by Beth Townsend
Jennifer Maggio, founder of The Life of a Single Mom Ministries, is a woman of purpose with a posture of certainty. While her story is compelling, she shares it with ease and conviction.
Meeting a need for a significant portion of the population, Maggio’s story is the foundation of a rapidly growing ministry, due to a gaping need in many families. Less than 1 percent of Christian churches offer anything formal for single moms, yet it’s the fastest growing sector of the population. Two-out-of-three single mothers are not going to church anywhere, yet few churches are mobilizing ministries.
“It’s a huge disparity,” Maggio sighed. “Research supports that this number will continue to grow, yet many churches are struggling with what to do,” she continued. “Even those with the heart to do something don’t know what to do.”
“I share my story with transparency because God’s totally set me free, and I carry no shame,” Maggio said. “Also because my story is so much more common than many would like to acknowledge.”
Dressed professionally with impeccable style in an office with phones ringing and people going about ministry, she appears, like many, to have it all together. Yet as she shared her story, it became evident that God had His hand on her difficult life, and her dependence on Him has become her identity.
Maggio’s family was fragmented early due to tragedy. Her father raised her, as a drunk driver killed her mother at the age of 32.
“You can imagine that my dad was devastated,” she said. “He used alcohol and women to medicate. He was married six times and had girlfriends and mistresses all the while. My home was just not a safe place.”
It was then that the abuse started. Jennifer began being sexually abused at three years old, and it lasted nine years. Her father was not one of her abusers, nor did he know about it.
“I never really spoke about it publicly until after he died,” Maggio explained. “It was then I had the freedom to talk about it because I never wanted to disrespect my family.” After years of dysfunction she became disillusioned as to what a family was supposed to be.
“I just had a warped view of what a family home looks like,” she said. “My dad was a deacon in the local church for over 20 years. Every time he remarried, we moved, then no one knew how many times he had been married or the abuse that was going on behind closed doors.” Jennifer’s father worked away a lot, which meant she was left in the care of stepmoms.
“I began being beaten when I was young,” she said. “Forced to steal as a little girl, I remember getting up in the wee hours of the morning to steal newspapers for coupons.” She laughed as she recalled what had become her norm. “I would steal yard art from neighbors and we would put it out like it was ours. I was forced to view pornography from the time I was little, being held down and forced to view that with stepmoms.”
“Many things that have happened in my life can be hard to stomach, I know,” she was clear that her story was heavy, with many illustrations of pain and devastation. Through the cloudy past, Jennifer recalled her childhood Sundays clearly.
“Because we were in church every Sunday it adds an entirely different facet to the story,” Maggio said. “For me, church was the only time during the week when we were normal. We cleaned up well. We sat on the pew together. We smiled. For that hour each week, it was like we were normal.” Recalling the contradiction of those Sundays from the reality of the balance of her week was evident in Jennifer’s expression as she shared the pleasantness juxtaposed against the rest of her childhood experience.
“Yet somehow I always felt I would never measure up,” she explained. The people in the church seemed so perfect, and their lives were nothing like mine. I was never going to measure up to that. So I had a great deal of low self-value and esteem.”
Moving on from her family life, Jennifer recalled her life as a teenager and the various ways she struggled to fit in and search for some sense of independence. She is from the Ferriday-Vidalia area and graduated from Ferriday High School.
“When I was thirteen I started having sex outside of marriage, I was a baby. It breaks my heart now as a mom of teenagers how little I thought of my value,” she explained.
“I went from one relationship to the other hoping somebody would give me value. I got pregnant twice in high school. I entered into a seven-year relationship when I was in ninth grade. We had two children, but I got pregnant [a total of] 4 times.” Maggio continued, “I had two miscarriages in high school I didn’t tell a soul about. I graduated high school six months pregnant and not a soul knew. I was valedictorian and stood on the homecoming court; class president, you name it.”
Trying to create self-respect through performance and portraying a respectable image, she recalled that drive to prove something to the world.
“Part of the story is that perfectionism is bondage. We know addictions can be bondage; to pornography, drugs or money,” she stated. “I was a straight A student! That was all a way to try to give myself value while hoping someone would finally say, ‘great job.’”
With such great grades and extra curricular accomplishments came opportunities to further her education and prepare for a solid future. Yet what was not on her transcript or resume was that she was pregnant. While she was offered scholarships all-across the country, she had to redirect her future and plan for a child.
“When I finally called my dad to tell him I was pregnant, he said, ‘have a nice life,’ and hung up on me,” she recalled. “I remember it vividly because it was almost like a relief in some way. I had lived in such a violent home that I didn’t know if he would attempt to kill my boyfriend or something crazy like that.” Maggio continued, “Then I lived in the back of my car, I had nothing. I wasn’t even permitted back in my home to get my clothes. I literally had one outfit, and my body was growing out of that one.”
Once people began to understand what was happening, assistance came. Jennifer moved in with one of her closest friends as her parents had agreed to accept her.
“It was very difficult,” Maggio explained. “It was the first time I was separated from my twin sister; the first time I’d been separated from my family.” After discussing how her dreams of a healthy family life were in shambles, she shared her disappointment with candor.
“Nothing in life had turned out the way that I had hoped. It was the hardest time of my life,” she said. Though that season was difficult, it was about to become even more complicated.
Maggio recalled, “My boyfriend also got another girl pregnant and married her when I was seven months pregnant.” Facing humiliation in the small town where she lived, Jennifer was certain that the whole world knew what was happening.
As things continued to crumble around her, she could no longer make sense of how her life could possibly turn around. That small glimmer of hope had faded and she faced her new reality.
“It was like my whole world crashed around me,” she said. “I remember that night so well because I scared the people I was living with because I was just screaming in agony I hurt so bad.”
With no time to lose, Jennifer had no choice but to pull herself together and push forward, alone and afraid, yet desperate and determined to make a life for her and her new baby.
“I gave birth to my little boy, and ten days later I got my first job and moved into the projects,” she explained. “We lived on food stamps and welfare. I worked all day every day and enrolled in community college at night. It was just survival for three straight years.” Still young and insecure, she could not seem to let go of that unhealthy relationship that had been a part of her life for so many years.
“My boyfriend came home on college break and I got pregnant again with my daughter who is now almost 18,” Maggio explained. “He was still married, though he never lived with her.”
Maggio held nothing back in sharing her story.
“The reason I’m so transparent is simple, if you arrive at single parenthood because your husband cheated on you or left you and you had no part in the demise, it’s something that happened to you,” she said. “Perhaps you are a single mom because you are a widow. Those kinds of stories are difficult, but they clean up well.”
Maggio explained how her ministry is different from many others out there.
“Even though the church has struggled to minister to single moms, I think it’s often easier to have a divorce care program, particularly for moms who had no fault in it,” she stated. “It’s just easier to minister to people who didn’t play a role in their single parenthood.”
When hearing her story, it’s easy to assume that some of Jennifer’s decisions were exacerbated by the traumatic childhood she endured. She had a tough upbringing filled with abuse with very little foundation on which to build a life for herself, yet her take is not what you’d expect.
“When I think of my dad, it’s just sad. I had a brother that died when he was 17 due to being born with a heart defect. My dad watched his son die over two long and devastating years, she said”. “His brother [Maggio’s father] had been murdered; there is so much back story that played a role in who he was. My birth was the result of an affair, so you uncover layers and layers of generational issues and dysfunction,” Maggio explained.
“For a while I harbored resentment towards my dad, but now I just feel sad.” Her compassion for her dad was evident, though it’s after years of a healing process that has been intentional.
Getting ready to birth her second baby, she described that time in her life when she was working hard to simply keep afloat.
“I had my daughter on a Friday and I went back to work on Monday,” she said. “I had no medical coverage, no vacation time, and if I didn’t work they didn’t eat, it was that simple.” Recalling an in-home day care, Jennifer smiled as she described a woman who helped her through that time, “She was a godsend.”
She now had two babies and was struggling to make ends meet.
“My turning point was a decision to go back to church. I had no money, no friends and very little hope.” She continued, “My boyfriend had come over on a Saturday night, trashed my apartment and abused me. I was feeling like my life could not get any worse at that moment, yet I decided to go to church the next morning.”
As she shared how her life began to make healthy turns for the better, Jennifer smiled and laughed about new beginnings.
“Slowly over the next couple of years God started to change my life. It wasn’t this miraculous one-time event where God plucked me out of the depths of the devastation,” she said. “It was over a series of months and years where I made the decision to keep going back. Even when it was hard, even when I felt like I didn’t belong, even when I felt like no one understood, I just kept going.”
She continued, “The Lord has used this season, because when any single moms say they don’t fit in anywhere, I can say, ‘that really doesn’t matter,’ it’s about you and getting your healing.”
After returning to church, another new season emerged in Maggio’s life.
“I began to tithe which is another big part of my story. After I went back to church I felt like the Lord was prompting me to tithe, and I was making about $500 a month,” she said. “When I started, I was still living in the projects, still driving a car that left me on the side of the road once a week, I mean it was pitiful.”
“I wrote out the checks almost begrudgingly, like how dare God want my money? But I did so because I felt it was what I was supposed to do and knew God was prompting me,” Maggio explained.
Still broke and struggling, she was excited to share how a new job presented itself just in time to prompt yet another positive change.
“Then I wound up landing a job that was a miracle, I mean, I stumbled upon it,” she said. She was offered a sales position, and sales became her niche. That was when her climb up the corporate ladder began. A key component to her newfound independence came by making a difficult yet important decision.
“Through the course of those two years, I also had the strength to finally leave that seven year relationship,” Maggio said. “I had two children with him. I never had the white picket fence and a happily ever after, so I wanted my kids to have that. I held on for far too long.” She said she felt as though she had been set free by God to leave that relationship, she knew it was a supernatural delivery. As she recalled that moment her thankfulness was noticeable.
“The corporate job that I landed, [is where] I wound up meeting my current husband, and he adopted my two children,” Maggio explained. “Their biological dad signed his rights away. Now as adults, they have more of a relationship with him than they ever had before.”
New seasons continued as her family grew.
“Eight years ago I thought I would retire in corporate America, but God would not let me forget what it was like to be alone and have nothing. So I went into my local church, Healing Place, and asked if they would let me start a single moms group.”
Maggio continued, “I started a support group at my house with three moms. It grew in about six months from three moms to about seventy-five. It never stopped growing, and eight years later it continues to be one of the nation’s largest single moms support groups in the church.”
The growth of the ministry has be staggering, further evidence of the need. When The Life of a Single Mom Ministries started in 2010, almost 5 years ago, the plan was to help one additional church start a ministry, then another. It grew into hundreds, and now they are in a total of 1,545 churches in 19 countries.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, and often times today I say I don’t know what I’m doing,” Maggio laughed. “I just get up in the morning and try to do what God’s called me to do.”
Maggio continued, “We are the only national organization focused solely on planting single moms ministries in churches. God has really given us a huge platform. I am burdened with it because I know what it feels like, and I know the perception many single moms have about the church. Even mamas who have been sold out for Christ and have been serving for 20 years, when they go through a divorce, everything changes.”
Recalling those moments when she has personally walked with women through such pain, she went straight back to the beginning.
“That is what spear-headed the movement, not wanting single moms to walk alone,” she explained. “We want the body of Christ to understand the magnitude of the problem. We see the problem, now let’s address it.”
The Life of a Single Mom Ministries does exactly that. They are currently preparing to host their first national conference in June, at Healing Place Church.
Since December 2007, they have ministered to more than 46,000 single moms.
“Eight years ago God laid on my heart to do a national conference but the timing was not right. To pull off a conference of this magnitude, it’s expensive,” Maggio said. “It has to be God’s timing because to be able to survive the amount of work it takes to do this, His hand has to be on this.” Her passion for reaching women is amazing and she’s built a team that supports their mission.
“We announced the conference in February and within the first 30 days we had women coming in from a dozen states,” she said. “Today we have women from 28 states that have registered. You have to think about the mom that would be in California or Maryland who would say, ‘I’m going to make this commitment.’ I don’t care who she is it’s a huge commitment to arrange childcare, travel, get off work, etc., and many [of these women] will be in Louisiana for the first time.”
The planning has been carefully crafted to maximize the time they have to reach those attending. They are flying in experts from around the country to teach. Workshops cover everything from financial planning and parenting to learning how to pray, and even healing from damaged emotions.
There will also be a session that will teach how to establish a career and move off of government assistance. Additionally, a career fair is going to be set up during the conference where there will be local vendors sharing services as well as national ones. “Plus amazing worship,” Maggio added.
No conference in Louisiana would be complete without an after party, which will feature Cajun dancers, music, and free food!
“This conference is about empowering women for two days,” Maggio said. “They will leave emotionally and spiritually filled. The hope is that there will be trickle effect; that they will go back and start a ministry in their church and share what God has done in their life,” She smiled.
Having a local church behind her has been critical as this ministry has taken shape and grown so much in just a few years.
“Healing Place is servant and outreach minded,” she explained. “When I sat down with them eight years ago to talk about starting this ministry, it was never a no, it was a ‘let’s pray about this, let’s see when God opens that door.’” She discussed how the process evolved over the years and the freedom she has been given to do what God has called her to do.
“They have trusted that I’m a daughter of this house and that I’m going to honor my pastoral staff. Their generosity has never been about only Healing Place moms,” she said. “It’s never been about growing their church and getting their name out there. Because of that, God has blessed the ministry on such a large scale. They were also one of the first to come on board with financial support.”
In discussing the fact that so many kids come from broken and dysfunctional homes, she admitted it can be difficult to get a healthy start in life and make sound decisions when so few were modeled early in life.“It’s difficult, it is.” Yet the hope she professed didn’t stop.
“Our God is far bigger than any statistic. He is bigger than any socio-economic status, your birth parents, your story, or what side of the track you were born on and your skin color. The denominational lines we sometimes draw, our God is much bigger than that,” Maggio stated.
“My central message is this: Once a kid or a 55 year old adult, whomever it is, once they fully understand that Christ didn’t just pay for salvation, which would have been enough, He paid for freedom,” Maggio said. “Once people fully get that, they have the courage, strength and the fearlessness to move into that plan that God has for them.”
She continued, “That for me was the break through—I have the freedom to be who God has called me to be. I have the freedom to share my story without any shame. Freedom is most important part of my message.“
We can help by encouraging women to attend this conference and support the single moms in their life. This conference is open to all women, not just single moms. Maggio encourages other women to attend with a friend; pay her way, buy her ticket. Maybe she doesn’t have the money and doesn’t want to tell anybody. Go stand with your friend.
“There should be bulletins and fliers in every church across this city. Churches, please tell others about it! Pay for them to get there, it’s only $39 for a two-day conference,” Maggio exclaimed. “We were strategic about making that thing as affordable as possible.”
“In addition, others are coming alongside to help. Lamar Outdoor Advertising has generously put up billboards in three states (Ala., Miss., and La.), for free,” she said. “Not only that, but Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden has made that weekend, June 19-20, citywide single moms weekend! Our city is behind us to say, we stand with our single moms.”