Rev. Mary Lee Downey knows what it’s like to be the underdog. Growing up in rural Arkansas, Mary often heard that her big dreams couldn’t be achieved because she was born a girl. As the Founder and Executive Director of the Hope Center in Osceola County Florida, she spends her life advocating for those less fortunate.
As a Deacon in the Florida United Methodist Church, Mary feels particularly called to justice for those on the outskirts of society.
“The Hope Center is a tangible representation of the calling that I have on my life,” Mary said. “It is exactly what God has called me to do to take care of those who are marginalized.”
She first remembers standing up for a friend when she was 12 years old.
In the mid-90s the schools were integrated, but Mary’s town was still divided into black and white by the railroad track. During VBS, Mary invited some of her African American school friends to attend.
“I was totally and completely baffled when we lost two church members over it,” Mary said. “This was in 1995!”
Mary’s mother, who worked for the public housing authority, assured her that she hadn’t done anything wrong. But it wasn’t until college, that Mary came to understand her value as a women and a validation of her call to preach and teach.
In college, she started dating her now husband, who was United Methodist. He introduced her to the United Methodist Social Principles & Creed that discusses its approach to caring for the poor, health care, the environment, and women in ministry. The UMC’s approach to women as pastors and leaders allowed Mary to accept God’s vision for her life.
“When I read the Gospel and saw Jesus at work in the world, and if our goal is to imitate Christ, I didn’t see people doing that,” Mary said. “I didn’t see people walking out their doors to feed the hungry.”
So Mary decided to do something about it. After working with homeless families for years and in her final year at Asbury Seminary, she created a business and funding plan to start the Community Hope Center on the 192 Corridor in Osceola County Florida. She hit the ground running after graduating in 2012, and the Hope Center started providing services in 2013.
Since then, the Hope Center has served more than 21,000 individuals to meet health, spiritual and physical needs; address job and food insecurities; and provide housing assistance. The Hope Center also recently started IDignity, Osceola a program that helps the homeless process the paperwork to receive the proper identification to get a job.
As Mary reflects on her life, she sees the ways God prepared and empowered her for her work at the Hope Center. In high school, Mary interned with her mom at the public housing authority. She wrote and edited successful grants and learned the housing business from the inside. Her work in a downtown church brought awareness to the need for care to homeless individuals. Degrees in mass media, art history and liberal arts, and Christian leadership with an emphasis in missions help her provide the homeless population with a one-stop shop designed to meet their needs.
“God was with me every step of the way and brought people around me to increase my skill set to be able to do the vision that God continues to put in front of me,” Mary said.
Each day Mary asks if the Hope Center is still God’s dream for this part of Florida. God has re-affirmed her calling in many ways, but one day He spoke through a client named Marc. Marc had been chronically homeless, and the Hope Center had worked with him for two years to help him find stable housing.
In his exit interview, he said words that Mary has never forgotten.
“It was not that you gave me food, clothing or a place to live,” Marc said. “It was that when I walked in the door you made me feel like a person and a human being. I wasn’t a number. I was real.”
Mary believes it is the church’s responsibility to help others like Marc.
“You don’t have to be Mary Downey to start a Hope Center,” she said. “What you have to do is pay attention to where God is calling you. Every heartbeat has a calling and a purpose. Every person is a child of God and a living breathing person who is called to do something in God’s kingdom.”
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