Clinton salutes long-running mission work in New York

By Linda Bloom*

A daring group of 19th century Methodist women who ventured into the most notorious slum in New York to change the lives of children set an example that all United Methodists can follow, says Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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The Rev. William Shillady, executive director, United Methodist City Society, shares the 175th anniversary celebration program book with Hillary Rodham Clinton before her keynote address. Photo by domenica comfort, courtesy of United Methodist City Society.

The founders of what is now the United Methodist City Society were responding to injustice, but “also motivated by a vision of what could be,” she pointed out.

Clinton was the keynote speaker Nov. 3 for the City Society’s celebration of “175 Years of Mission in the City” at Terrace in the Park in Queens. The estimated 680 participants reflected the diverse New York immigrant communities the society has supported throughout its existence.

During the same weekend, Clinton’s former colleague, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, was urging her publically to run for president in 2016. But politics was not the topic for this event, where the recently retired U.S. secretary of state was warmly welcomed as a fellow United Methodist who is candid about her faith and about her own concerns about the world’s women and children.

She was invited by the Rev. William Shillady, the City Society’s executive director, who served as a co-officiant at daughter Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, and took part in the memorial service for Hillary Clinton’s mother, Dorothy Rodham, two years ago.

Chelsea Clinton, who attended Park Avenue United Methodist Church in Manhattan when Shillady was pastor there, was in Norway with her father, Bill, on Clinton Foundation business and not present at the celebration.

In a video introduction for her mother, she called the Methodist women who worked in the tenement slums of lower Manhattan, “an inspiration to me and so many others” and said their dedication also reminded her of her mother’s devotion to the empowerment of women and children.

The Five Points slum

Those women, who organized the New York City Sunday School Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1838, set up “charity schools” in the Five Points neighborhood to evangelize and educate poor children.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks about her United Methodist faith at a celebration of the United Methodist City Society. Photo by domenica comfort, courtesy of United Methodist City Society.

By all historical accounts, Five Points — colorfully depicted in “The Gangs of New York,” Martin Scorsese’s 2002 fictional drama — was a wretched place. “It was said to be an area controlled by gang members and criminals of all types,” Susan Kim, a City Society board member and president of New York Annual Conference United Methodist Women, told celebration participants.

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Logo designed for the City Society’s celebration of “175 Years of Mission in the City.”

That notoriety did not dissuade them. “The Methodist women came to the worst slum known internationally and demonstrated the power of their religious faith,” she said. “They saw God’s love as the primary agent of the reformation of the city.”

Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant who came to New York in 1870, recognized the Methodist women’s work as he documented the terrible living conditions in the Lower East Side neighborhoods of Manhattan, particularly for children. As a photojournalist, his book, “How the Other Half Lives,” helped bring about many reforms in housing laws.

“A handful of noble women, who braved the foul depravity of the Old Brewery to rescue its child victims, did more than any legislature or city council could achieve,” he wrote about the women. “Sixty thousand children have been rescued by them from the streets and had their little feet set in the better way.”

From those beginnings, the New York City Society of the Methodist Church was born, eventually merging with similar societies in the region dedicated to social support and reform.

Today, the United Methodist City Society runs an early learning center in Brooklyn and a children’s initiative that coordinates after-school programs in churches; manages Anchor House, a faith-based addiction recovery residential program in Brooklyn; does Hurricane Sandy relief work through the United Methodist Center of Far Rockaway, Queens and partners with Five Points Mission and the Olmstead Center, which offers summer camp to city children.

The City Society also provides grants to churches for feeding programs, soup kitchens and after-school programs and loans for capital projects. The $120,000 raised from the 175th anniversary celebration will underwrite grants for the 2013 budget, Shillady said.

Clinton’s Methodist roots

Clinton’s own Methodist roots go back several generations. When John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, sent his followers out, “they were talking to people like my great-great grandparents….people who had been marginalized and left out,” she said.

Growing up in Park Ridge, Ill., her family’s active involvement with First United Methodist Church there “was such an important part of our lives,” she told the crowd. She feels blessed, Clinton said, to have had the church’s influence on her life.

She remained active at First United Methodist Church in Little Rock, where Chelsea Clinton was confirmed, even while first lady of Arkansas. When they lived in the White House, the Clintons attended Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington.

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First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to the 1996 General Conference April 24, 1996 at the Colorado Convention Center. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

As the nation’s first lady, Hillary Clinton spoke before the 1996 United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body. At that time, she urged the church to continue its social witness for the world’s children and cultivate “a new sense of caring” about its responsibilities to the larger society.

Just as the Methodist women had the confidence, conviction and faith to reach out in Five Points long ago, Clinton suggested to celebration participants that it may be time to increase denominational efforts to bring faith “to those who may not yet have had the chance to believe” and follow in the footsteps of these pioneers.

At a time of seeming disconnectedness and insecurity in society, “we have a great gift to offer,” she added. With discipline and a set of beliefs, “we have an understanding of how to get things done.”

After the event, Shillady pointed out that recapturing Methodism’s “early spirit of social holiness and concern and compassion for our communities” could help with church growth. “Maybe our churches need to look outside their walls, as did those early Methodist women,” he said.

The City Society expects to post a video of the anniversary celebration and Clinton’s keynote address on its website in the near future.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.or contact her at (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.



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  1. Elsie Gauley Vega

    As a volunteer, passing out daily news papers, I attended the 1996 General Conference in Denver and was privileged to hear Hillary Rodham Clinton. I, too, grew up in the Methodist Episcopal Church (in North-Central Iowa) and trace my sense of justice/fairness/equality
    to what I learned there, as well as what I leaned at home. That’s also the root of my firm belief that God loves everyone…both those nearby and those around Planet Earth.
    God bless Ms. Clinton for her continued service.

  2. John J. Shaffer

    I also had the privilege of hearing her when she consented to speak in Denver at General Conference. It is nice for her to take note of her (United) Methodist roots from time to time.

  3. Keith Wells

    Oh yes ,another truth challenged politician being honored and supported by the UMC. Fortunately I missed her tales in Denver. Wake up folks ,,lies are still lies even if you like the folks telling them.
    David Keith Wells

    1. Mike Tarner

      What was she lying about in this article? I am thankful that she recognized and celebrated the awesome mission works of the followers of Jesus Christ and the teaching of John Wesley.

  4. Mo Juriam

    If she is such a God loving person, is she willing to tell the truth about Benghazi, or is “what difference does it make” acceptable?

  5. Carol A. Wilson

    United Methodists continue to serve the poor throughout the world. This is my understanding of living ones faith.

  6. United Methodist News Service

    United Methodist News Service editor’s note: We are receiving both positive and negative personal comments about Hillary Clinton, who is a lifelong member of The United Methodist Church. This story touches on her faith journey but its focus is the 175 years of ministry of the United Methodist City Society in New York. We ask that comments be directed at the work and mission of the City Society. Thank you.

    1. Mike Tarner

      Thank you. Awesome work for God has been accomplished there and continues to be done in miraculous ways.

  7. Riley Case

    Is this a story about Hillary Clinton or about Five Points Mission and the work of reforming women in New York? I am disappointed the story did not include mention of Phoebe Palmer who was a key figure in the Five Points Mission. Phoebe Palmer was a strong advocate of women speaking in the church (her book is “Promise of the Father”). However, she is best known for her Tuesday prayer groups, her “altar theology” of instantaneous sanctification, her key role in the Holiness Movement in the M.E. Church, and her involvement in the camp meeting movement of the times. The reformers in early Methodism were often the Holiness people. This needs to be acknowledged.

  8. Mike Tarner

    Well said, Riley.

  9. Bill Shillady

    Dear Riley,
    I have looked extensively through our historic files and see no mention of Phoebe Palmer as one of the founders of the New York Sunday School Society, our predecessor mission society. The other named Methodist women who founded this group were more concentrated on social holiness, living out their faith by teaching children in the worst conditions possible in the slums of the Five Points area, to read, and then began to minister to their mothers as well. Later, after the “old Brewery” was given to them, Phoebe Palmer might have preached her gospel of sanctification and holiness. If you would be willing to email me the pages from the book the “Promise of the Father”, I would be most interested in her association with the Five Points Mission which developed out of the Second Great Awakening and again the concern for social conditions of the time. Five Points Mission began. These ladies were more influenced by Dr. Thomas Chalmers of Edinburgh, Scotland and his wrirings in the 1840’s-50’s on the Christian response to causes and rememdies for urban poverty.

    Rev. Bill Shillady, Executive Director of the United Methodist City Society.

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