Donned in her red holiday dress, 3-year-old Gabbi Mayes stood patiently. The white bow that collected the curly black hair in a ponytail on top of her head barely reached the doorbell.
“Ring the bell Gabbi,” Bene Marsh said.
She reached her finger up and pushed the button, which glowed orange.
Through the blinds, the white lights on the Christmas tree twinkled in the living room.
“Ring it again. Say ‘let me in my house,’” Marsh said.
The red door inched open.
Tears filled Amy Hale’s eyes.
“I can’t believe this is happening. I never dreamed this would happen,” said the 24-year-old Hale Mayes, Gabbi’s mother.
Step by step, Gabbi and Hale entered their new three-bedroom Southeast Decatur home. They entered their new lives.
“I prayed and prayed for a new life, but I never thought, I never allowed myself to think or imagine this,” Hale said.
On Dec. 15, God answered her prayers.
“A year ago, I never dreamed we would have a place to call home,” Hale said. “We do. We have a place we can call home. This is a miracle, a Christmas miracle.”
Hale prayed constantly. She prayed while driving. She prayed while making breakfast. She prayed while tucking Gabbi into bed.
She hadn’t prayed this diligently in years.
Raised in the church, Hale attended services every Sunday and Wednesday for 18 years. She learned the stories of Noah and Jonah, memorized the verses and recited the prayers.
“Once I was 18, I decided to stop going. At that point in my life I decided it wasn’t for me. I vowed never to go back again,” Hale said.
In 2008, she returned, unwillingly.
“My brother and sister were going to this new church. They kept asking me to go. No, I didn’t want to go, but I was at my breaking point. I was pregnant with Gabbi and I needed help. I didn’t know where the help would come from, but I was willing to try anything,” Hale said.
Her brother and sister promised this church was different. The pastor, they said, wore jeans and flip-flops. The congregation included members sporting mohawks and tattoos. Just give it a chance, Hale’s family said.
“I finally just said ‘yes’ because I wanted them to stop asking,” Hale said. “The first time I went I was changed. It felt like home and everyone there felt like family. I never had that feeling before.”
After visiting Epic Church, she returned. Sunday after Sunday she worshipped, rejoiced and prayed at the church off Old Moulton Road. On Aug. 22, 2010 — she remembers the date without hesitation — she was saved. A week later, she was baptized.
“I came up out of the water and it was like something came off of me. My old life, the drugs, the bad relationships, stopped right there,” Hale said. “I have become a better mother, sister and daughter. The last four years have been a blessing. IV and Bene have been a blessing.”
Bene Marsh knew Amy Hale’s name and face, just as she knows most of Epic Church’s members.
Started five years ago by lead pastors and husband and wife team IV and Bene Marsh, the non-denominational church strives to make a change in the community.
“Our vision is that the church should go into a community and pave the way with generosity to bring life to the city. Through faith, lives can change. Our goal as a church is to be that change for the community and stay outward focused,” IV Marsh said.
They started small, handing out free hot chocolate and coffee at the Decatur Christmas Parade. They dropped off meals at fire and police stations. They surprised motorists by paying for their gasoline. Last year, they organized makeovers and photo sessions for the families of active servicemen.
“We always want to do something bigger than last year and affect the community in a more impactful way,” IV Marsh said. “How could we top last year?”
On Dec. 19, 2011, at 5:57 a.m., God issued the challenge.
“I was praying to God about what he had in store for Epic. I wrote down we were going to give away a house. Then I started writing down questions, like, ‘Who would it go to?’ I immediately wrote down the name Amy Hale,” Bene Marsh said. “God laid her name on my heart.”
The praying intensified when IV and Bene Marsh told the church’s 28-member staff of the mission.
“We didn’t know how we were going to accomplish it. All we knew was God put this on us,” IV Marsh said. “The only way this would ever happen is if God wanted it to.”
In August, a realtor contacted the church. A three-bedroom house on Enolam Boulevard Southeast going into foreclosure fit the church’s wish list, the realtor said.
Amy Potter, a pastor and project manager for the home, agreed.
It was time to tell the congregation.
To celebrate the church’s fifth birthday in September, IV Marsh challenged each member to give what they financially could to purchasing the $21,000 home.
“No one person could do this on their own. But together we collected enough money to buy the house,” IV Marsh said.
Now everyone knew what the church planned, but only a handful knew the name of the recipient.
Oct. 26, 2012
Bene Marsh slowly drove along the streets by Oak Park Middle School. In the passenger’s seat, Amy Hale talked about God’s love and her future.
With each passing minute, Marsh’s heart beat faster.
“I couldn’t stand it. I thought I was going to burst and tell her,” Marsh said.
A week earlier, Bene Marsh called Hale to arrange a lunch date.
“She said Gabbi and I had been in her thoughts,” Hale said. “I didn’t know where we were going so I was worried about what to wear.”
The lunch was a ruse. Instead of lunch, Bene Marsh would drive Hale to the home where Epic’s leadership team waited.
One more turn.
The car inched toward the house.
“Everyone was standing outside. I thought it was a grill-out and that I should have brought something,” Hale said. “Then Bene handed me the keys. That’s when it hit me.”
Wiping away tears, Hale walked through the house. In the stark empty rooms, Hale envisioned a princess room for Gabbi, a place to eat family dinners and a backyard where her daughter could ride her Barbie Jeep.
“We will have a place to call home that we know won’t be taken away. I am in shock. I can’t believe this is happening,” Hale said.
In less than two months, the days of carrying her daughter up the 16 steps to their second-floor Decatur apartment would end.
Ninety-four volunteers worked more than 600 hours to renovate the house. In 50 days, they landscaped the yard, paved the driveway, sealed the windows, stripped and sanded the floors, remodeled the bathroom, installed insulation, built the deck, laid the roofing, decorated the interior and attached a swing to the front porch.
As the volunteers worked physically, Hale worked mentally, meeting with a financial planner and life coach to prepare for the responsibility of home ownership.
“The hardest thing to do is to not worry about the results. We will equip her the best we can, but we don’t have control of the results,” IV Marsh said. “We are not called to make sure everything turns out perfect. We are called to follow God and God led us to giving this house to Amy. He is the one who has control.”
As the days passed and November became December, Hale’s questions and doubts arose. Did God really talk to Bene about her? Did she deserve the house?
“None of us deserves the lives we are given and the love God shows us,” Bene Marsh said. “The great part for us is that how God loves on people is through people. We are lucky enough to be those people.”
“Everyone knows John 3:16,” IV Marsh added. “That verse says ‘God so loved he gave.’ That’s what we concentrate on. He loved, so he gave. We love so we give. It’s cliche, but it’s truly more fun to give than to receive.”
Dec. 15, 2012
Cheers erupted from the street as the red door opened, revealing the hardwood floors, cream walls and marble fireplace. Gabbi ran down the hall to the room painted purple with a canopy bed — the Princess Room. She arranged the plastic cups and saucers on the play table and hosted her first tea party in her new home.
“You know, every little girl dreams of living in a house with a white picket fence,” said Hale, who is currently looking for a job. “My dream has come true. We have a place to call home.”
Standing on the back deck surrounded by her family, Hale embraced IV and Bene Marsh.
“I have one thing to say,” IV Marsh said. “Welcome home.”