By Lindsay Ruebens
UNC Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE
Martha Nance believes in the unexpected — like the birth of her second son, Jesse Alexander, in 2005 when she was 41. Her son, who goes by Alex, was a surprise because Nance was told more than 20 years ago that she wouldn’t be able to have any more children.
“He’s a miracle baby and such a blessing,” Nance said.
And her little miracle set off a chain of events that Nance thought unthinkable. Her pregnancy with Alex was high risk, confining Nance to six months of bed rest. This began one of the most challenging times that she would face.
“I lost my job, my home, everything,” Nance said, who has lived in Durham since 1999.
So Nance turned to Durham’s Interfaith Hospitality Network, an emergency shelter for homeless families. IHN works with local congregations, which provide families with meals and a place to sleep.
Nance stayed at different churches in Durham — several of them Methodist — for about three months and became familiar with her caregivers. She went into labor while she was at Epworth United Methodist Church. Later, IHN helped her get into transitional public housing.
In the next four years, Nance rented a small two-bedroom house and found a job at Duke University as a financial care counselor.
Finally getting herself back on her feet, she decided she wanted her own house. While Nance pondered home ownership, a coalition of Methodist churches in the area was making plans and raising money to build a Habitat for Humanity house in Durham.
Roxanne Little is the associate director of development for Habitat for Humanity of Durham, which is located at Trinity United Methodist Church. Little said she remembers the day that things began to come full circle with Martha Nance.
“The doorbell rang at 8 or 8:30 here at the church,” Little said, adding that the call came before normal hours. “I went downstairs and who was standing there but Martha Nance. She walked in the door and looked at me and said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve been here before.’”
Little said Habitat has a volunteer selection committee that chooses homebuyers, and that Nance had many steps to take before being selected. But it seemed uncanny to Little that several Methodist churches were already planning to build a house.
“Of course in my mind I’m thinking how incredible that would be if it all worked out that Martha would be the homebuyer, but I’ve
learned to try to not force those things,” Little said. “One thing led to a another and things just happened to be. It’s what we call a Habitat miracle.”
Now, Nance comes every Saturday to help work on the construction of her new house, which began March 6, on E. Main Street in Durham.
She said she was shocked to learn that the very people who would build her house are several of the same who took her in five years ago at IHN.
“I was floored, I was just absolutely floored,” Nance recalled.
Cathy Carlson, coordinator for the Durham district of United Methodist Churches and volunteer coordinator for Nance’s house, said everyone, especially Nance, was overjoyed at the first planning meeting in August. “It was just fun to see her eyes light up and say, ‘I know you!’” Carlson said.
Carlson said she thinks Nance’s house being assigned to the same people who helped her five years ago was part of divine intervention.
“She was chosen for us,” Carlson said. “That’s a perfect fit. God did that.”
Habitat for Humanity is celebrating its 25th anniversary in Durham this year, and the organization is pushing to complete up to 25 houses in honor of the landmark.
Little said that Habitat in Durham will soon complete its 250th house, and that 100 of those homes have been built in just the last five years.
“We can only do that because of the Durham district and churches like these making a difference in our Durham community,” she said.
Typically Habitat volunteers only work on houses on Saturdays. But every Wednesday for the past three years, a group of Durham men from Mt. Sylvan United Methodist Church have worked all day on Habitat houses under construction.
With special ties to Nance’s story, the men — in the age bracket of 60 to 75 — have shown up on Wednesdays to work on her house.
The group is headed by Herb Cimburke, 73. He said they’ve probably worked on at least 35 houses in the past three years.
“It’s just there for me to do,” he said with a shrug.
Nance, who stopped by to give the men pizza for lunch last Wednesday, said she appreciates each person who has helped her on her journey toward becoming a homeowner. She said she attributes her faith to her good fortune.
“Everything’s come full circle. I thought I had everything, and then I lost everything,” she said. “But I’ve been getting blessings from heaven rained down on me everywhere. I had to be stripped of everything before I realized it wasn’t all about me. It’s about Him.”
And perhaps Nance’s next miracle will be the fulfillment of a birthday wish. She said her goal is to be in her new house for her birthday on June 25. Carlson said completion is slated for June 26, though the construction has been expedited by the Wednesday workers.
No matter what day that the house is finished, Nance said she is thrilled to have a home of her own after rising above her homelessness.
“I’ve got somewhere for my two kids to stay,” she said. “It’s a dream come true.”