In a worship service acknowledged by all as “bittersweet,” the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries celebrated the rich history of Methodist mission work in New York on Sept. 27 as part of its final preparations to leave the city.
Led by Thomas Kemper, the mission agency’s top executive, the service evoked the “bountiful harvest” of Methodist contributions to the city and the world for nearly 200 years and touched on the ecumenical partnerships fostered through a long tenure at the Interchurch Center at 475 Riverside Dr.
“There are many ways we will continue in mission and ministry in New York City,” Kemper pledged.
The Interchurch Center has served as headquarters for Global Ministries since it moved there in 1959 as the Methodist Board of Missions. In October 2014, the agency’s board of directors voted to relocate its U.S. headquarters to Atlanta and to open regional offices in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
The closest part of the mission agency’s New York history that will remain behind is United Methodist Women, which was a part of its structure — most recently as the Women’s Division — from 1939 until the 2012 General Conference. At that point, UMW became an independent body, although it retains mission-related ties to Global Ministries.
Harriett Olson, UMW’s top executive, reflected during the service on moments of transition that bring grief but can be viewed as moments of “launch” and of opportunity.
“We are changing because God is at work in the world,” she told the gathering. “It’s God that goes ahead of us. We are moving to be connected in a different way.”
The official closing date at the Interchurch Center is Nov. 1, although Global Ministries is temporarily retaining a small amount of office space there and will keep a few executives in New York for work related to the United Nations.
Its Atlanta headquarters already is in operation and many of the staff who accepted an invitation to make the transition have moved there. Other remaining New York staff, including 39 support staff, were not invited to move.
Methodist mission roots
The Missionary Society for the Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in New York City on April 5, 1819, and later recognized by the 1820 General Conference. What eventually became the church’s missions board shared space with the Methodist Book Concern, a predecessor of the United Methodist Publishing House, first at 200 Mulberry Street and then at 150 Fifth Ave. in Manhattan.
After the merger of the Methodist Episcopal Church North and South in 1939, the publishing concern moved to Nashville, but the missions board offices remained on Fifth Avenue, with Bishop Arthur J. Moore serving as the first president.
For many years, being a tenant in the Interchurch Center offered many opportunities for Global Ministries to interact with other Protestant and ecumenical groups. New York’s cultural diversity also helped the agency develop a staff that included many backgrounds and languages.
The Rev. John McCullough, a United Methodist pastor, heads Church World Service, one of those ecumenical partners at the Interchurch Center.
McCullough, a former Global Ministries employee, spoke during the service and offered congratulations for the “tremendous witness” the mission agency has provided in New York and around the world.
“It is this agency that brought some of the most important voices of the 20th century into this building to bring witness to a world that in many ways experienced brokenness and a sense of hopelessness,” he declared.
McCullough said he viewed the transition from New York as a time to “cherish the memories of the great women and men who have served this denomination and God’s world through the identity of missions in The United Methodist Church.”
Partnership and disaster response
The Rev. Bill Shilladay, executive director of the United Methodist City Society, which is based at the Interchurch Center, thanked Kemper and Global Ministries for its partnership over many years, including projects in conjunction with the New York Conference.
Local churches in New York not only benefited from funding but also from the “gifts and talents” of board staff who joined their congregations, he added.
“I personally want to say how important it was to have GBGM and UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) present following 9/11,” Shillady said.
At the time, he was the senior pastor at Park Avenue United Methodist Church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which became a listening post “where we ministered to hundreds of people because of UMCOR volunteers who came to the city to be pastoral and caring, compassionate and concerned.”
UMCOR developed a five-year program of case management following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to address unmet needs of those in New York and New Jersey who lost family members, co-workers and livelihoods. The relief agency also coordinated with the New York and New Jersey conferences on disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy.
The New York Conference connection will continue through Bishop Thomas Bickerton, its new episcopal leader, who gave the “sending forth” at the service’s conclusion. Bickerton, who worked with Global Ministries as a long-time partner on the denomination’s Imagine No Malaria initiative, has been named to its board of directors for the next four years.