryl took to it all like a duck to water. She never felt nervous. It all came so easily to her that she never thought of herself as particularly special.
But there was one vendor who came regularly to the Prewitt’s store who thought otherwise. Mr. Horton was the milkman who delivered milk every Tuesday. He looked a little like Santa Claus, and Cheryl loved to help him transport the cartons of milk from truck to the store’s cooler. He was very patient and never minded answering the barrage of questions from Cheryl. He looked at her right square in the eyes week after week and always said the same thing, “One day, little girl, you are going to be Miss America.”
Cheryl had watched the Miss America pageant on the black and white television set in her family’s living room. She knew exactly who Miss America was and what she represented at that time. In her little girl frame of reference, she completely believed Mr. Horton’s words, but looking back she sees his words were really a word from God for her. “In my heart, I believed him,” she says. “It was 17 years later I walked the runway to win Miss America. In my heart and belief system, it was accomplished and finished 17 years earlier when I released my faith.”
Heartache and Impossible Circumstances
May 4, 1968, was the day when the Miss America dream appeared to be forever put out of reach for Cheryl Prewitt. She and her siblings were on the way to pick up some items for the family garden when they were involved in a catastrophic automobile accident. Cheryl’s were not the greatest injuries of the collision, a fact that just reveals the seriousness of the accident. In the impact, she was hurled through the windshield, broke her back, and crushed her left leg. Her face required more than 100 stitches, and the doctors told her parents that there was a good chance she would never walk again.
Her body cast extended from her chest to her toes on one side and from her chest to her knees on the other. She would wear it for the next four months.
When x-rays determined that the bones had mended and the cumbersome plaster of Paris cast could be removed, Cheryl expected to be as good as new. But she wasn’t. Her left leg was weak, lifeless and two full inches shorter than her right.
The doctor handed her crutches while assuring her that she would in time be walking without them. She hoped he was right. Her number one prayer on the night before she was to begin her sixth-grade year at Weir Attendance Center was, “Please, God, don’t let me fall down.”
A Different Relationship with Jesus
Although she had known the gospel story for a long time and had played the piano and performed with her siblings in countless churches over the years, Cheryl was 14 before she made a heart commitment to follow Christ.
She walked the aisle during a summertime revival at the Salem Methodist Church. It was an emotional moment and one that Cheryl might not have fully understood except for a very wise lady who sat her down and explained to her what a decision to follow Christ really meant day to day in the real world. The reality of it was not related to the intense tears she had cried when she knelt at the altar, and it was not related to her fluctuating teenage feelings. The revival preacher’s wife used the book of Romans to show her scripture after scripture what salvation really is. “From that day forth I knew that Jesus had died for me, and I was to live for Him. That’s what I have done since that day,” Cheryl says.
She was on a never-ending quest for a deeper relationship with Jesus. Her love for Him grew as she pored over her Bible and soaked up scripture like a sponge. Her classmates called her “preacher girl” because she was rarely shy about sharing some nugget of truth she had discovered.
Now and then, she remembered the words from the milkman predicting that she would be Miss America one day. She still believed that would happen although she often looked at that short leg and asked, “How are we going to do this, Father? How am I going to be Miss America with a short leg and scars on my life?” She adds, “I didn’t always hear any answers but always felt peace. The peace that passes all understanding is more than enough answer.”
It was in the fall of her senior year of high school that a close family friend invited Cheryl to attend a healing service in Jackson. Cheryl had read all the Biblical stories of healing. She believed without reservation that God’s hand was not shortened and that He could heal in the 20th Century as easily as He had healed 2000 years ago. A few months earlier a doctor had told her during a check up on her leg that because of the way her uneven legs affected the alignment of her pelvis, she would never be able to have children. That was crushing news and caused her to desire a restored body more than ever.
She describes that experience in great detail in her book, A Bright Shining Place. When she went forward that evening and asked Kenneth Hagin to pray for her affliction, she also asked God to give her anything and everything He wanted her to have in order to serve Him well. Something akin to the Ephesians 3:20 “beyond all you can ask or think” did occur in that moment. The story has been told and retold over the years by believers and skeptics alike. Even people who can’t recall her name remember there was a Miss America from Mississippi who claims her leg grew two inches in a healing service.
The skeptics don’t faze Cheryl at all. Unapologetically she says, “It has never been hard for me to share what the Lord has done in my life. I am never trying to convince someone to believe. It’s my life, and I know what happened…I know what’s true.”
Winning the Miss America Crown
No matter the goal, the journey to victory is rarely a straight shot or an easy prize. The path to Cheryl’s childhood dream was no different. She was competitive by nature, and she never set her sights on something without giving it 100% plus some. Her pageant pursuits taught her patience, persistence, and humility. Few people hated losing as much as Cheryl.
“I lost Miss Choctaw County, I lost the Miss Mississippi State University pageant two years in a row. The fourth year I won the Miss Mississippi State pageant only to lose the state pageant and have to start all over again.” After she finished as first alternate to Miss Mississippi in 1978, she thought maybe her pageant days were behind her. Her age eligibility would allow just one more chance, and she was not sure she had the drive for one more run.
Her heart was pulling her toward some kind of mission work. The one thing she knew for sure was that she wanted to serve God. “Often I found myself bursting with desire to witness about the power and love of God on a grand scale. Though I kept my eyes open for opportunities in this area, none ever seemed to arise,” she wrote in her autobiography.
With the encouragement of her family and friends—and even her dad who had long been opposed to her competing in pageants at all—she decided to enter the Miss Starkville pageant. She would win that and find herself back in Vicksburg in the summer of 1979 winning that crown and going on six weeks later to Atlantic City.
The press coverage of the Miss America pageant was just huge in those days. Interviews and photographs were plentiful in newspapers across the country. There were numerous stories about Miss Mississippi and her miraculous story of being healed. Time and time again she found herself answering questions about it. If she had lacked a platform before, she certainly had gained one at that point!
History says Cheryl was the most booked Miss America in the history of the pageant. She could not even fulfill all of the requests for appearances during her reign. There were a few times the Miss America hierarchy asked her if she could tone down her evangelical witness a little, but her answer was always, “Not really.” In Cheryl’s mind, God had called her to this place and her assignment was from Him.
Forward in Faith
When Cheryl crowned her successor in September 1980, not much changed in her schedule. Even as the former Miss America, she was still booked back to back at conferences, community events, churches, television appearances, and more. “I just kept traveling, preaching, singing, and sharing my testimony,” Cheryl explains.
Forty years later, she is as busy as ever though she shares the limelight with her husband, Harry Salem, and their two sons and daughter-in-law. The couple founded Salem Family Ministries in the mid-1990s and from the beginning, the entire family traveled together. Cheryl confesses that she is a “born evangelist more at home in a hotel room than in my own bed!”
She literally fills up the room when she steps up to the podium. Her gorgeous smile, her winsome personality are as Atlantic City memorable as ever, but there is a greater depth to her teaching these days. There is a level of transparent authenticity in her teaching and testimony that was forged in the most painful adversity of her entire life—the illness and death of her little girl.
The Valley of the Shadow
It was one late evening in 1998 when the Salems were driving back to their home in Tulsa from a ministry trip in Mississippi when Cheryl remembers looking around their van, Harry in the driver’s seat, three children sleeping in the back, and being overwhelmed with gratitude. God was so good, and she was incredibly happy. “Life can’t get any better than this,” she recalls thinking.
Just a few weeks later, her perfect world shattered when a doctor diagnosed an inoperable brain stem tumor on her five-year-old daughter, Gabrielle. Months of treatment and endless prayers followed. Cheryl and Harry had an army of prayer warriors, family, and friends praying and believing that Gabrielle would be healed and God would be glorified.
Eleven months later Gabrielle passed away. In the interim, Cheryl and Harry lived through tedious days begging God for healing while watching their beautiful baby girl grow weaker and weaker. This was not supposed to happen.
In an interview on TBN months and years later, the couple spoke about that crisis of faith and what God taught them in it. Cheryl said that was the first time in her journey with the Lord that she had not received what she had prayed for. She had always given Him the glory, but she had no experience with something like this. She now experienced anger, depression, sadness, and grief that was unimaginable and overwhelming. Most of the time she wished God would just take her home, too, but she had only one path she knew and trusted. So, she went back again and again to the God she loved, to His word, and she sought Him in prayer minute by minute every waking moment.
While she was still reeling from Gabrielle’s death, she discovered that the physical symptoms she had begun to experience were more than a result of her weakened immune system and emotional grief. Cheryl was diagnosed with colon cancer.
The details of that struggle are recounted in Harry and Cheryl’s book, From Grief to Glory. Ultimately, Cheryl chose to fight her battle with the “C” word and to pray that God would restore her family and heal their hearts. And He did.
What God gave the Salems was a deeper perspective on His sovereignty and His provision. In His infinite wisdom, He works His will. The outcome is not in our hands or dependent on our level of faith. But the certain truth is that whatever He sends comes filtered through His mighty hands of love.
Harry and Cheryl have said in many interviews that they don’t consider their daughter to be behind them as much as they consider her to be in front of them. She has finished her race; she has completed her purpose and she has graduated to heaven. In that fact, they find great peace.
When Cheryl Prewitt opened her arms and her heart to the Lord in that healing service in the Heidelberg Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi, forty years ago, she asked God to give her everything He had in mind for her life. She would pray the same prayer all over again.
She has lived the words of her favorite Psalm 91:1-2, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’”