A Jewel For Peace
Across the street from the United Nations alongside midtown Manhattan’s high rises and luxury hotels sits the Church Center for the United Nations, a 50-year-old jewel dedicated to peace and justice for all of the world’s people.
The idea for the center was ecumenical, arising from conversations within various mainline denominations and dialogues through the National Council of Churches. But the physical building, the Church Center for the United Nations, is a visible testament to The United Methodist Church’s leadership and United Methodist Women’s commitment to put faith, hope and love into action.
After World War II it was all too clear to the nations and U.S. churches that the world needed a viable institution to help avoid the horror of war. United Methodist Women predecessors sent cards to the U.S. State Department urging the United States to join a world peace organization, which was later founded as the United Nations in 1945. U.S. mainline churches recognized the importance of the United Nations and their stake in supporting its success. Even before the center was built, United Methodist Women predecessors were co-founders of the Methodist Office for the United Nations when it opened in 1960 in the Carnegie Building in New York City and began co-hosting educational seminars on peacemaking issues. More than 4,000 persons came annually to the center for the seminars. Other denominations were likewise supporting the work of the United Nations and educating their members about its work and impacting public opinion.
As this peace-supporting work expanded, leaders in the then Methodist Church began to look for more adequate accommodations near the United Nations. They identified a property at 44th Street and First Avenue directly across the street from the United Nations’ New York City headquarters. They presented the National Council of Churches of Churches with a proposal to jointly finance and provide programing at the center; however, the council could not accept it. Moving forward alone, the Methodist Church turned to the women of the church to assist in the financing of the building.
The Methodist women’s action is recorded in the 1962 Journal of the Woman’s Society of Christian Service:
“Miss [Florence] Little [treasurer] reported briefly on the status of the proposed Church Center at the United Nations Plaza in New York City. She stated that the sum of $500,000 had been advanced on Nov. 1, 1961, on a demand note to the General Board of Christian Social Concerns of The Methodist Church. This advance had enabled the General Board of Christian Social Concerns to take title to the property known as 775-777 First Avenue, southwest corner of East 44th Street, New York, N.Y.
“It is proposed to put a 13-story building on the property for a total cost of $1,7000,000. She said that it is expected that the New York Life Insurance Company will take a 20-year mortgage in the face amount of $1,400,000 and, therefore, a total of $800,000, including the $500,000 previously advanced by the Woman’s Division of Christian Service, will be needed to finance the project.
“She said arrangements were being made to have the Committee on Investments provide a second mortgage, not to exceed $300,000 from the capital funds of the Woman’s Division and to secure the $500,000 already advanced on a demand note by an additional mortgage once the building has been erected and permanently financed.
“Accordingly, after discussion, upon motion duly made and seconded it was unanimously:
“Resolved that the financing of the Church Center project at 44th Street and United Nations Plaza, New York City, to be furnished by the Woman’s Division of Christian Service in an amount not exceeding $800,000, subject to first mortgage financing in the sum of $1,400,000 be and the same hereby is approved and authorized. …”
The Church Center for the United Nations opened in September 1963. For other financial reasons, in 1984 the Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries assumed full ownership of the building and responsibility for its operation from the Board of Church and Society.
Celebrating diversity, working for peace
In the early days of the United Nations, the center gave people without representation at the United Nations a place to gain access to global diplomacy — indigenous peoples and nationals seeking release from colonial powers, dictators or oppressive governments.
Peace activist, and now Nobel Prize laureate, Rigoberta Menchú Tum of Guatemala napped in the United Methodist Women’s small meeting and dining room, the Peace Room, after a long night preparing remarks to the United Nations. Human rights activists Jose Ramos Horta of East Timor, also a Nobel Peace Prize winner, also used office space in the center. In the 1980s exiled South Africans and U.S. churches and activists came together at the center to strategize and organize against South Africa’s apartheid system.
Today the Church Center for the United Nations continues to be a place for service, learning, fellowship, organizing, peace building and worship.
“The building was conceived in ecumenism, and that’s where our pride is, particularly in this modern age of interfaith relationships,” said the Rev. Kathleen Stone, former center chaplain and now United Methodist Women executive for environmental and economic justice. “It’s an intersectional point for all of the world’s people. You can’t get more diverse.”
Interfaith and ecumenical partners, such as Religions for Peace and the Mennonite United Nations Office, continue to work from offices in the church center.
For 32 years, Linda Arnold worked in administration for the church center. It’s been an education.
“I went from thinking the world was my local neighborhood to understanding and appreciating what and who the world is and learning and understanding the interconnectedness of each of us,” Ms. Arnold said. “I have learned the world, I have met the world, learned about different cultures, met people from all over the world, heard every possible language there is, learned about every religious denomination there is, including The United Methodist Church.
“The church center is a place where people from all walks of life come to worship, meet, discuss and dialogue. … It’s a place of hospitality, a place where discussions on social issues are brought to the forefront — women and children, domestic violence, immigration, hunger and poverty.”
The seminar program
Like the building itself, the education immersion experience, the Seminar Program on National and International Affairs, began more than 50 years ago to educate people on the importance and purpose of the United Nations. The intent today is to educate for mission on timely issues such as immigration, violence against women, economic justice, human trafficking and more.
Jay Godfrey, seminar designer, said he’s witnessed participants “energized through their faith for social justice.”
Seminar designer Jennifer McCallum agreed, saying the program offers an opportunity to question the intersection of faith and action. “Participants ask why should the Church be engaged in social justice? Why should Christians care? We have those conversations,” she said.
Cynthia Rives, a United Methodist Women member from First United Methodist Church in Stephenville, Texas, and past president of Central Texas Conference United Methodist Women, brings college students to the center for a Christian look at world issues and a clearer understanding of United Methodist Women’s special calling to serve women, children and youth.
“The Church Center for the United Nations is a building that gives space for United Methodist Women to live out our purpose in faith, hope and love in action,” Ms. Rives said. “From the minute we walked into the chapel that first morning, we could tell it was a special place. Christian women from around the world were gathered together for meaningful worship, women who for decades have led United Methodist Women in our efforts for justice, human rights and partnerships with other denominations and religions.”
In March Ms. Rives and United Methodist Women from Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, came to the center for a seminar on violence against women. Since their trip was during a convening of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women the group also attended several of the breakout sessions for women from nongovernmental organization that were assembled in the church center.
“These college students learned about life for women around the world and heard testimonies from women who risked their lives trying to help women and girls in their countries to have basic human rights,” Ms. Rives said. “A young woman from Juarez, Mexico, said she knew she might be killed if people back in her country found out that she was there at the U.N. speaking for justice for women. She said her best friend is one of the missing, and so now she is working for justice for her friend and the hundreds of other young women who have gone missing in that city.
“These college students from Texas were inspired by the knowledge, courage and enthusiasm of their global sisters. The seminar was amazing! The seminar planners brought in experts to teach us about the different aspects of violence against women. They gave us new knowledge and challenged us to go back home and make a difference for good in our own community.”
That’s what the college United Methodist Women members from Texas did. When they returned home, group members invited the county attorney to speak at one of their meetings about local domestic violence. The college group is also gathering information about the university’s policies related to violence against women.
“One of our members recently connected with another United Methodist Women member in her government class who lives in a nearby city,” Ms. Rives said. “Now the university United Methodist Women is making plans to speak to the youth at a community center about violence against women in that city. United Methodist Women is all about connections!”
The seminar program also offers opportunities for groups to go to communities tourists don’t visit to meet people working on issues related to the seminar theme or other concerns. The Tarleton State United Methodist Women spent a day on New York City’s Borough of Staten Island helping with the community recovery from the damage of Hurricane Sandy.
“That just added to the seminar experience,” Ms. Rives said. “We did this trip on the cheap. We slept on the floor of a church and did mostly free sightseeing during our downtime, but the college women loved the experience. And when they got back and told everyone about our trip, people were amazed at all we were able to do in a few days. One of the students said her government professor asked her question after question about our experience. I think she realized from the professor’s interest that we had taken an amazing trip!”
“The seminar was such an eye-opening experience,” said Kim Burton, 23, a Tarleton State University student and United Methodist Women member who attended the seminar. “I learned so much about how the stereotypes about domestic violence are just that — stereotypes. There are people all over the world being abused by someone they know right at this minute, and because of the seminar I learned how I can cause change, even if it is a small change.
“I also loved the chapel in the church center. I thought it was a beautiful example of coming together despite differences in religion,” she said.
The value of peace
On its golden anniversary, the Church Center for the United Nations remains engaged in just the kind of peace building work the ecumenical partners, United Methodist Church leaders and United Methodist Women knew 50 years ago that a world with the capacity for nuclear war needed. That’s work more valuable than gold.
Mary Beth Coudal is a blogger in New York City and former staff writer for United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. She blogs at mbcoudal.com.