Marieta Huff, a member of Immanuel United Methodist Church in Kenosha, has received the 2020 Perry Saito Award, given to her for her tireless work in social justice, homelessness and missionary efforts.
She was honored during a virtual ceremony Oct. 24.
The award, presented annually by the Methodist Federation for Social Action, recognizes leadership in promoting social justice and the common good.
Huff, 68, a retired nurse, is a longtime advocate for the homeless and hosted open houses for the homeless in Kenosha on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. She has also championed the needs of the homeless at meetings of the Kenosha Common Council.
Her leadership in the area of missions in her local congregation has included raising awareness of the Imagine No Malaria campaign, Midwest Mission Distribution Center, United Methodist Committee on Relief, local mission projects and missionaries in Bolivia. Additionally, she spreads joy and the love of Christ through cooking, sewing, leading Bible studies and playing the ukulele.
Legacy of Saito
Rev. Perry Saito was a leading figure in justice and reconciliation ministries regarding peace, poverty and people’s rights. He taught non-violence and respect for all life. His Christian faith and commitment to peace and justice was shaped by experiences in Japanese internment camps in California during World War II.
He entered the ordained ministry in the Rock River Conference, where he served at Chicago: St. Paul’s and Christian Fellowship. After transferring to Wisconsin, he served in Beloit, Stevens Point, Eau Claire, Wauwatosa and Neenah.
Since his death in 1985, Wisconsin United Methodist Federation has been giving the Perry Saito award in his honor to recognize clergy and laity whose witness and actions continue to reflect the values he taught through word and example.
‘An angel with wings’
According to Cindy Johnson, a member of Immanuel UMC and server for the Shalom Center’s “Meals that Matter” program, Huff has a heart of gold that shines in her efforts and care for the homeless.
“She is like an angel with wings and cares when it gets cold that they have a warm place to stay and clothing to keep them warm and food in their stomachs,” she said. “There are not enough words (for the many ways) Marieta cares for the homeless. “
According to church volunteer, David Towle, Huff deserves the award due to her tireless and unwavering support for others.
“She is always going above in beyond the showing others the peace and love of Christ through her actions,” he said. “Marieta always has the desire to meet other people’s needs either by buying extra clothing or food items to give to people she meets or by advocating on other people’s behalf.”
Huff remembers meeting Saito when she was a child and he came to speak at her church and said she thought it was neat that his name was being kept alive in the conference.
While she is grateful for the award, she does not expect recognition for her volunteer efforts.
“My former pastor, (Rev.) Bonnie Bell nominated me,” she said. “Someone told me she nominated me two years in a row, and the form was daunting. I smile when I think of it, Bonnie was ordained in the Southern Baptist denomination and served our United Methodist church for five years, so she learned about the Perri Saito award in that time, somehow.”
Credits her parents
Growing up on a farm, Huff credits her parents for providing her with the value of work by the time she was eight or nine years old. Though her family was poor, she never noticed as she said they always had enough food and lived in a stable family.
“When I graduated from high school, I thought I would be a missionary That didn’t happen, but I still felt like helping people was important,” she said. “The first week-long mission trip I went on was to Pontoosuc, Ill., in 1993, to help rebuild homes after ‘The Great Flood’ of the Mississippi River. I found out that a farm girl is well equipped to do that kind of work and I enjoyed it.”
Huff has assisted in Tennessee, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Illinois, Kentucky and around Wisconsin. She also helps with projects around the church as well as serving on various committees.
With a heart for others, Huff said most of the social issues, such as poverty, homelessness, mental illness, addictions, poor healthcare and devastation from natural disasters seem to affect some groups over others.
“Bias related to race and sexual orientation, physical appearance, developmental delay, age make everything worse,” she said. “In Matthew 25, Jesus says that the last judgment will be like separating the people who helped others by giving a drink of water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, from those who didn’t help. He said, ‘as you did these things for the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.’ I’m not afraid of judgment because I believe in salvation by faith, but I am happier and able to have peace in my heart when I do what I can to alleviate the suffering of others.”
Issues of homelessness is heartbreaking for Huff as she said it is demeaning and cruel to see individuals living outside, especially in the frigid weather.
“When people repeatedly get evicted, they have to start over from nothing to save for escrow, their children miss school, they have to carry their stuff everywhere with them. They can’t clean up for job interviews. They can’t accumulate wealth. Evictions are sometimes through no fault of their own,” she explained. “There is homelessness in Kenosha. The Shalom Center doesn’t have room for everyone. There are 16-20 people living outside right now. Each night I thank God for my bed and my roof and pray for those that have neither.”
As a former member of the CUSH Homeless Task Force, Huff said they raised approximately $18,000 for hotel vouchers administered by Kenosha Human Development Service, but she said their primary goal was to use the funds for seed money for a night shelter for their homeless who couldn’t’ find room at the Shalom Center.
“The Mayor and the City Council are all good people, but they don’t see this as their problem and no alderman wants a shelter in their district. The County is supposed to fund health and welfare projects, but has other priorities,” she said. “The shelter we hoped for was a non-starter. So, the task force has given up on the homeless issue in Kenosha and reformed itself as the Affordable Housing Task Force.”
“Sometimes, I wish that I didn’t see so clearly all that needs to be done. There is too much,” said Huff, adding, “I have never been particularly good at involving and enlisting help from people, other than (from) the leadership at Immanuel. That is a weakness that I pray God will help me to correct, so that more can be accomplished.”