There weren’t a lot of constants in Marquitta Smith’s life when she was growing up.
“When I was a kid, we were in shelters and this place for six months, this place for nine months, this place for three months,” she shares. “It was a lot of moving around.”
But there was one place she could always count on: Hephatha Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in her Milwaukee neighborhood.
“Marquitta and her sister and her brother were just here all the time,” remembers Mary Martha Kannass, Hephatha’s pastor for the past 21 years.
“It was like a second home,” Marquitta confirms. “Every day except Friday; that was pastor’s day off. We would just knock on the door, go downstairs and ransack their candy jar and cookies and just walk back home,” she laughs.
Back then there was talk of closing the church, but, Mary Martha says, Marquitta was one of the reasons it was important to keep Hephatha alive.
“We needed to find a way for this ministry site not to be lost, and we had to find a way for this congregation to continue being a neighborhood church,” Mary Martha says. “When Marquitta emerged as a part of a group of children that really responded so quickly to the gospel, coming to share the gospel with us,” Mary Martha shares, it was “the reassurance that this definitely needed to be done.”
Hephatha, which is supported in part by gifts made to ELCA churchwide ministries through their Sunday offerings, has always been committed to making its neighborhood a better place. For the past 12 years, in particular, Hephatha has taken part in a project called “Holy Ground” through an ecumenical group of congregations that fights for social justice in Milwaukee neighborhoods.
Hephatha chose to focus its campaign on a three-block stretch where the church building sits. The emphasis, Mary says, is on “elevating the quality of life for God’s people.”
They’ve built a community garden on a plot of land where a roach-infested house once stood. They also petitioned the city to make school zones safer. Then in the spring of 2012, Hephatha took part in a city-wide build week where a number of organizations joined together to construct 10 houses — one of which will now belong to Marquitta and her three children.
“It was a perfect storm of God’s goodness,” says Mary Martha that Marquitta, who had struggled most of her life with finding a stable home, could move her family into a place that Hephatha helped to build.
And now Marquitta will be able to raise her kids in the congregation that meant so much to her growing up.
“It’s amazing,” she says. “I want my kids to raise their kids in this church.”