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.