Marilyn Williamson of Russellville is 70, but in many ways, she’s the same girl who gave her lunch money to someone who needed it more, or sat with the wallflower at the dance.
Williamson, who founded Main Street Mission with her late husband, Gary, feeds as many as 150 people a day at the nonprofit facility, which also provides food boxes, clothing and furniture for those in need.
“I wasn’t raised with anything; I didn’t want anything,” she said.
She was the youngest of five. When she was 9, her family moved from Manila, Ark., to California. Her father died of cancer when she was 10.
Williamson and her mother moved to Russellville to live with their grandmother. Williamson’s siblings were all married.
“Growing up, I catered to the poor people. I was from the other side of the tracks. I never wanted anybody to be left out. I was left out of things. I didn’t have the clothes, but I didn’t know it. I didn’t have the shoes, but I didn’t know it.”
Looking back, Williamson said, she sees how her background prepared her for this mission.
“God placed me here,” she said.
She married her first husband when she was 17 and he was 18, and they moved to California.
Williamson and her ex-husband, who are now friends, she said, went through a “very bad divorce.” They had two children.
She met her second husband, Gary, “the love of my life,” she said, when she was living in Memphis.
They moved to Russellville in 1978.
He sold cars, then went to work for Nuclear One, the power plant in Russellville, and had to travel. She was working as an aide at St. Mary’s Hospital.
She quit her work to travel with him as part of his power-plant job, and they moved to Texas.
Gary was seriously injured in a freak accident.
He was helping to push a 2,300-pound lead barrel into an elevator when it tipped and crushed his legs.
Williams nursed him through 23 surgeries.
“We lived on gravy and water and bread and hot checks,” she said.
They moved back to Russellville and bought a pawn shop in 1992 or ’93, which they also lived in.
The couple sold it “after God showed me a vision to feed the hungry,” Williamson said.
She had been in an intercessionary prayer group every Tuesday when she saw what she simply refers to as a vision.
“I saw the tables and the aprons and the people,” she said. “I came home and told Gary, ‘We’re supposed to feed the hungry.’ He ignored me.”
Williamson said she had already been feeding poor people in her own kitchen, and he supported that.
“I came home from prayer, and he said, ‘Honey, we’re supposed to feed the hungry.’” Confirmation, she said.
“We were molded into one,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.
“We sold the pawn shop like this,” Williamson said, snapping her fingers.
Main Street Mission opened on Nov. 1, 1994, in the empty pawn shop, which was still their home. Seven people were fed the first day in her kitchen, she said.
“I had a four-burner stove, a round table and a crock pot and a refrigerator,” she said.
Williamson recalled the day that representatives of Arkansas Tech University pulled up with 5,000-plus canned goods.
“I thought we’d never run out of food – never,” she said. “Now, we go through that in a week.”
They outgrew the pawn shop, just by word of mouth.
“It just happened,” she said.
Today, the mission is like a city within a city. The nonprofit organization is at 1110 E. Second St. The location was owned by a former trucking company and has a warehouse that stores food, clothing and furniture.
In 2007, the mission gave food boxes out of the 19,500-square-foot warehouse, and Gary designed the 2,500-square-foot building that houses the kitchen. It opened in November 2010.
Her husband, who had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, died in August 2010, but she is continuing their dream.
It’s all run with donations, Williamson said.
“I’ve never bought food,” she said, wiping her eyes with a tissue.
She sat at a desk in the kitchen, calling out to people who came in to get lunch.
“Good morning! We’ll eat in about 10 minutes. You can go get you some coffee,” she told one man.
“That couple is new; I’ve never seen them,” she said, nodding toward people going toward the kitchen. “See that man over there? He’s a veteran, and he lives in a motel.”
Another man, she said, comes to eat every day. If he doesn’t show up, they call to check on him.
Breakfast and lunch are served Monday through Friday.
“You can be sitting here and say, ‘I need,’ and it comes,” she said.
“I don’t take government money; I don’t take United Way money. I want to be all about God. I want to be all about the word,” she said.
Several Russellville companies provide food, she said.
“This is the only ministry, we have been told, that has access to meat like we have,” she said.
The mission’s reach extends across several counties, she said.
Raul Torres is president of the Main Street Mission Board of Trustees. A pastor of a church in Dardanelle, he has volunteered at the mission for seven years.
He said Williamson is “just unbelievable.”
“She can’t say no. If there’s a need, she will do anything to meet the need,” Torres said. He serves as an interpreter for the mission, too.
Williamson said people started donating furniture, and the mission gives it to people who are victims of fires, tornadoes and domestic violence, people going through a divorce or veterans who need furniture.
Williamson said she knows some people will try to abuse the charity. If she finds out someone is taking the items to sell, she flags his name and he can’t come back.
However, Williamson said, she can’t police it all. “That’s between them and God,” she said.
Although it’s evident by Scriptures and pictures of Jesus that the mission is a Christian organization, Williamson said she doesn’t push religion on anyone.
“If they want us to pray with them, I’ll pray with them, but I don’t want to hit them over the head with it. I’d rather see a sermon than hear one.”
As far as the organization she and her husband created, “we’re an open book,” she said.
Sometimes she gets a small paycheck, she said; sometimes she doesn’t.
Williamson said she lives in a two-bedroom apartment with no carport or garage. Her clothes, she pointed out with a laugh, are a combination of items from Walmart and Main Street Mission.
Her husband’s dream was to have a place for people to be housed on the grounds. They had Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers, but no one was on site to oversee the project, and problems arose.
“I’ve got the perfect place out here to house people,” she said. Williamson said she needs money to provide the housing and a person willing to be there 24/7.
“It’s not a job; it’s a calling,” she said. “If God tells you to do it, he’s going to work through that person.
“I’m not saying I don’t get tired or frustrated; I’m human.”
Torres said a man came in to get a food box one time, and Torres and other volunteers prayed for him.
Two weeks later, the man came back and said he’d lost his job and was just out of jail when he came to the mission.
“He said, ‘I was ready to commit suicide,’” but he changed his mind after going to Main Street Mission.
“That’s worth 19 years right there,” Williamson said.
She doesn’t take the credit, though.
“Obviously, it’s got to be something bigger than we are.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.