“The world’s problems seem insurmountable,” she says. “But I am a can-do person; I do what I can. I want to feel like I have been faithful.”
Neelley is motivated in part by her clergy calling as a deacon in the United Methodist Church. The deacon’s ministry is to lead the faithful in justice and compassion to their neighbors, both near and far. Through Harper Hill Global she advocates for justice and inspires the oppressed to claim their power and self-determination.
Approachable and empathetic, Neelley brings to her work natural gifts of making connections among people. She honed her professional skills through her leadership as director of ICT4D (Information and Communications Technology for Development) Church Initiatives at United Methodist Communications and as vice president of interactive communication at an advertising agency. Her spiritual depth and broad theological knowledge help her bring God’s love to people and situations, with sensitivity and respect.
“God gave me the skills to do this work,” she says. “It’s not a job. It’s a calling.”
The relationships she has built over the years in her previous work provided a foundation for Harper Hill Global. For Neelley, relationships are foremost; she uses communications technology to enhance communities’ interpersonal and physical health.
She trains people to use the technology in virtual classrooms and for monitoring and evaluating projects. Perhaps the most inspiring venture is Arise from Stigma, which helps communities overcome the practice of shaming women who have suffered sexual assault.
Electronic communications technology can connect people across great distances. “While social media has been used combatively, it can be used to raise people up to their highest level,” she says. “Because we can reach so many people, we should use it in a way that helps them lead better lives.”
She employs a collaborative approach to Harper Hill’s work. “We join with each other equally,” she says. “I ask what people’s desires are for their communities, and provide training and equipment to support those dreams. The people apply what they’ve learned and what they have to strengthen their communities. I’m in the shadows.”
Her respectful attitude helped Christian and Muslim women in Nigeria cross boundaries and join forces to advocate for women in both faith communities. And they have learned that they are more similar than different.
Indeed, women are the center of Neelley’s work. They are “the heartbeat of a community, even if they do not receive the respect they deserve,” she says. “Women speak the longings of communities. They can access the repositories of available information and educate other women, who educate the households, the communities, and the churches.”
This makes them particularly effective users of information technology. Neelley hopes this helps free them “to be fully and truly who they are.”
And she is energized by witnessing the lives transformed by women who claim their strength and influence and are emboldened by the hope that Harper Hill generates. Women and girls who thought their lives were over after they endured sexual assault and shunning are experiencing renewal through the guidance of women mentors in their villages who help them pursue their dreams and wellbeing. And women are organizing for mutual support and advocacy. These are exciting results for a ministry that Neelley started on a shoestring budget and abundant commitment.
Neelley’s combination of wisdom and taking action has been evident since she was a child. “The little preacher,” as her mother called her, sensed God’s presence in the world during her childhood, and she connected her experience of loving God to actively loving her neighbors, especially those facing hardship. Growing up in Mississippi, she saw that modeled in her father, an FBI agent who pursued the Ku Klux Klan.
After college, she completed a master of divinity degree at Vanderbilt Divinity School. She sees the paradoxes and pain in life, while maintain hope for repairing divisions. While her theological intelligence is sophisticated, she expresses it in clear and grace-filled ways.
She points to Jesus’ teaching (in Luke 10:25-36) that to have eternal life, one must love God and neighbor. Drawing from Jesus’ example, she believes that Christians are called to “look upon the wounds of people, to give them hope for healing, to bandage those wounds and protect them from harm.”
“That is all we are supposed to do. Following Jesus is not just a system of beliefs, but is also practice. We are embodied; we are more than only our thoughts and beliefs.”
Her vision is as local as it is international. At Glencliff United Methodist Church in Nashville, she partners with Pastor Ingrid McIntyre to help some of the city’s poorer residents gain self-respect. She advocates for their access to basic services.
Her experience and expertise have made her a sought-after speaker. She has addressed the United Nations in Geneva and in New York, including the InfoPoverty World Conference on communications and methodologies in reaching citizens around the world using the latest advancements in technology. She delivers presentations to groups in a variety of settings from small, casual assemblies to large, formal conferences, and on multiple continents.
As a clergywoman, she has observed the pain and joys in people’s lives, regardless of their geographic or financial situations. Even in struggle and despair, people can claim meaningful lives and help build strong communities, she believes. Her expression of this vision is contagious. “Everyone’s story is complex. In these complexities there can be ways to help others.”