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 a $9,600 to over $14 million a year budget and almost 350 employees. More importantly, Bethel has been a pioneering leader in building sustainable community based on the strengths and capacities of people and place that others had written off as a ghetto. Under her leadership, Bethel, using the community's assets, 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. Bethel's vision statement is taken from Isaiah 58:9-12 which 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 teaches graduate courses in community development with the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE) and at North Park University, is on the faculty of 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.