Home Love Stories Black Love ‘With God as the foundation, you can build everything else’

‘With God as the foundation, you can build everything else’

By Sydney Melson
The Birmingham Times

“You Had Me at Hello’’ highlights married couples and the love that binds them. If you would like to be considered for a future “Hello’’ column, or know someone, please send nominations to Erica Wright ewright@birminghamtimes.com. Include the couple’s name, contact number(s) and what makes their love story unique.


Live: Hoover

Married: June 10, 1989

Met: August, 1985. “My best friend introduced us, we met in high school and we’ve  been together since then. He went to Parker High School with my best friend and she thought we’d be a cute couple, so she introduced us,” said Debra, who attended Ramsay High School.

“We kind of traveled in the same circles, we both played in band. I always thought he was attractive, but I thought he was much older than I was because he had a mustache and goatee… But when my friend told me about him, I was like wow, that was the guy I had been looking at for years,” she said.

Emanuel said, “The circles were so tight, I actually went to church [Queen of the Universe Catholic Church on Center Street] with people that lived in her neighborhood [East Thomas], and vice versa. We knew a lot of the same people. I hadn’t been in a real relationship before, it had just been here or there, hit and miss, so we spent a lot of time getting to know each other.”

“I remember sometimes he’d come supposedly to see me, but he’d be in the yard just talking with my brothers, they spent lots of time together. They loved him,” Debra said.

“Yeah, I didn’t have any brothers, I had all sisters, so being able to hang out with the fellas, I took a lot of pride in that,” Emanuel said.

First date: September, 1985. “The first time we connected, my mom being the jokester she was, tried to offer him a beer to see what he’d say. He said ‘no ma’am, I don’t drink,’ so that was good, and we just hung out and played games. That was the first time we hung out with each other,” Debra said.

“The first time we actually went on a date, we went for pizza at Mr. Gatti’s [in Green Springs (between Birmingham and Homewood)], which is no longer open, and we went out to see a movie,” she said. “I remember being really nervous, because just like him I had never really been in a relationship, so this was my first date.”

Emanuel said he was playing it by ear the whole time. “Just go along and see where the road takes you. We both knew a lot of the same people, and getting to know each other got a lot easier as it went along.”

Emanuel and Debra officially began dating November 10, 1985. “It was Veterans Day and we were out of school, marching in a parade. That evening, he asked me to be his girlfriend,” Debra said.

The turn: Emanuel went to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee for a semester, and it was hard on the both of them. “I realized I wanted to be with her during that separation, it was such a heartfelt thing for me. When I came back, I let Debra know I wanted to pursue our relationship further.”

“We were best friends first, and I think that’s why we have such a happy marriage now. When he left, I thought I wasn’t gonna make it,” Debra joked. “We had those long-distance phone calls where I was running up my mom’s phone bill and he was running up his parents’, we were writing each other every chance we could get. We were both miserable. When he came back, I just could not see myself without him.”

“That was back in the day when you couldn’t just call all day long. The phone at Florida A&M was just outside of the library,” Emanuel said.

Proposal: April 27, 1988. “My nephew’s birthday. We had been talking back and forth about getting married. [Emanuel] was pursuing some full-time employment, so he proposed and gave me a beautiful ring that I was so excited to wear and share. He actually proposed to me in his father’s car, and we kept it a secret from everyone until November, when I told my mom that we wanted to get married,” Debra said. “It was everything I had prayed for, and it’s my hope that God will bless my daughters with a man like my husband, because he’s a good role model.”

Emanuel said he was a little timid at first. “I was still confident in proposing to her, though. I just wanted to make sure I had job security so she knew I could take care of her.”

Wedding: Reverend Michael Wesley Sr of Greater Shiloh Baptist Church officiated. “My husband was Catholic, and I was Baptist. We wanted someone who could bring the family together, and Rev. Wesley was a good friend of Emanuel’s family and a Baptist preacher, so that worked out,” she said.

The wedding colors were pink and black.

“I had been on the [Birmingham] fire department for a few months already, so the employment part of our life was pretty stable. When it came to the wedding, we paid for everything ourselves. We didn’t really need our family’s help other than getting my dad a suit and her mom a nice dress to wear,” Emanuel said.

“We got married at the Birmingham Wedding Chapel in Woodlawn, it was old church converted into a wedding chapel. So many of our friends offered us catering, they made cakes … People really believed we had found true love and they were so supportive. They were praying for us, and that was the most important thing,” said Debra.

Most memorable moment of the wedding for the groom was the anticipation. “It was so exciting to say ‘yes’. Just wanting to pour my love for her even after the wedding. My dad took care of my mom for forever, so I had a good example to live up to,” Emanuel said.

Most memorable moment for the bride was her time spent with Emanuel’s father, “My father passed away in 1984, before I met my husband. His dad loved me like I was his own child. At our wedding, I remember the photographer asking if anyone else wanted any other photos, and my father-in-law stood up and said he wanted a photo of just him and I. He truly loved and adored me, and that photo is on my wall to this very day,” Debra said.

The honeymoon was postponed until 1989, where they went to Atlanta and toured, shopped, ate good food and danced together.

Words of Wisdom: “Always put God first. If He’s the foundation of your marriage, then everything else you can build upon. Without Him, none of this is possible,” Emanuel said. “I’d probably tell my younger self to take my time, think through everything. I wish I had known not to sweat the small things, like eating late, or putting the trash out late. A lot of things are not time sensitive. There’s a time and a place for everything.”

“In order for your love to sustain the test of time, you can’t forget to make time for each other,” Debra said. “He’s my best friend and the person I want to tell everything, but often people get lost and then the children come, and then you put your relationship on the backburner. Then when the children leave, you don’t know who you married anymore. So just always make time for each other, because when times get tough, you have to look to the good time where you had joy.”

Happily ever after: The Smiths have three children, twins Eboni and Mahogani, 27, and Destini, 25.

Emanuel, 52, grew up in Smithfield, attended A.H. Parker High School and currently about to retire from the Birmingham Fire Department after 32 years.

Debra, 52, is the director of federal programs and the Riverchase Career Connections Center with Hoover City Schools. She grew up in East Thomas and went to Ramsay High School.