Meet Mary Nelson

Embracing God's Vision for Community

Mary Nelson is on the faculty of the Northwestern University’s Asset Based Community Development Institute (ABCD) and consults, speaks and does workshops in the U.S. and internationally (South Africa, Australia, East Timor, Germany, Mexico). She is currently serving as interim Executive Director of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions and is on the faculty of the Loyola University Master’s in Social Justice and Community Development program; she also teaches graduate courses in community development with the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE) and at North Park University in the Chicago area.

She is the founding President of Bethel New Life, a faith-based community development corporation focused on its low-income, African-American west-side Chicago community, and served as its CEO for 27 years until her retirement in 2006. See her full bio for the wide range of pioneering projects using its community assets that Bethel accomplished under her leadership.

Here’s a quick introduction to Mary and how she got started in community building in Chicago in this video from Duke Divinity’s Faith and Leadership program.

Image: ABCD Asia Pacific Network

About the Lead Author

Mary Nelson
Mary Nelson was for 27 years the founding President and CEO of Bethel New Life, a faith-based community development corporation focused on its low-income, African-American west-side Chicago community. Under her leadership the organization grew from an annual budget of $9,600 to more than $14 million, employing almost 350 people.  More importantly, Bethel has been a pioneering leader in building sustainable community based on the strengths and capacities of people and a place that others had written off as a ghetto.  During her tenure, Bethel used the community’s assets to developed over 1,200 units of affordable housing; pioneered in energy efficient, transit related development (TOD);  brought  jobs and businesses into the community; and developed model community-based and -operated housing and support for low income elderly, community based residential programs for formerly homeless, and a whole range of initiatives including employment, financial education, child development and community issue organizing. Taking its vision statement from Isaiah 58:9-12, Bethel says that the way to build up a healthy community is through justice and compassion.  Bethel and Bethel people have been proactive in shaping legislation and in advocacy both locally and nationally around the justice issues facing the community. Since her retirement from Bethel in 2006, Mary continues to live, work and worship in the community.  She is currently serving as interim Executive Director of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions and is on the faculty of the Loyola University Master's in Social Justice and Community Development program. She also teaches graduate courses in community development with the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE) and at North Park University in the Chicago area, is on the faculty of Northwestern University’s Asset Based Community Development Institute (ABCD) and consults, speaks and does workshops in a variety of settings, both nationally and internationally (South Africa, Australia, East Timor, Germany, Mexico).  She is on the boards of Sojourners/Call to Renewal, Woodstock Institute, Good City and Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance.  Mary has an earned PhD from Union Graduate School, six honorary PhDs and numerous other awards.

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