6/5/2021

90 CHOCTAW AND HOLY FAMILIES: GOD DOES INDEED WORK IN MYSTERIOUS WAYS

The “June Monsoon” of 2021 (June 6-10) resulted (all alliteration aside) in a wearisome week of wretched weather: intermittent thunderstorms, sustained rainfall, and record flooding across the flatlands of the Mississippi Delta. None of it, however, deterred our second post-COVID volunteer group—the intrepid work-warriors from Holy Family Catholic Church in Joliet, IL—and the new homeowner family of Devin Fair and Tommie Magsby with whom the Illinoisans came to partner. Though the rain resulted in the formation of “Lake Choctaw” surrounding the rehabbed house at 90 Choctaw, work on the dwelling proceeded, uninterrupted by everything the foul weather could present. And the fascinating 90 Choctaw Saga continued to unfold in surprising and inspiring ways, as the old adage “God works in strange and mysterious ways” proved true once again.

The Saga began back in 2010 with the construction of the house, the first of a row of Habitat/Fuller houses to grace that street. Unfortunately, 90 Choctaw was abandoned by its homeowner in 2018 and had to be foreclosed on in 2020. That part of the story was uneven at best: initially beautiful, later disappointing, ultimately ambivalent—both good and sad—but, in any case, leaving a solidly constructed building, ready for renovation and a new occupant. As we had done with houses similarly abandoned or foreclosed on, on Bolivar and on 8th Streets, we decided to sell it in order to dig further out from under our inherited debt. And, according to the frequency with which my phone was ringing after a “For Sale” sign was posted in the front yard, the Choctaw house was proving attractive to any number of potential owners.

One of those inquiring most consistently throughout the fall of 2020 was a local Clarksdalian named Michael Wilson, whose growing family, he thought, could fit quite well into the 4-bedroom, 2-bathroom home on Choctaw. Then, at the end of November, I got another call from Michael that changed the conversation significantly. Over the Thanksgiving break, the house in which they were living in Clarksdale had burned to the ground and they lost everything, though no one, thankfully, was hurt. Fortunately, they did have insurance, so they were being put up in a hotel temporarily, but obviously that wasn’t going to be a long-term solution. So we began to engage in more serious negotiations. Ultimately, we agreed upon a price which factored in the reality that more work would need to be done after the sale.

Around the first of the new year (2021), the agreement was finalized, the papers were drawn up, and the closing was set for the next day. Since the house was sold, I decided to swing by the house on Choctaw and move the “For Sale” sign to our other rehab project on 8th Street, which I did in the early afternoon. A couple hours later, I received another call from Michael, asking if I had just moved the “For Sale” sign from Choctaw to 8th. When I admitted to the deed, he asked about particulars on that house. It turned out, in the ensuing discussion, that he and his family had been living right around the corner from that house and he had often wondered what was going on with it. When he heard that it had five bedrooms and two bathrooms, he got really excited and asked the price. I told him that because we were farther along in the rehab process and because it was slightly bigger, it would cost a little more, and he did not bat an eye—he said, emphatically, that he wanted that house and that paying the difference would be no problem. So, the next morning, when Michael and his wife Lakeia met Bunky and me at the lawyer’s office, we just had the lawyer draw up a new contract for a different dwelling, and those papers were quickly signed. What was really beautiful about it was that all of us were even happier than we had been the day before—Michael and Lakeia got the house they really wanted and the Fuller Center got some extra, much needed cash—and it seemed like God’s favor was shining on all of us!

Such a tidy ending, however, would be just too much for even a divine appointment with Clarksdale Habitat/Fuller, we soon discovered. As we went to transfer the deed from the affiliate to Michael, we discovered that we had sold him a house on which we only owned half the land! The house had been built on 4 adjacent lots but, it turned out, only 2 of those lots actually belonged to Habitat—and the other two now belonged to the State of Mississippi, for failure to pay taxes. So Michael Wilson was now the proud possessor of half a house, at the cost of a full one, while the rest of his house sat on land belonging to the State of Mississippi! Is this a great country or what?

Thus, Bunky, who has done this trick so many times in the last couple of years that it’s become almost a habit, was called upon to trot out his magic one more time. He checked the deeds at the courthouse, contacted the proper officials in the Jackson, figured out that we could re-purchase the property (that we had already sold!) for about $1000, and, after some more legal transactions, transferred the deeds to a very happy and relieved Michael and Lekeia! I think, however, that I may have been happier and more relieved than any of them since the sale of the house on 8th Street enabled us to finally and completely pull out of the financial hole in which we had found ourselves two years earlier. And we still had one more house to rehab and fill.

At that point, even stranger events began to unfold. We purposefully did NOT return the “For Sale” sign to Choctaw, as the Board determined that we would be better serving our mission if we could put a properly selected homeowner into the property. With that in mind, the work crew from GSWU (see previous posting) had gotten a great start on the rehab process in March and left most of the interior cleaned up and freshly painted. With Shequita Carter now fully immersed in the Edwards St. ownership process, however, and no one else in the pipeline, we were a little stymied as to homeownership. I had plenty of other Fuller work to keep me occupied, including dealing with a mass of still-unfiled documents we had inherited from the Habitat days. Much of that mess had been cluttering our hallway at home while we waited to return to our office and occasionally, I would pick up a pile, hoping to be able to discard it and then move on to something else.

One day in March, I attacked a pile, the first page of which was a note written in 2015 (!) by a woman describing living conditions in the hovel in which she and her family were currently living. It was a heart-wrenching note but clearly from the date no longer relevant, so I prepared to throw it out. Then something stopped me—it was the thought that maybe, somewhere, somehow, the note could serve as an example of the kind of obstacles faced by those in need here. So I kept it—and because I am a historian and a teacher used to remembering names, I filed the name away in my memory bank.

A couple of days later, I took another call from someone expressing interest in the Choctaw house. She told me that she had called before but noticed that the house was still unoccupied even though the For Sale sign was gone and she wondered about the current situation. She also told me that she had been part of the Habitat program before and then she told me her name—Devin Fair. I was a little flabbergasted as I immediately recognized it as the name on the note I had just encountered, but I took her number and said nothing more about it to her. I did, however, ask Matt as soon as I saw him if he remembered the name. He indeed did and proceeded to fill me in on the rest of that chapter. It seems that Devin had not only been “in the program” before, but had actually been accepted as a homeowner. But the home that would be available to her was in a questionable neighborhood and, since she had small children, she had passed on moving into it. Then things got confused and lost and ultimately forgotten. But Matt remembered her well and was happy to vouch for her homeowner-worthiness, so we took that information to the Board. Could Devin, since she had been approved in the past and since we had yet to begin the process of identifying new potential homeowners, become the new occupant of 90 Choctaw?

The Board responded with a unanimous “yes,” with, of course, some necessary caveats. Devin would need to complete the financial literacy courses again, she and her family would need to get a good start on her sweat equity hours, and she would need to renew her commitment to partnering with the Fuller program. She enthusiastically and quickly agreed to all three of these, and she and her husband Tommie began to complete the sweat equity hours immediately. And that is where Holy Family entered the story.

The leaders of the Holy Family group were longtime volunteers Bob and Kathie Salek. Previously, Bob and Kathie had accompanied groups from St. Dennis, a parish near them in the south Chicago suburbs, and two years ago, Bob had brought his old buddy, Rich McCrae, to the Delta. Bob and Kathy had helped work on the 90 Choctaw house back in the day and Bob and Rich were part of the group that had gotten the pre-Shequita house on Edwards almost done, back in June of 2019. Of course, COVID had prevented them from returning in 2020, but Bob had been the most persistent of the old volunteers in inquiring about 2021 opportunities, so, with all 9 of the group double vaccinated, we were very happy to welcome them. The group consisted of veteran Habitat volunteers Rich and his wife Linda, Susan and Pat Haas, Jeff and Gretchen Nurczyk and daughter Erika, and the Saleks, with the other six being newcomers to the Delta. They were a skilled group and were looking forward a lot of outdoor work in the hot Delta sun. Instead . . . but we are in danger of getting ahead of ourselves a little.

HF arrived on Saturday evening after being misled by their travel app in negotiating the morass known as Memphis (which was down to one bridge over the Mississippi River due to structural damage to the other). They settled in nicely, familiarized themselves with the dorm, and met with Ben Williams in the evening. On Sunday morning, they went to early Mass and then set about creating order out of the chaos that is (was) the dorm. In the early afternoon, we set out for the History Tour of Coahoma County, comfortably packed into First Presbyterian Church’s big van, graciously provided and driven by Pastor Ryan Dean. The tour went well and it was nice that we could all be in the same vehicle. And, as usual, we stopped at a little park on the Mississippi River to share stories about the Elaine Massacre across the river and the Great MS River Flood of 1927. Then it was time to leave, but the only problem with leaving turned out to be the sand that we had parked in, which decided it was loathe to give up such valuable quarry. And so, despite the best efforts of the group, we remained stuck until Ryan called one of his parishioners who lived nearby and who had not only a good truck but a long record of rescuing people like us from the sand trap. So we were able to finish the tour with no further problems.


Monday morning dawned rainy and miserable, but the crew was undaunted. Expecting better weather any time, they set about continuing to clean up the dorm tool room before taking care of business inside 90 Choctaw. Climate improvement, however, never materialized; instead, the rain continued intermittently, oftentimes heavily, for the next four days, and by Thursday morning, the house was almost completely surrounded by water, with record flooding being reported in other areas nearby. Still, the HF folks persevered, even to wading through the flood to gain entry to the house. By the end of the week, they had solved all plumbing problems (some of which may have been left over from the initial construction), they had installed new countertops, they had upgraded the electrical system, they had hung three exterior doors, they had finished cleaning inside, and when the weather finally cleared up Thursday afternoon, they repainted the entire exterior. In addition, they painted the ceilings (and Devin’s face). That’s what can happen when you are fortunate enough to be graced with a group of electricians, plumbers, general handymen and women, and all of them folks comfortable with hard work! And, as it turns out, masters of the biblical admonition to be quietly generous, not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing, as new appliances, helpful tools and necessary supplies kept appearing all week long.

In addition to the labor performed, however, Holy Family really lived up to their name, as they met, worked alongside of and bonded with the new homeowners, Devin and Tommie. (They also celebrated Rich’s birthday in fine style while they were here—see picture). But the Fuller community dynamic was in fullest view at the end of the week, as the volunteers and board members met with new homeowner Shequita Carter and her family for a formal dedication of her new house on Edwards (see previous news item), followed by a raucous potluck at the volunteer dorm featuring many of the same folks at the dedication plus a number of current homeowners—all enjoying the grilling talents of Ben Williams as we welcomed Devin and Tommy to the Clarksdale Fuller family.


Whenever we have a situation where an original homeowner, for whatever reason, isn’t able or willing to fulfill the partnership agreements, it is a sad day and a difficult time for all of us. As we all know, however, God seems to specialize in circumstances in need of some resurrecting power, and it certainly seems that He sort of pulled out the stops on this one, with not only one but two deserving families eventually finding decent, affordable homes, and with the Fuller community finding two new partnering families. After a work week like that, we are also looking forward to the Holy Family family returning to our community as well. And so is Devin! As she told me a couple of days ago while we were working on finishing the preliminary deed to the almost-completed house on Choctaw, “You gotta tell me when those Holy Family folks are coming back. I’m working with them again on whatever project y’all have!!” Hopefully, it will be new construction next time!