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Conference shines light on homeless families

Conference shines light on homeless families

Missions and Outreach

The Florida Conference sponsored a showing Dec. 8 at the Polk Theater in Lakeland of “The Florida Project,” a movie that, in a very raw way, tells the story of those living in the shadow of Disney—that magical utopia most children dream about. The movie shines a light on homelessness and poverty.

A panel discussion was held for those attending the special showing of "The Florida Project" at the Polk Theatre in Lakeland. Shown left to right: Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin, director of Connectional and Justice Ministries; Rev. Mary Lee Downey, executive director of the Community Hope Center; Dwayne Young and Bishop Ken Carter.

A panel discussion with questions and answers followed.

The movie artfully depicted a week in the life of 6-year-old Moonee and her tattoo-covered mother, Halley, who reside at The Magic Castle, a low-rent motel inhabited by a number of families unable to afford permanent housing.

Dwayne Young of Lakeland joined the panel, telling the story of his own family’s plight when he was in high school, sometimes living in a car when there was no money for rent. Both his parents lost their jobs during the Great Recession in 2008.

For him, he said, a turning point came when a friend invited him to First United Methodist Church of Lakeland, eventually leading him to join the Neighborhood Ministry program, a spiritual development and mentoring initiative at the church. He managed to get his college degree and is now working on his master’s.

“I got a job working in the ministries,” he told the theater crowd. “It turned out to be the greatest decision I ever made in my life. I had the opportunity to come every day and influence a kid. My time in the ministry has been just awesome. Now I can look back. When I was living in a hotel, I had friends, and we all hung out. You see the hardships in life. You go through struggles, just a lot stuff.”

The Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin, director of Connectional and Justice Ministries, along with Florida Conference Bishop Ken Carter and Rev. David McEntire, senior pastor at FUMC Lakeland, worked with the Polk Theater to set up the Florida Conference showing.

“Suffice it to say that homelessness is one critical issue of systemic poverty,” Austin said. “There are several Florida communities, including Polk County, with high rates in national comparisons around issues of childhood hunger and poverty. Together with the African Methodist Episcopal Church (in Florida), we partner with Florida Impact each year for Florida Advocacy Days, during Children’s Week in Tallahassee” to meet with legislators and appeal for their support around issues affecting children’s quality of life like those Dwayne Young discussed, she said.

Rev. Mary Lee Downey, who also joined the post-film panel discussion, knows about the kind of life which Young referred to. She has been working with the homeless in the shadow of Disney World for years as executive director of the Community Hope Center, a place providing services to the homeless and disenfranchised of Osceola County.

Downey, who helped prepare the script for The Florida Project, has seen 20,000 people come through the doors of the Community Hope Center in the last five years.

“As a deacon in The United Methodist Church, we are called to justice ministries,” she said. “What that looks like in a community of Central Florida is our population of families stuck in a crisis, where there is not enough affordable housing or living wage jobs. It causes a bottleneck of people who are working poor, stuck in hotels and motels, along the 192 corridor.

“I would like to invite you to think past” that first impression of the seemingly carefree mother, Halley, in the movie, who sometimes prostitutes herself to pay the rent.

“Think about what it’s like to truly be in a survival mode,” Downey said. “You are literally thinking where your next meal is going to come from.”

Those who stood up to ask questions expressed their sadness over the situation, asking how they could help.
As an introduction to the movie, film director, Sean Baker, speaks directly to viewers, telling them he hopes to shed light on the hidden homeless. “I emphasize, this is a national issue,” he said. “The first step toward change is education and awareness.

Rev. Mary Lee Downey worked extensively with independent film director Sean Baker in the development of the movie, "The Florida Project." She has seen 20,000 people come through the doors of the Community Hope Center in the last five years.

“My hope is that by using the entertainment medium of cinema, we can reach the mainstream audience and get people to help any way they can.”

“We advocate for people, like the children in this movie, on things like Medicaid expansion, summer food programs and so forth, said Bishop Carter. “Most often, it feels like we lose in our state government. There are many powerful forces there for a variety of purposes, but few telling the story of the poorest children in our state. Often, they are children of people who serve us in restaurants and hotels and resorts. I thought about that and the need to continue to do that.”

Carter said he recalled a pamphlet he read 20 years ago by The Upper Room: “Five Dreams I Have for My Child.” Those dreams were that a child will not be hungry, will be educated, will have shelter, be safe and know the stories of faith.

“Mission churches go where the people are and try to listen to and come alongside the mother,” he said. “That, I believe, is our mission in Florida, in a state with a great abundance of riches and with many people who live in great peril.”

The bishop said he is grateful “The Florida Project” will be seen across the state and encourages others to see it and find inspiration in it.

--Yvette C. Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico.

Editor’s Note: Donate here to the Florida Conference Hurricane Irma Fund to help churches and the neighborhoods that surround them. Volunteer to bring yourself or a team to help with the recovery. Together, with God, we are bigger! #flumcWeAreBigger

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