When Jennifer Maggio began an outreach to single mothers at Healing Place Church in 2007, she admits she didn’t really have a plan when three teen moms showed up at her house.
“I had never led any kind of Bible study at all, so my initial thought was we would get together and eat, and then I would look at them and they would look at me, and I’d say, ‘Well, I’m here,’ ” Maggio said.
A decade later, Maggio is still reaching out to single moms. That is about the only thing that has stayed the same.
Instead of a tiny gathering, Maggio has helped create more than 1,500 groups in several countries. Maggio has created The Life of a Single Mom, a nonprofit organization that connects with all denominations. No longer focused just on teens, the nonprofit has touched the lives of widows, divorcées and grandmothers unexpectedly raising grandchildren. Having no teaching materials when she began, Maggio has written her own.
Those familiar with this ministry say Maggio is the perfect leader.
“No. 1, it’s Jennifer’s faith. Her faith is immovable, absolutely immovable,” said Jill Rigby Garner, director of Manners of the Heart, who has led workshops at the The Life of a Single Mom's national events. “When she sees a failure or a setback, disappointment, it’s never a stop sign for Jennifer. It’s just a hurdle.
“She’s got her goal in front of her that no single mom will ever walk alone. That is her goal, and she means that. She means no single mom — none — will ever walk alone.”
To Maggio, churches that aren’t ministering to single moms are missing the boat, a belief supported by her own remarkable story.
Growing up in Ferriday, Maggio was high school valedictorian. But success hid a horrific home life. Her mother died in a car wreck when Maggio was a toddler, and her father medicated his grief with alcohol and a string of failed marriages. One of Maggio’s step-relatives sexually abused her.
Seeking love, Maggio became sexually active at 13 and hid two miscarriages in high school before becoming pregnant during her senior year, for which her father kicked her out of the house. After briefly living in her car, she stayed with a friend until delivering a boy. Ten days later, she took a job waiting tables at Pizza Hut and attended community college at night. She became pregnant by the same boyfriend and had a baby girl two years later.
When Maggio speaks to single moms, she knows the territory.
“I think being transparent in general … when you’re honest about those things, it tears down walls,” Maggio said. “I think people seeing me come full circle and being able to say, ‘She definitely was pretty messed up, and if (God) can use her and if he can love her, then surely there’s a place for me.’ That’s the reason I’m really honest about the things I’ve done wrong and the things that were done wrong to me, even.”
Maggio said she left her boyfriend when he became abusive and started attending Riverside Baptist Church in Vidalia. There, she said she found friends who loved her without judging, helped her find used furniture for her apartment and helped her live out her faith.
Maggio took a sales job with Beneficial Finance (now HSBC, a multinational financial services company) in Natchez. She met her husband, Jeff, at work, and was promoted to assistant vice president. Together, they have a daughter.
When Maggio started the single mom outreach at Healing Place, it quickly outgrew her living room. Within a year, hundreds were attending meetings at the church, and Maggio realized she’d found something much bigger than she ever imagined. By 2010, she created The Life of a Single Mom as a nonprofit organization.
National statistics explain the rapid growth, Maggio said. She notes that nearly half of the babies in the United States are born today into single-parent homes, and the number of single-parent households doubled between 1970 and 2006.
“Unfortunately, it is the fastest-growing demographic in the nation,” Maggio said.
Why weren’t churches reaching out to these families? Most evangelical church leaders have no personal experience with single-parent homes, Maggio said, and they may be uncomfortable ministering to women whose children were born out of wedlock, even though The Life of a Single Mom teaches biblical sexual behavior.
For single moms, the discomfort is mutual.
“Many cite that they don’t go to church because they don’t feel they belong there,” Maggio said. “They don’t feel welcomed. They feel judged. It doesn’t matter whether that’s true or not because that is what Satan uses, and that keeps them alienated and isolated. If they’re raising 25 million children, then the problem is only going to get bigger unless we do something to actively pursue these women.
“That’s why I’m so passionate about it, because the church changed my life. A relationship with the Lord changed my life, but the church is what he used to do that. So, I believe in it.”
Stories on The Life of a Single Mom and Maggio appeared on the Christian Broadcasting Network and in The New York Times, which helped the ministry grow. Though it is far bigger than she ever imagined, Maggio said her organization has only scratched the surface of ministry potential.
“Fifteen-hundred support groups are a lot of support groups, but there are roughly 300,000 evangelical Christian churches in the country, so, proportionally, it’s still very, very small,” she said. “We see that there’s a lot of work to be done. We have a goal of planting 100 new ministries a year.”
Garner is confident that this ministry will continue to grow.
“She knows that God has called her to this mission, and he’s the one who put this desire in her heart,” Garner said. “Because of her deep faith, she’s giving it all she’s got to fulfill the mission that God gave her to do in her time on the Earth. That’s her motivator.”
2017 National TLSM Single Mom's Conference
WHAT: Conference for single mothers and single parent ministry leaders.
WHEN: 6-9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 22; 8 a.m.-12:45 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23
WHERE: Healing Place Church, 19202 Highland Road