The story of Marquitta, Rev. Mary Martha and Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity’s 2012 Build-a-Thon
By Julia Sellers
Before putting on the name badge reminding me I’m “Julia Sellers” and slipping into my newest Habitat shirt, I had the privilege of joining one of Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity ’s newest partner families at their second home – Hepatha Lutheran Church.
During a pre-trip phone call last week, Marquitta Smith, 27, didn’t first mention Habitat, her children or even herself. Instead she mushed her “Hello” into, “I can’t wait for you to meet Pastor.”
This was nothing out of the usual for Habitat stories, per se; churches and pastors are usually involved in builds. But the way she said “Pastor” was the same way I’d call my best friend by her name. It was familiar beyond a faith-based relationship.
As I asked more questions, Marquitta began to detail how she met the Rev. Mary Martha Kannass when she was 8 years old at the stone church on Locust Street. The church and the Rev. Mary Martha stayed her rock as she moved 18 times in 10 years during her childhood. I had to feel this place.
It’s one thing to meet a partner family on the build site and get a story, but it’s another to stand in the spots that have defined their path. I can never fully comprehend stories like those from Marquitta’s unstable childhood but seeing her in her natural environment is as close as I can ever get to knowing the family that moves in once the volunteers leave and I pack up my notebook.
As I scooted across the street this Sunday morning, the Rev. Mary Martha greeted mothers with giant hugs and the men with firm handshakes. She flipped through the Bible, refreshing for the sermon, in between embraces. As we waited on Marquitta and her three children, I met Marquitta’s surrogate mothers, cousins, friends and anyone on the immediate block that knew her name. She wasn’t just the Marquitta they’ve known since her hair was in pigtails, or the girl whose first job was answering phones at Pizza Hut. No, she’s become “Marquitta, the Habitat homeowner.” The two entities aren’t mutually exclusive in the congregation anymore.
With one handshake to the Rev. Mary Martha and a quick flip through the bulletin, I saw why Marquitta wanted to include this other woman in her story. Her story wouldn’t even exist without the Rev. Mary Martha.
I later found out she’s the one who noticed the Habitat builds going on in the neighborhood and encouraged Marquitta to apply for a home. She’s also used Marquitta’s opportunity — and other community service opportunities through church partnerships — to build up the area she’s served for 21 years. The Sunday bulletin solicited assistance to feed AmeriCorps members lunch and encouraged members to attend an open house and ask questions to see if they qualify for homes, too.
As I document Marquitta’s and other stories this week, I’m thankful for a job that allows me to see the full circle of someone’s life’s work. Marquitta’s was to give her children a better childhood than she had. The Rev. Mary Martha’s was to give Marquitta and other children in her congregation a better community than what she found 20 years ago. Not everyone is so lucky to see the impact they have on one person, let alone a community.
I’ll never truly know Marquitta, the girl that still longs for a real college experience with Saturday football games and a redo of some childhood memories, but I’m so glad I got to know Marquitta, the woman who wanted something better for her children and found a way to make security happen so they can have the life she longed for.
Julia Sellers is a writer/editor based in Americus, Georgia.