Mary Moody: Going Against the Grain

On February 3, 2004, Mary Moody stepped up to the podium to address the Smithfield Town Council in a riverside town 20 miles southeast of Raleigh, North Carolina. Clad in an outfit reminiscent of Minnie Pearl – price tag dangling from hat and all – the 62-year-old Moody personified this rural comedic icon of simple living to drive home her push for transportation services for the homeless and elderly.

This wasn’t the first time Moody raised issues – or eyebrows – regarding society’s more vulnerable citizens. Just months earlier, she urged the council to establish a Potter’s Field for the homeless, whose remains often go unclaimed and unaccounted for in the town morgue.

Moody’s causes commonly reflect larger social inequities. “All of Mary’s actions were good at raising people’s consciousness through her unique way of dramatizing the problems homeless people face,” says Bill Rowe, general counsel for The NC Justice Center and a former legal adviser to Home Street Home, the organization Moody founded to raise awareness of the plight of the homeless. Members of Home Street Home often met in Rowe’s office at what was then Raleigh Legal Services. “These were homeless people speaking about their condition and needs, as opposed to others speaking for them.”

But while she became known for her activism, Moody earned a comparable reputation for her eccentricities. She’s been homeless herself, off and on, for the past two decades. She often dresses in what she calls “hobo-gear” – a tattered and oversized men’s suit-jacket covering a worn-out shirt-pants combo, topped by a headrag or large puffy hat tilted to the side – believing that one of life’s simple pleasures comes from “walking and looking like a bum.” “People think I’m crazy,” offers Moody, shrugging her shoulders in a dismissive fashion.

“She is by far one of the most interesting ladies I’ve ever met,” says Margie Olsen. Olsen and her husband operate a church rescue mission that housed Moody when she came to Smithfield four years ago. While working in the couple’s thrift shop, Moody often spoke of the experiences of her much traveled past.

These experiences shape her unique perspective on homelessness. “It’s time we dispel the myth that homeless people are a worthless people,” says Moody. “Success should be measured by how you get along in life or make do with what you have,” she contends. Being poor and homeless is a “character-building process, far more educational than any classroom setting. We need some new measuring cups of knowledge,” ones that account for the wisdom and experience gained from “surviving a life of hard knocks.”

Moody was born in 1942 in a remodeled log cabin on a ten-acre farm in Ogden, Utah. The second of eight children of a poor, yet proud, Mormon couple, she was taught that they were “rich in spirit and in the gospel,” and that that was all that mattered. “It was wonderful,” remembers Moody, being part of a self-sustaining church community where “nobody starved. It was like utopia for a child.”

Over the years, her utopian model cracked. Moody dealt with personal conflicts over the church’s teaching on race, marriage and gender equality. Going against the church, Moody married a Catholic, Sigfried Uebelgunne, in 1966. By 1979 Moody had tired of the Mormon Church’s conservative policies toward women. Inspired by a local activist who challenged church policy denying priesthood to African Americans and women, Moody joined a group of similarly disaffected Mormons and agitated for reform. She took part in the successful push for black Mormon priesthood and in women’s and gay rights demonstrations, actions that alienated her from her family. “A lot of it was pretty embarrassing, since I was barely a teenager,” remembers daughter Trea Peterson. Peterson recalls her mother “always organizing with some group,” or “voicing her opinion on the news.”

That same year, she successfully petitioned the Mormon Church for excommunication. “My family disowned me,” she says. Her parents, brothers and sisters no longer spoke to her. “I was like the walking dead.” But Moody pushed onward with her activism and, with the assistance of a Baptist minister, established an “underground” newsletter and help-line for troubled Mormons.

She protested the church’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment by scaling the 30-foot statue of Brigham Young that occupies the main intersection of downtown Salt Lake City, just across the street from church headquarters. After being physically removed, she was arrested and charged with resisting arrest, illegal protest and assaulting an officer with her shoe. She pleaded guilty to an amended charge of disturbing the peace and spent 10 days in the Salt Lake County jail.

In 1986, Moody and her husband divorced, and she found herself broke, dejected and alone. At the invitation of an ex-Mormon woman with whom she’d often communicated via her help-line, Moody withdrew her final $800 from the bank, loaded her pick-up truck and headed for North Carolina to start a new life.

Unfortunately, her new life was no better than her old one. Her lead in North Carolina fell through and Moody spent the next three years living in homeless shelters. Suffering from manic depression, she was also hospitalized in several psychiatric wards. Even so, her activist spirit stayed intact. In early 1990, after an alleged incident of police brutality in which Moody claims cops raided her shelter in Boone, NC, and roughed up a number of residents, she complained to the city’s elected officials. Upset with the lack of a response, she headed for Raleigh, the state capital, to take her complaints to the governor.

There, Moody and her homeless friend, Brenda Starr, created Home Street Home, a grassroots advocacy organization for the area’s homeless, intent on addressing many of the problems they endured. She challenged the restrictive policies of shelters by laying out a petition made from bed sheets on Raleigh’s Fayetteville Street Mall, calling for the homeless to have “a voice in running our shelters, in spending our money and in organizing our lives.” Taking a page from her Mormon upbringing, she proselytized to downtown office workers, shoppers and other passersby to sign the “document.” After receiving 1,000 signatures, Moody and Starr presented the petition to Governor Jim Martin’s secretary on March 30, 1990. Two months later – as a result of both Moody’s spearheading of local activism and the sympathetic climate created by the death of national homeless activist, Mitch Snyder – Martin declared July “Homeless Month” in the state.

Over the next two years, Moody drew more public attention to Home Street Home’s innovative advocacy efforts. She constructed a “Homeless Wall of Shame” from cardboard boxes in Moore Square to highlight the names of recently deceased homeless people whose bodies were left unclaimed at the city morgue. She instituted an annual Homestock Fest, held near the capital each July to celebrate the value of homeless people while acting as a forum to discuss relevant issues. Moody organized rallies aimed at empowering shelter residents and even wrote and staged a number of outdoor plays examining homelessness, using an all-homeless cast. She did so, even though her own homeless stint ended in early 1991 after securing a local apartment with a shelter-mate upon their successful applications for Social Security.

Boo Tyson, a former director of the Ark Shelter in Raleigh (now the Helen Wright Center for Women), recalls her initial encounter with Moody in early 1992. “It was my first day on the job and she was speaking at a Low Income Housing Coalition conference, telling everyone about a bad experience she had at my shelter.” It made Tyson, who is now the assistant director of the MAINstream Coalition, a civil liberties advocacy group in Kansas, question whether she wanted to work for the shelter. But, Tyson says, “her input made me a better director by forcing me to constantly think about how to best provide for those we served.”

Still, Moody’s intensity can sometimes undermine her advocacy. “She’s probably offended at least as many people as she’s impressed,” says Reverend John Causey, of Smithfield’s First Presbyterian Church. “She certainly has a good heart, but her personality can be an issue.”

By late 1993, Home Street Home was no longer as active as it had once been. Its inactivity can partly be attributed to Moody’s relocation from Raleigh that year to Fuquay-Varina, another small North Carolina town. But freelance writer Rich Krawiec has another reason. “Mary and her organization were never part of any of the mainstream channels of homeless activism,” says Krawiec, who provided writing and GED training for many of Moody’s homeless associates. Because they were “so grassroots, they were always on the fringes” and unable to attract the funding necessary to survive. And since Raleigh is commonly regarded as a mere “way station” for transients, the attitude of the agencies was, “we’ll help you out, just don’t be too vocal.” Needless to say, Moody’s self-run advocacy group “didn’t fit.”

“I was sabotaged by the local service agencies,” contends Moody. “I went with my hat in hand pleading for both their encouragement and economic support for my program, but they all refused me largely because I had been critical of their approach in the past. Additionally, by organizing ourselves from the bottom up, we became a threat as we strove to manage our own services, something they were being paid to do.”

In 1994 Moody turned to politics. She ran for commissioner of Fuquay-Varina twice in four years, promoting safer shelters and more control in running them for the town’s homeless population.

Tyson maintains it is “somewhat naive to think residents can run the shelter. You can’t take the administration out of the picture.” On the other hand, she continues, “some shelters are, unfortunately, run without any input from their residents. Listening to Mary helped me recognize the valuable lesson: that residents would respect shelter guidelines more if allowed an active role in shaping these policies.”

In early 1999, Moody was evicted from her subsidized apartment for taking in homeless people off the streets. She eventually moved to Smithfield, where she continues to speak out and offer her unique perspective on homeless issues. “Problems are caused by the over-privileged in our society, not the poor,” she says. People “got along better” during the Great Depression when “we were all poor and had to pull together to survive.”

Needless to say, Moody will keep pulling for those seeking the basic privilege of survival.

Damien Jackson is a freelance journalist living in Durham, North Carolina. Portions of this story previously appeared in North Carolina’s Independent Weekly.

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