Saturday, May 06, 2006
A Model American Baptist?
Is Howard Moody a model American Baptist? He's another recovering Southerner ex-pat, obsessed with issues of race and war. Is Judson Memorial a model American Baptist church? I'll let you judge. These New York City classics are on display in the article below:
At 85, still rocking the spiritual boat
He walks with a cane now. His hair turned white years ago. His voice has lost a bit of its courtly firepower. And he celebrated his 85th birthday in April. Otherwise, last Sunday's preacher at the Judson Memorial Church, a West Village landmark, had not changed much in the 14 years since his last sermon.
The Rev. Howard Moody was back in the pulpit that he occupied for 35 tumultuous and controversial years to deliver a special sermon at the invitation of the church's new minister, the Rev. Donna Schaper.
The occasion was Community Day, a time when the church, a hotbed of avant-garde arts and social action located on Washington Square, one block from the main campus of New York University, celebrates its history, shows off its talent, promotes its causes and invites neighbors to join in. This time, although a bit late, it also was a celebration of Moody's birthday - with a giant puppet leading a verse of "Happy Birthday."
Moody's sermon, which he titled "Tracking the Faith: Journey of a Perpetual Pilgrim," was meant both to remind the congregation of his past and to bring members up to date.
"Often," he said by way of introduction, "people ask me, 'What are you doing now?'"
He paused and looked over the congregation, which ranged from college students to veterans of dozens of protests, petition drives and other campaigns against war, racism, hunger, homelessness and economic unfairness.
"I tell them," Moody went on, "'I'm still trying to find out what I believe.'" It turns out that he describes himself as a "trustful agnostic," a phrase he said he first used during a 1971 sermon and repeated Sunday. If hearing this from a Baptist preacher bothered his listeners, they did not show it.
Moody, who retired in 1992 but still lives only a couple of blocks from the church, said critics sometimes challenged him by asking if he believed in God. "I told them, 'I refuse to answer on grounds that it might incriminate me,'" Moody said. One reason for that answer was that he considered it a trick question - "I didn't know what kind of god they meant."
There was a time when this would surprise people who knew his background - he was born in Dallas, raised as a Southern Baptist, and began preaching at age 15. While attending college, where he studied for the ministry, he preached in jails and on street corners.
Then came World War II, and four years as an aerial combat photographer in the Marine Corps. The carnage he witnessed not only made him a committed pacifist, he said, but loosened his ties to the deeply conservative Southern Baptists.
"I discovered northern Baptists," he said, referring to the liberal American Baptist Church, which, until it changed its name in 1972, was known as the Northern Baptist Convention.
He also discovered the writings of Harry Emerson Fosdick, the liberal Christian icon and longtime pastor of Riverside Church, which like Judson Memorial is affiliated with both the American Baptist Church and the United Church of Christ. Judson Memorial and Riverside also share something else - John D. Rockefeller's money helped build both of them.
In 1956, after completing his ministerial education at the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School upstate and at Yale University, Moody became the senior minister of Judson Memorial, where, he said, "I learned to drink." This, he said, was because trustees held their meetings in a bar.
This is a big year for the church. Along with its new minister, it has a newly renovated sanctuary (still without pews, which were removed in the '60s to make room for arts activities).
Included in the multimillion-dollar facelift, partly financed by selling two back lots to NYU, was restoring the 14 stained-glass windows designed by the 19th century American master, John LaFarge. The church has the largest collection of LaFarge windows in the world.
Schaper, a United Church of Christ minister by affiliation and New Yorker by birth, was minister of the Congregational Church in Coral Gables, Fla., before taking over the pulpit at Judson Memorial. She was formally installed in March.
She has been deeply involved in social justice issues for years, and last Sunday, after Moody spoke, she made her own commitment to Judson Memorial's activist agenda.
"I'm so new here that I squeak," she said, "but I intend to act as a ferocious trustee of everything this church stands for and does."
Originally published on May 6, 2006