By Linda Bloom*
Diplomats may have priority at the United Nations, but directly across the street is a building where grassroots voices are heard.
For 50 years, the United Methodist-owned Church Center for the United Nations has welcomed those voices, prayed with them and provided hospitality and meeting space.
This week, just days before the Oct. 9 anniversary celebration at 4 p.m. in the center’s chapel, a delegation assembled by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, Board of Church and Society and United Methodist Women was talking about migration.
At the U.N., as governments reflected on concerns about migration in the context of globalization, those participating in the people’s global action events focused on human rights issues related to migrants.
Fostering such discussion was part of the original vision, says Sung-ok Lee, a UMW executive based at the building. “From its inception, the Church Center for the U.N. was envisioned as more than a site for the Methodist Church’s international work,” she explained. “It was to provide access to the U.N. to other faith communities and nongovernmental organizations working for human rights, development and peace.”
The cooperative impact of organizations of faiths continues to this day, noted Harriett Jane Olson, UMW’s top executive. “We have common commitments to the dignity of persons that give a different context for the human rights agenda which undergirds some of the applicable work at the U.N.,” she said.
United Methodists resonate with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “because of our doctrinal claims of who God is and because the Bible tells us about God’s love for people and the created order,” Olson added.
‘An act of faith’
When the CCUN was dedicated on Sept. 23, 1963, before a crowd of 2,000, its purpose and symbolism was saluted by top diplomats.
U Thant, U.N. Secretary-General, called its construction “an act of faith” in both his organization and the churches’ dedication to peace. U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson thanked church members for their commitment. Secretary of State Dean Rusk referred to the church center as a “heartening symbol” of freedom.
Writing in the October 1995 issue of Christian Social Action Magazine, the Rev. Robert McClean, who worked at the CCUN for nearly 25 years, noted that with various barriers to the construction, it was a bit of a miracle that the church was able to build at the corner of 44th Street and First Avenue. The cost was $1.7 million.
“More practically, though, the various records show that it exists because a few people had a strong faith and a vision that prevented them from accepting the sure fact that, with all visible financing available, it could NOT be built,” he wrote.
The Rev. Kathleen Stone, a UMW executive and former CCUN chaplain, agreed that Methodists put their finances and reputations on the line to get that job done.
It was significant that “Methodist” was not part of the official name. “We really built this building to be a center of hospitality for the world’s people,” she explained. “That meant other denominations were in the vision with us.”
Over the decades, UMW and its administrative arm (until 2012), the Women’s Division, Board of Global Ministries; the Board of Church and Society and their other predecessor bodies together have overseen the church’s ministry at the CCUN. Financially, the women eventually bought out Church and Society to streamline ownership responsibilities.
Hosting a nongovernmental presence at the U.N. has become increasingly important in recent years, said the Rev. Liberato Bautista, who has headed Church and Society’s U.N. ministry since December 1996.
To Bautista, the building represents “the physical convergence of ethical imagination, moral consciousness and practical action for peace and justice in the world.”
Providing a haven
Mia Adjali, who retired at the end of 2006 after leading the UMW U.N. office for 46 years, has called the CCUN “a witness of the church’s concern for people around the world to be heard.”
That witness is bolstered by the endorsement of the United Nations and related bodies in the denomination’s Social Principles “as the best instruments now in existence to achieve a world of justice and law…”
The CCUN became known as a place where members of indigenous groups and people’s movements could find a haven and support. As the colonial system ended in Africa, for example, those from various movements petitioning the United Nations for recognition set up shop at the building.
Adjali remembered when the two parties for an independent Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) were making a joint presentation in 1980 before the U.N. Security Council and needed help. The speechwriters came to the United Methodist office, and Jennifer Washington, Adjali’s assistant, typed up the speeches, which were then copied and distributed to the Security Council members.
“Every day, it felt like you got an education at the Church Center for the U.N.,” recalled Jim Winkler, Church and Society’s current top executive.
Winkler had his first experience at the CCUN in 1980 as a mission intern with the Board of Global Ministries, but came back to work with the seminar program from early 1985 to mid-1986. He remembers “some real characters” and dedicated people who weren’t household names but played an important role in the ecumenical advocacy work.
“We stepped out on faith when we built that building, and it was the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s benefited our church, and I think it’s benefited the entire world.”
Often, United Methodists at the U.N. provide information and expertise to assist the diplomatic process. The denomination worked tirelessly, for example, to build public awareness of the issues involved with “The Law of the Sea” treaty.
Endorsed by the 1992 United Methodist General Conference, the Law of the Sea protects the “common heritage” of areas of seabed beyond national boundaries.
When McClean attended the treaty’s signing in 1995, Elliott Richardson came and sat beside him. Richardson, who had been the chief U.S. representative of The Law of the Sea Conference in 1980, told him agreement on the treaty would never have been reached without United Methodist participation.
José Ramos-Horta, recipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize for his work “towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor,” was one of many who made himself at home at the CCUN. Now a U.N. special representative, he will speak during the Oct. 9 anniversary celebration.
Other future peace prize winners and heads of state “walked through this building when they were nobodies,” Stone of United Methodist Women said.
Making their voices heard
For the past 12 years, anyone who walks through the CCUN first encounters Neil Bines on the security desk.
He considers himself a liaison to both the people and the tenant agencies in the building. On any given day, Bines said, “a lot of dedicated people trying to have their voices heard are there and I know that’s a pretty big struggle.”
But they aren’t struggling alone. “I don’t think there’s any shortage of people who want to help,” he noted.
The busiest time, each year, revolves around the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. “We hold a majority of the (nongovernmental) meetings that go on in the building,” Bines explained. “For one week, it gets very, very hectic.”
In recent years, a CCUN-based group called Ecumenical Women, in which UMW plays a major role, has organized around the CSW meeting.
“Governments don’t work best in silos,” Olson said. “What the CCUN provides is a space to organize and to gather and to amplify the voices of women.”
She finds it “tremendously inspiring” to meet and share with women from around the world. “The energy and the color and the languages, the accents that people bring, just animate the work in powerful ways that are hard to describe,” Olson said.
Speaking for the people
Jay Godfrey, a seminar designer at the CCUN since 2004, considers the Commission on the Status of Women nongovernmental gathering to be a prime example of the power that comes from people sharing their stories.
“The reality is that governments don’t always speak for all people,” he explained. “It’s the role of churches and civil society to pay attention to the voices that are not at the table.”
United Methodists and those of other denominations can experience the CCUN through the longstanding United Methodist Seminar Program on National and International Affairs, which draws about 40 groups of youth, young adults and adults each year.
Current seminar topics, including immigration, violence, economic justice and human trafficking, are enhanced by the CCUN’s proximity to the United Nations, which “opens up a wealth of resources to seminar participants” and helps participants understand the global significance of a topic, Godfrey said.
Bautista believes the seminar program is a ministry that helps United Methodists live out their Wesleyan heritage by engaging them on important international issues.
“Just being across the street, the U.N. affords us a vista to the world,” he said.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or email@example.com.