Volume 73, Number 34 | December 24 - 30, 2003


Rev. Howard Moody reflects on 50 years of activism

By Ed Gold

Engaged for almost half a century in a wide range of progressive, even radical, causes, Rev. Howard Moody is about to take a break.

Leaving the Village for quieter and warmer climes in Santa Barbara, Cal., he plans to write the story of his 35-year, often tempestuous and always exhilarating ministry at Judson Memorial Church.

Just a few weeks ago, near his Mercer St. apartment, as he sipped coffee and a snowstorm raged outside, he reminisced about his evolution from a Southern Baptist to what he now calls a “Christian agnostic.”

Here was the vintage Moody: the signature crew cut, the infectious laugh, the resonant voice of the preacher, the humor tinged with irony, the modest demeanor couching a firm, even fervent, commitment to improve the human condition.

For starters, this commitment made him a leader in the effort to get safer and less expensive abortions at a time when that meant violating the law; as well as an activist in the civil rights struggles and the protection of civil liberties; an opponent of the Vietnam War; an advocate of decriminalizing both prostitution and marijuana use; a noteworthy member of the city’s Democratic Reform movement; initiator of an AIDS Task Force at Judson; and more recently, a champion of drug law reform.

It all began 82 years ago in Dallas where Moody showed early signs of ministerial skills. “I started preaching,” he says with a smile, “when I was 5 years old. I was teaching Sunday school at 14. Of course, all this was as a Southern Baptist.”

When he was 20 years old and not too sure of his religious direction he left Baylor where he had been studying for the ministry and joined the Marines.

By that time, he remembers, “I realized that Southern Baptism wasn’t the only branch of Christianity.”

He joined the Marines in June 1941, just six months before Pearl Harbor. Trained as an aerial photographer, he was sent to the South Pacific and took part in the battle for the Solomon Islands where he served as photographer and side gunner, survived “both Zeros and ack-ack,” but finally succumbed to a bad case of malaria in 1945. Two years earlier he had married his wife, Lorraine, in Santa Barbara, which has now become his second home. They recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.

They have two children: Deborah, who is a doctor practicing in New York, and Daniel, who trains dogs to assist the disabled.

Moody’s view of the ministry had changed during the ’40s. “You could be a generalist,” he had discovered, “and not be pigeonholed in a single creed, or doctrine or denomination. And you could deal with all aspects of life.”

He attended Yale Divinity School and afterwards worked with students at Ohio State, but several trips to New York City while at Yale introduced him to Judson Church.

“It attracted me,” Moody reflects, “because it showed that a church could be relevant to the life of the community.” So in 1956 when he was offered the senior ministry at Judson he took it, and proceeded to enhance its reputation as a distinctive church inextricably tied to its community’s artistic, cultural and political life.

Edward Judson had founded the church in 1890 and had engaged in community activity early on. The minority group at that time was Italian, made up of immigrants snd their offspring. Judson set up clinics that taught English and cooking, among other useful subjects, and showed informative films about the nation. He also kept busy dealing with drug problems among younger Italians, and worked hard to keep them out of jail.

“We have to be fair about the church’s history,” Moody notes. “It required funding from John D. Rockefeller to get built.”

When he became minister in 1956, Moody brought with him his own views on Christianity. While ordained in the American Baptist Churches and the United Church of Christ, he recognized the diversity of the church’s membership.

“When I came to Judson I saw this 25-foot cross and thought it was too large and inappropriate, so I had it replaced,” he says.

The church under his leadership has had a special niche in the community from the beginning of his ministry. It has been a sanctuary for many protest groups as well as a spiritual oasis, cutting across all faiths and denominations. Many in the community who were shocked and bereaved by, for example, the killings of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King in the ’60s, for example, found Judson, with open doors, as a place to mourn and come together in grief.

Moody has on occasion taken on the role of Pied Piper as he did during the King March. On an earlier trip to Alabama, he had met with many students and on that day in Washington in 1963 he ran into some of the same black teenagers. As they harmonized with protest and freedom songs, he led them into the enclave occupied by a large delegation from the Village Independent Democrats, an unexpected treat for the V.I.D.ers.

He may be best known for his activism on the abortion issue. Before Roe vs. Wade, when providing abortions was a crime, he helped open the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Help, otherwise known as CRASH. Its mission was to insure safe abortions at reasonable prices and to offer many of the indigent free abortions.

Moody tells the story: “We faced fines of $1,000 and one year in jail. My phone was tapped. But Frank Hogan, the district attorney, knew what we were doing, but didn’t close us down.

“That’s because some of the women who came to us were wives of policemen and some were wives of well-known elected officials.”

Moody has also found time to author three books. Two were written with the late Arlene Carmen who worked at Judson, and dealt with abortion counseling and prostitution. The third was a collection of Moody lectures on social criticism.

In 1959, he got involved in local politics in an important way, becoming president of V.I.D., and he brought the club to within three points of winning the district leadership against the Tammany leader, Carmine DeSapio.

He had one amusing if potentially embarrassing, experience at V.I.D. During the district leadership campaign, V.I.D. was holding a fundraiser at V.I.D. headquarters. Liquor was served and there was music. Police arrived — notified about the event by unknown sources — and accused the club of running a cabaret without a license. The police sought out Moody, as chief officer of the club, to serve him with a summons, but he was not on the premises. The police shut the party down and left.

Since his retirement in 1992— he calls it his “redeployment” — he has focused heavily on the drug law issue, leading a group called Religious Leaders for a Compassionate and more Humane Drug Policy — for which there is no acronym.

“The punishment for addicts,” he asserts, “is way out of proportion. Our jails are loaded with large numbers of blacks and Hispanics, and discretion has been taken out of the hands of judges.” It is a cause he will no doubt return to when back in New York.

He has perhaps lost a step or two. In fact, he has lost a kidney, and diabetes has weakened his legs, so he uses a cane for short trips and a scooter for longer ones. In Santa Barbara his car is being fitted with hand controls. His spirit remains intact.

As he prepares to head west he recognizes that moral dilemmas will always plague us, but he is at home with a Christianity rooted in doing good works on earth.

There are sections in the Bible he takes seriously, he says. But, he adds, “there are other parts of the Bible that I don’t take at all.”


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