Karen’s Love Story (So far)


Karen Gowing – Stretching towards Hope

 “You can read every book about riding horses and learn everything there is to know about horses and be able to talk a good horse game with anybody…but until you get up on that horse and start riding, you are not a horse rider…riding that horse is like experiencing Matthew 25.”

Back in elementary school, we affectionately knew Karen Roberts as “Stretch,” a name she gave herself at the school talent show. She could do something few others could. From a seated position, she could put both feet behind her head at the same time! (Oooo! Ahhhh!) We were amazed and certain she had a bright future with the Circus!

Today, Karen still does amazing things few others do…feats that exceed imagination. As it turns out, she works in a world that is often much like a Circus…with strange, exotic characters, dizzying acrobatics, and risky maneuvers. Ladies and Gentlemen! Boys and Girls! Children of all ages! Step right in! The Incredible, Wonderfully Spectacular…“Stretch!”

Karen Roberts was born in Dumas, Texas, and like many fine people ;), she grew up in Hobbs (America), New Mexico. After high school, she attended Abilene Christian University, obtained a Theater and Speech Education degree, and began teaching school in a small town outside of Abilene. Within a few years, she was convinced teaching was not her cup of tea, so she moved to the Dallas-Ft. Worth area and enrolled in the University of North Texas for a Masters degree. Shortly thereafter, she married her husband, Gil, became Karen Gowing, and they moved to the Boston area. However, within six months, the approaching winter caused them to reassess their desire to weather massive snowdrifts and wind chill factors, so they returned to Texas where she began her career in the apartment management industry. A few years later, her husband’s job brought them to Nashville, and then in 2000, to the Orlando, Florida, area. Through the moves, Karen was able to transfer and keep her job with the same apartment management company.

Karen assumed the apartment industry would be her lifelong career. She eventually got her first property manager position, but shortly thereafter, that property sold. The new owners kept her on, however, and all was well for a few years. She received accolades and awards and could do no wrong…until the downturn in the economy and the apartment industry tanked. Everyone’s numbers were down, and her regional manager began to ask her to do things she did not feel were morally right. Some involved misrepresentations in advertisements on the amenities of certain properties and soliciting clients from competitors. She also clashed with her manager over an unethical salesperson who often misrepresented terms in order to contract leases. Her manager pressured her to go along with the program and seemed more concerned with increasing the number of leases than the methods in which they were obtained. Karen resisted but did what she could to try to meet required goals. Her numbers started coming back up, but not fast enough, and in October 2009, her manager let her go.

Karen was not surprised. She had prayed a lot about the situation and felt like she needed out. She had contemplated giving her notice but had delayed because she did not want to leave the good team of people she managed. Still, she felt like this was God answering her prayers. She had no idea what would come next but decided to give it over to God. It was a bit traumatizing, but at the same time, she felt a huge sense of relief.

She and her husband had scheduled some travel, so she decided to delay looking for another job right away. In the mean time, she began volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center through her church. That was something she had always wanted to do but never seemed to have the time. Early in 2010, the pregnancy center leader invited her to a local ministry leaders networking meeting. One of the leaders there shared the need for churches to assist the area homeless by providing shelter during a rare cold spell hitting the Orlando area. Karen and her pregnancy center leader looked at each other and thought maybe their church could help. They made some calls, and their church joined the effort. Karen approached the shelter leader, Scott Billue, and offered her support. She explained she was currently unemployed and could volunteer to assist him organizing the churches to help provide shelter. They emailed each other that night and immediately got the planning underway. Between that time in the third week of January to the first week of March, the network of churches provided shelter for 27 nights during a very long, cold winter for Florida.

Karen continued to get more and more involved. The new ministry began to consider needs beyond just a warm place to sleep- needs such as showers, meals, toiletry items, laundry, new clothes, and new community. They wondered if they could continue the outreach past the winter and offer services at least one day a week. Her church gave the network an old, portable trailer, which they renovated and opened for services on March 30, 2010. They offered meals, laundry, haircuts, showers, clothes, toiletry items, and a mobile medical unit.

Just prior to this, Karen had discussed with her husband that she felt it was time for her to begin looking for another job. He responded that they had not had two paychecks in five months and somehow they had been making it. He encouraged her to keep doing what she had been doing and said they would somehow figure things out. She said, “Okay” with a smile. Karen continued volunteering, primarily as the volunteer coordinator, and by the end of the summer, she had been dubbed with the title of “Executive Director.” Karen laughed as she recalled how she had gone from being unemployed to being called the Executive Director of a non-profit organization. For pay, she received business cards which she said meant more to her than any kind of pay :).

From a cold spell in Florida and the responsive, compassionate hearts of those desiring to help others in need, “Matthew’s Hope” was born- the name taken from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, verses 35-40: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

Matthew’s Hope began to flourish and grow. The City of Winter Garden and the surrounding community began to get behind and support their efforts. As the ministry leader Scott Billue is known for saying, “They went from praying for our deaths…to being partners with us!” In time, Matthew’s Hope added transitional housing and a garden project where guests work, learn new skills, and receive work credits to pay for housing and other living needs. Guests meet weekly with an advocate to assist them towards healthy, independent living including obtaining employment and housing. A weekly “Life Recovery” support group is offered as well as assistance to those wanting to return to school or college. In addition, a new preschool is opening.

Many community partners collaborated to help provide opportunities. “We have guys washing dishes at some of the fanciest restaurants in town…restaurants that also buy produce from our garden.” One woman who runs a catering company has also hired several of the guests.

Karen said they realized there is no “cookie-cutter” plan for success. They approach each guest as an individual, meet them where they are at, assess their individual needs, and help them make a plan for moving forward. Success for some may be helping them show up for a meal, a shower, and fresh clothes, getting them items to help them through the next week, and making sure they have a few hugs. That may be the most some guests are capable of doing for themselves. For others, they may be capable of working and responding to opportunities to get them back on their feet. Whether it is relational wounds or addictions, economic difficulties or other issues, the volunteers do what they can to help each individual work through the issues “to push, pull, or drag them across that finish line.”

The transitional housing includes 12 homes which Matthew’s Hope rents or owns. Some of the purchases occurred when members of the community approached them and wanted to help buy a house. That led to the purchase of a strip of five houses less than two blocks from Matthew’s Hope’s property. Those folks established an LLC to receive donations for the purchase of the houses and to act as a bank for the repayment of the loans. Many from the community helped renovate the houses which included donations such as granite kitchen counter tops and stonework for the exteriors. At every turn, they saw God at work drawing others to be involved.

In the housing, families and individuals begin their stay in the smaller units for a period of assessment and then transfer to the larger units. During the transitional stay, volunteers assist with budget counseling and savings plans. Some of the guest’s employment income is put into a savings account which is later matched by Matthew’s Hope to assist in transitioning into permanent housing. Since the ministry has a good reputation in the community, many offer their rental properties to the graduates.

Matthew’s Hope receives most of its funding through local churches and the community. Businesses and individuals regularly donate, but much of their support comes from the local churches working together. Matthew’s Hope operates on the Church of Christ property. Their founder, Scott Billue, is the pastor of NEXT Community Church. Their volunteers come from over 50 different churches, and over 30 churches donate monetarily. They also apply for and receive grants from various foundations. They do not receive any government funding. Their current annual funding is about $550,000.00, and they expect it to grow to $600,000.00 this year. Karen commented, “We are only five years old, and we have no idea how this has happened…well, we do know…God has made it happen!”

During the five years since they began, Matthew’s Hope has served approximately 3,000 people. Each week, they serve 50 to 80 people at the service center, and they have capacity for up to 36 people in their transitional housing program. As a testimony to the help they receive, many guests proudly wear Matthew’s Hope shirts around town that include the words, “I am one of the least of these.”

Karen reflected, This is something I always had a heart for, but I worked like crazy…I remember I lived a good 30 minutes from where my old job was. I would drive in and listen to the radio…you know that Leeland song?…(Follow You)…‘You live among the least of these, the weary and the weak’I remember hearing that song one morning and just crying…and I thought I need to be doing more for other people…and yet here I am…there’s no time…I’m doing everything I can do to hang on to this job that is making me miserable and I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

So then after the shelter was open, when I was getting up at 4:00 AM to drive in to make sure these guys have breakfast before they head back out, I would get in my car almost every morning and hear that song…and I’d be so tired from staying up the night before, playing cards and chatting with guys and listening to them play guitar and get home really late and have to turn around and get up early and get in…I’d hear that song and go ‘Oh, Yes! This is exactly what I am supposed to be doing!’…God is saving me…I feel like I am doing exactly what He has been preparing me to do.”

Karen now sees how God planned her prior apartment management experience to equip her for the transitional housing contracts, grant applications, and other administrative duties she now performs for Matthew’s Hope. Karen also uses other talents in photography, videography, and secretarial skills, and said she feels that “everything has just come together.” She even sees how her previous difficult personnel relationships helped prepare her to work with guests who can sometimes be “cranky” and challenging to assist. She laughed, “At least the cranky homeless guy has a reason to be cranky.”

Karen recounted that she was brought up in the Church of Christ. She said, “I had always gone to church and had been active in youth group…but until you really let God in, you don’t realize he will change you and you will see things differently and look at things differently.  I was a ‘good girl’ before…I lived a ‘good’ life.  But it really wasn’t until I really committed myself to Christ that my life really started changing…I became a follower of Christ, not just a fan.   

You can read every book about riding horses and learn everything there is to know about horses and be able to talk a good horse game with anybody…but until you get up on that horse and start riding, you are not a horse rider…riding that horse is like experiencing Matthew 25.

No one is going to say you shouldn’t feed a hungry person or you shouldn’t do any of those things. Nobody is going to be against that. But until you are really doing that…I mean, we are not feeding someone’s stomach by agreeing that we should be feeding someone’s stomach…You cannot know what God is doing for you and to you until He’s using you to actually do those things…I never really had thought much about what it would do for me, it was all about taking care of the other person, as it should be when we put others first, but, oh my goodness, the blessings we receive in return!”  

Karen said she has always been a compassionate person and the more her faith has grown and the more she has come in contact with people in need, the more she has been drawn to giving her life in service to them through Christ, everyday. She said she knows this is what God prepared her to do and it is the first thing she has done in her life that “feels exactly right…this is what I am supposed to be doing.”

Karen said the Love of God to her means that no matter how bad things get, no matter what happens in this world, “I know He has me…I knew that day I lost my job that somehow He had me…He certainly has, and He has proved Himself over and over…and as hard as this job is, as overwhelmed as I get, as heart-breaking as it can be, and frustrating and tiring, and all of that, I am happier than I have ever been, and that can only come from God.”

Karen said the best thing in believing God loves her is that nothing else really matters and the hardest thing in believing God loves her is she has to act on that. “He loves me so that I can love others. I have to act on that…I have to respond, daily.”

For others on the journey, Karen offers this encouragement: “We always say ‘Do what you can, not what you can’t.’ Not everyone can go start a homeless ministry. We only exist because people are willing to send us $10.00 a month or come help wash clothes all day long or pray fervently for us or bring us some canned goods or write that $5,000.00 check or whatever…God doesn’t call us all to do the same thing…It’s very clear in Scripture…so, if people will just find something they can do, God will keep opening up doors…It can be daunting to look at what other people are doing and think, ‘well, I can’t do that.’ I tell you right now, if five years ago, if God had come to me and said I want you to start a homeless ministry and I want you to have transitional housing and I want you to have a garden and a car wash and a preschool…and He just laid out the whole thing, I would probably have said ‘You’ve got the wrong person. I’m not capable of something like that, that’s not me’…But I just kept taking that next step and doing that next thing…we need to do this, well, we can do that…these people need this, well, we can provide that…it would be nice if we could bring in someone each week to cut hair, well, we can find that…and we just kept taking that next step, and now we look back and go, oh, my goodness…but God knew what was going to happen when we had no idea…and we are very glad we didn’t.”    

Karen sees how God has worked within the different periods of her life to draw her to Himself, to reveal His love for her, and to prepare her with lessons, love, and skills to serve others for Him. She understands that nothing gone before has been in vain. We affectionately knew Karen as “Stretch” way back when. We are greatly encouraged and honored to know her as “Stretch” now, the example of Jesus amongst us, and the fulfillment of Matthew 25 to those in need.

Please remember Karen in your prayers, that she, Matthew’s Hope, and all their supporting partners will continue to be equipped and encouraged to keep serving Jesus well in their love to the hungry, broken, and homeless in their community and that they may shine forth as a model for others to follow. Pray that prayers will also bring partnerships, and that others will do what they can, not what they can’t.

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” -Ephesians 2:10

For more information on Matthew’s Hope, visit their website at:


Feel free to send a message of encouragement to Karen at:



 “You live among the least of these, the weary and the weak
And it would be a tragedy for me to turn away

All my needs You have supplied
When I was dead You gave me life
How could I not give it away so freely?

And I’ll, I’ll follow You into the homes of the broken
I’ll follow You into the world
I’ll meet the needs for the poor and the needy God
I’ll follow You into the world

Use my hands, use my feet to make Your kingdom come
To the corners of the earth until Your work is done

‘Cause faith without works is dead
And on the cross Your blood was shed
So how could we not give it away so freely?

And I’ll, I’ll follow You into the homes of the broken
Follow You into the world
Meet the needs for the poor and the needy, God
I’ll follow You into the world

Follow You into the homes of the broken
I’ll follow You into the world
And meet the needs for the poor and the needy, God
I’ll follow You into the world

I give all myself, I give all myself
And I give all myself to You

And I give all myself, yes, I give all myself
And I give all myself to You

And I’ll follow You into the homes of the broken
I’ll follow You into the world
Meet the needs for the poor and the needy, God
I’ll follow You into the world

I’ll follow You into the homes of the broken
Follow You into the world
Meet the needs for the poor and the needy, God.”


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