Howard Moody, 91, activist pastor who led Judson Church

Reverend Howard Moody.

BY ABIGAIL HASTINGS AND GRACE GOODMAN  |  The Reverend Howard R. Moody, 91, minister emeritus of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, which he pastored for 35 years, from 1957 to 1992, died on the afternoon of Wed., Sept. 12, of pneumonia and complications of cancer treatment, according to Dr. Deborah L. Moody, M.D., his daughter.

From his small Greenwich Village congregation, Moody wielded an outsize influence on several major social-change movements of the 1960s through the 1980s, particularly the struggles for abortion rights, free speech for artists, and more humane drug treatment policies. He not only preached prophetically on these issues, he also pioneered creative programs addressing them, first in Greenwich Village, and later, nationally.

In 1959, Moody led Judson Church to set up the first drug treatment clinic in the Village. Jail, not medical treatment, was the city’s only response to addicts in that era. Judson’s clinic, the Village Aid and Service Center, employed a psychologist and a street outreach worker; in consultation with the leading medical experts of the day, they detoxed and counseled heroin addicts for several years, until other social agencies got government funding for such work and the church turned it over to them. Moody continued to advocate for humane treatment of addicts for the rest of his life.

Moody was perhaps best known for his pioneering work for women’s rights in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1967 he was a co-founder of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a national network of Protestant and Jewish clergy that helped women find safe, confidential and compassionate abortions before they were legal. In Renewal magazine, he wrote: “It is hard to draw any other conclusion from the background and history of the present law than that it is directly calculated, whether conscious or unconscious, to be an excessive and self-righteous punishment, physically and psychologically, of women. This example of severe sanction against women may have been understandable when men were convinced that women were witches and demons, but in the latter part of the 20th century, it is a cruel travesty on equal justice and a primitive form of retribution unworthy of both our theological and democratic traditions.”

Went public on abortion  |  While never particularly interested in the limelight, Moody did not want to give the impression that the mission of C.C.S. was anything but the moral high ground, that there was nothing to hide, even as C.C.S. ventured into illegal territory. So on May 22, 1967, the world learned of this unusual service through an exclusive story given to Edward B. Fiske, religion editor of The New York Times, whose front-page story was headlined, “Clergymen Offer Abortion Advice: 21 Ministers and Rabbis Form New Group — Will Propose Alternatives.” The “alternatives” usually consisted of referrals to competent and compassionate doctors who would perform abortions, rather than the dangerous back-alley practitioners who were often the only option known to the women. With his longtime program associate at Judson, Arlene Carmen, Moody wrote the story of C.C.S. in “Abortion Counseling and Social Change: From Illegal Act to Medical Practice” (Judson Press, 1973).

When New York State legalized abortion in 1970, Moody was involved in the establishment of a freestanding, private clinic to serve C.C.S.-referred women from around the country and provide affordable, compassionate and quality services. The clinic eventually became the nonprofit Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health (CRASH), and was the first stand-alone abortion clinic in the state to be approved by both the state and city Department of Health. After Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide, the C.C.S. referrals stopped, but Judson took over operation of the clinic in order to serve poor women on Medicaid or without health insurance. Ultimately, Judson turned over the clinic to a private operator.

Outreach to prostitutes  |  The concern for women’s health issues converged with a meeting of a woman from PONY (Prostitutes of New York) who alerted Moody and Carmen to a greatly underserved population — not only were sex workers not adequately cared for by existing health systems, they were often disrespected or refused any treatment  at all. This discovery led Moody and Carmen to create a new Judson “ministry of presence” to street prostitutes. The church purchased a small van, outfitted it with comfortable seats and stocked it with free coffee and cookies home-baked by Judson congregants. Moody drove the van, parking it for a few hours each night in various prostitution venues, to give the women a place to relax and chat between jobs. They started a journal for and by the women called The Hooker’s Hookup. From this beginning, Moody developed a whole new “invisible congregation” for whom he was the pastor, performing their marriages, baptizing their children, counseling them, even holding memorial services (memorably for three Queens women murdered in their home). Moody and Carmen told this story in their second book, “Working Women: The Subterranean World of Street Prostitution” (Harper & Row, 1988).

Practical and theological  |  Although Moody would confess that not all congregants enthusiastically supported the church’s more controversial projects, he always was careful to communicate the reasoning, practical and theological, for ministries he asked the church to take on, as he did in describing the Prostitution Project:

“For this church, our work with prostitutes is within a line of ministries that have been carried on for the last thirty years. In the 1950s, the scapegoats of this community and others in the city were people called ‘juvenile delinquents’ — they were blamed for everything wrong that happened. We gave them sanctuary, furnished them with social clubs, defended them when the police harassed and hassled them. They weren’t the children of this congregation; they were tough, sometimes violent, troubled Italian-American teenagers. In the late 50s this church worked with heroin addicts — fought for their humanization, and picketed for hospital beds so they could be treated as patients rather than criminals. In the 60s we befriended and stood with blacks and hippies and people that hated the war. These were not ‘our people’ or neighbors, but we learned from their lives and their struggle. In the late 60s, it was women being criminalized for getting an abortion. We identified with them, supported them and conspired with them to break the law in order that they might exercise the God-given right of freedom of choice. Our work with prostitutes is in line with our historical role as a people. I am glad we’re there, and I am deeply grateful to Arlene and the other women who led us into this prophetic/priestly function of this congregation. (“Humanizing the Hooker: An Ancient Ministry,” Feb. 19, 1978)

Leader in local politics  |  In mid-20th-century America, clergy in general avoided getting involved in partisan politics. However, Moody saw politics as a way to bring about necessary social change. He agreed to become president of the new “reform” political club Village Independent Democrats in January 1959, when it was fighting to oust the longtime Tammany Hall-connected district leader, Carmine DeSapio. In later years, with so many congregants following their minister into that club, Judson Church was sometimes referred to fondly as “the V.I.D. at prayer.” Later, agreeing with the positions of Republican John Lindsay, Moody became co-chairperson of Democrats for Lindsay in both his congressional and mayoral campaigns. In 1968, Moody was an elected delegate to the Democratic National Convention, supporting Eugene McCarthy, but he came home ashamed of his party that year, not only because of the riots, but also because of its retreat from a strong stance against the Vietnam War, the shabby treatment of potential black delegates, and the dismissal of alternatives to anything but “law and order” as a response to urban violence.

Moody commented later that the delegate campaign showed him that he would be a lousy politician, and he later concluded that his efforts were better spent in movement work rather than formal politics.

Champion of free speech  |  Moody was a longtime board member of the New York Civil Liberties Union, with a particular interest in free speech and anti-censorship issues. In 1962, Moody intervened against the banning of a film about heroin addicts called “The Connection” (ostensibly because it used the word “shit,” a street synonym for heroin). While the courts batted around the legality of the ban, the film was screened twice for audiences at Judson for no charge. Ephraim London, the N.Y.C.L.U. lawyer representing the film, observed in the Village Voice: “We are told that the [censorship] law was enacted to protect the health, welfare, and morals of the people of this state. The law does not prohibit a free showing of an unlicensed picture —presumably on the theory that it is not legally wrong to impair the health and morals of the people so long as they don’t have to pay for it.”

Thoughts about censorship led Moody to write one of his most widely circulated articles, titled, “Toward a New Definition of Obscenity.” In January 1965, it appeared simultaneously in Christianity & Crisis and the Village Voice (most would be surprised to learn that the first occasion of the word “fuck” to appear in the pages of the Voice was Moody’s article) and made the case clear:

“For Christians the truly obscene ought not to be slick-paper nudity, nor the vulgarities of dirty old or young literati, nor even ‘weirdo’ films showing transvestite orgies or male genitalia. What is obscene is that material, whether sexual or not, that has as its basic motivation and purpose the degradation, debasement and dehumanizing of persons. The dirtiest word in the English language is not ‘fuck or ‘shit’ in the mouth of a tragic shaman, but the word ‘NIGGER’ from the sneering lips of a Bull Connor. Obscenity ought to be much closer to the biblical definition of blasphemy against God and man.”

Incubated the arts  |  With Al Carmines, who served as Moody’s associate minister from 1962 to 1981, Judson Church became a home to avant-garde arts groups, including the Judson Poets Theater (one of three founders of the Off Off Broadway theater movement) and the Judson Dance Theater. Though the J.D.T. only lasted a few years, its democratic and spontaneous forms of experimentation were revolutionary, and earned it the designation of “the home of modern dance.” A celebration of the 50th year of its founding is being held throughout this fall by Danspace Project in a series called “Platform 2012: Judson Now.”

Judson Poets Theater had a longer life, and was the springboard not only for emerging playwrights but for Carmines’s music, especially in about 35 productions that he called “oratorios,” several of which later went on to commercial venues. The success of these artistic experiments was made possible by two long-held tenets of Moody’s Baptist theology, namely “soul freedom” (that no one stands between a worshiper and God’s revelation) and the autonomy of the local church. For Moody, these principles had a direct relationship to civil liberties, free speech and a devotion to anti-censorship rarely found to quite the same extent in other religious settings. The local church autonomy principle also protected Judson Church from punitive actions practiced by other religious bodies, such as excommunication.

Photo by Morena Saenz
In more recent years, Howard Moody could be seen scootering around the Village, going to Crunch gym on Lafayette St. and other places on his rounds.

‘Flag Show’ arrests  |  Moody and Carmines were among those arrested in 1970 for hosting an art show in the church that used the American flag to make political statements — two of which the New York Police Department considered to be “flag desecration.” Since theirs had been a “citizen’s arrest” by someone who didn’t show up in court, the Moody/Carmines case was dismissed. But three of the artists who were on the sponsoring committee — Faith Ringgold, Jon Hendricks and Jean Toche — were arrested by the district attorney and taken to “The Tombs” (the holding cells in Lower Manhattan). The art show was shut down, but the next day the church was open for its Sunday service with the “Flag Show” art still up, in defiance of the district attorney’s order. Moody reported, “The moderator, Anna Lou Pickett, made a statement of support of the arrested artists and the ministers and was met with enthusiastic applause from the congregation as well as visitors who had come to see this strange church that defied censorship.” He also related this memorable part of the ordeal: “One unintentionally hilarious moment in the arraignment came when one of the district attorneys came in with Gross’s sculpture and took his seat with the sculpture on his lap. The sculpture was a 3-by-4-foot simulation of a penis and scrotum made out of the flag. He sat right in front of Arlene Carmen and me, and the courtroom snickering was louder than theatrical applause. That was one uncomfortable district attorney, but we felt it was sheer poetic justice.”

The artists eventually were convicted, but given suspended sentences. (Since then, the laws have changed drastically and the same “Flag Show” today would be completely legal.)

Marched for civil rights  |  Moody participated in the civil rights movement, inviting the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak at Judson in 1958, and traveling to the South with a number of Judson congregants in 1963, ’64 and ’65 for voter registration efforts and demonstrations. But his concern for racism was not limited to the blatant offenses of the South. Writing for Christianity & Crisis, Moody reflected on the Black Power movement as possibly being rooted in “the need for the black to define the dignity of his blackness without the reflection of the slave-master’s sons — and for this we should be grateful and accepting; and secondly, because the empty promissory notes of a white society came due, revealing the hypocrisy of  the Northern whites for what it had always been — and this is to our everlasting shame.”

Offered health resource  |  Moody’s interest in the health field was fueled by a growing stream of evidence that revealed medicine’s limited powers, its monopoly on healing and its refusal to include patients in decision-making. Observing that “many doctors and hospitals have turned patients into ‘consumers’ of medicine (without any of the protection or rights of other consumers) and treatment into a commodity,” Moody sought ways to give people access to medical information long before the Internet made such resources so readily available. In 1976, Moody and Arthur Aaron Levin, M.P.H., co-founded the Center for Medical Consumers, housed at Judson, to empower lay people as they make medical decisions for their own bodies on the basis of researchable facts rather than out of “fear, mystification and ignorance.” Another vital aspect of C.M.C.’s mission was to advocate for health reform, and the organization was served (as it continues to be today) through the remarkable talents of Levin and Associate Director Maryann Napoli.

Responded on AIDS  |  When the AIDS epidemic emerged in the 1980s, Moody and then Associate Minister Lee Hancock led Judson to be among the first churches to respond with compassion rather than condemnation. Besides hosting an AIDS support group at Judson, Moody conducted many memorial services for gay men who died of AIDS but whose own families or churches refused them. Briefly, the church provided an “underground” test site for an alternative AIDS medicine known as Compound Q, but not without controversy given the confidential and risky nature of the trials. Judson Church was one of the first churches to participate under its own banner in the city’s annual Gay Pride March, from the early 1970s, and has had several openly gay clergy.

Koch emceed Judson events  | Former Mayor Ed Koch recalled his own participation at Judson when he was a Democratic district leader.

“I knew Howard Moody in the early days of V.I.D. and we became very good friends,” Koch said. “He used Judson Church in a really extraordinary way to bring drama and other cultural events to the Village community, and I was a part of that. They had a thing called The Hall of something, I forget the name, where they would talk about controversial issues — and I moderated it.

“He made a mark on life that was very positive.”

Duane: He was a visionary  |  State Senator Tom Duane recalled Moody as always being ahead of the curve on important issues.

“I was very fond of him,” Duane said. “It wasn’t just his being pro-choice. He was also among the most sympathetic people to sex workers. Also, I vividly recall him speaking at a conference in 1986, where he said the best path to gay rights was gay marriage at a time when it was a revolutionary thought. He was really an exceptional visionary and compassionate man. When he was at Judson Church, it became a center of not just compassion but activism on behalf of people living with what was H.I.V. — before anyone knew what it was. He welcomed them into his church and made it a meeting place for people who were sick with what was H.I.V. Every issue that I have ever cared about, he was way ahead in his thinking on these issues. He is going to have a nonstop trip to heaven.”

Interfaith leader  |  In progressive Protestant circles, Moody was known as a compelling preacher and interfaith leader. He preached that the basic mission of a Christian church was to be “a church for the world,” that is, to serve the needs of the world outside the church walls, not try to convert people to a particular doctrine. Under his pastorate, Judson Church grew from the 35 members it had when he arrived to several hundred. It also attracted a large nonmember constituency who attended without joining; a number of them were Jewish — both social activists who appreciated Moody’s emphasis on the Jewish heritage of his Christian faith, and mixed-marriage, Jewish-Christian couples who could feel comfortable in the openness of Judson. Moody also made a safe and welcoming space for those with no religious background at all—preaching, as he said, “to the nonbeliever,” which to him meant preaching without religious jargon or coercion.

For all his activity outside the church, Moody was deeply connected to the purpose and meaning of worship and worked hard to make Judson services relevant to the people, our place in history, and to creative expression. Under Moody’s tenure, the pews were taken out of the sanctuary (known as the Meeting Room) to allow for more flexibility in worship, arts, and community uses. He also sought to reinvent the liturgical calendar, introducing new  annual observances, such as a Celebration of the City, and Gay Pride Sunday. A typical Sunday morning service would include singing of gospel hymns alongside Broadway show tunes; and a reading from the Old Testament alongside an excerpt from Harper’s Magazine, as well as the standard elements of prayer and preaching.

Moody was ordained at Judson in October 1950, and began his ministry as Baptist chaplain to students at Ohio State University, before being called to the pastorate at Judson in 1957. He served on several boards and committees of his denomination, the American Baptist Churches, and the National Council of Churches. He was the motivating force behind the creation of two organizations: The Coalition for Baptist Principles, as well as Religious Leaders for a More Just and Compassionate Drug Policy, a national mobilization of clergy for drug law reform.

Kept teaching and writing  |  Moody retired as senior minister of Judson Church and was named its minister emeritus in 1992, after the church celebrated its centennial. In retirement, Moody continued to work for progressive causes, particularly efforts to reform harsh drug laws, and taught a course in urban ministry at Union Theological Seminary, in Morningside Heights, until the past few years when his health began to fail. Moody gave the 2002 commencement address at Union, and in 2004 an Urban Ministry Scholarship Fund was established in his name.

Moody’s articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including The Christian Century and Christianity & Crisis, as well as Playboy and the Village Voice. In 1968, Esquire named him one of “Twenty-seven People Worth Saving,” and in 1968, Ms. magazine listed him as one of 21 “Men Who’ve Taken Chances and Made a Difference.”

Much of Moody’s writing still seems timely, such as his July 5, 2004, piece in The Nation, “Sacred Rite or Civil Right?” in which he argued a lifelong passion, the separation of church and state. In the 2008 presidential election cycle, his article in the same publication warned of threats to the body politic: “We need a new national dialogue to untangle the triumphalist Christian story line that has wrapped itself around our political discourse.”

In 2009, Moody published his autobiography, “A Voice in the Village: A Journey of a Pastor and a People.” Written primarily as a record for the church to know the context and details of his 35 years of ministry, it also contains excerpts from his writings and sermons that, according to Judson Church’s current senior minister, the Reverend Dr. Donna Schaper, “not only give a firsthand account of a half century of social change, but continue to resonate and challenge us today.” At the time of his death, Moody was working on an evaluation of Christianity and the Islamist Revolution, titled, “Religion, War and Politics.”

Destined for pulpit  |  Howard Russell Moody was born on April 13, 1921 in Dallas, Texas, where he grew up in the Southern Baptist Church and started preaching at the age of 5 from a milk-crate pulpit on his street corner. When World War II was declared, Moody enlisted in the Marine Air Corps, serving in the Solomon Islands campaign of the Pacific as an aerial photographer and side gunner. Though he was awarded an Air Medal, he described himself as “an impressively incompetent warrior.” His experience left him committed to antiwar movements the rest of his life. Moody always kept his Marine haircut, however, startling many observers who did not understand what this military-looking man was doing as a leader of left-wing demonstrations.

A graduate of North Dallas High School, Moody held degrees from the University of California at Santa Barbara and Yale Divinity School, and honorary doctorates from Kalamazoo College, in Michigan, and Ottawa University, in Kansas.

Judson Church continues the legacy of urban ministry through its Community Ministry Training Program. The church also has established The Howard Moody Leadership Fund, a financial resource for continuing work; more can be read about it via the link on www.judson.org.

He is survived by his wife of 68 years, Lorraine (“Lorry”) Moody, his daughter Deborah L. Moody and her husband Dr. Frederick F. Jaffe of Scarsdale, N.Y.; and his son Daniel R. Moody, his wife Pamela, and stepsons Angus and Duncan, of Farmingdale, Long Island.

A memorial service will be held at Judson Church in the near future. Donations in his honor can be made to The Howard Moody Leadership Fund of Judson Memorial Church or to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

–  With reporting by Lincoln Anderson and Bonnie Rosenstock

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One Response to Howard Moody, 91, activist pastor who led Judson Church

  1. Rev Donna Schaper

    Thank you, Lincoln Anderson and the VILLAGER, for a superb article on our friend and minister Emeritus, Howard Moody. His service will be November 10 at Judson.

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