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Church Centre for the United Nations: celebrating 40 years of service

05 November 2003

by Tracy Early

High-resolution photo available - see below.

For forty years, a building across the avenue from United Nations headquarters in New York has stood as a witness to Christian support for efforts in international diplomacy to advance the causes of peace, human rights, development and ecology. And on 10 November, the Church Centre will become the site of a celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the building's service to the churches, the UN and the broader international community.

Called the Church Centre for the United Nations, the building at 777 UN Plaza provides twelve floors of office and meeting space for religious and other non-governmental organizations concerned with UN issues, and is a focal point for their activities. The history of the events taking place in the building and the personalities involved has yet to be written. But, as former World Council of Churches' (WCC) Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) director Dwain Epps - who earlier staffed the Council's liaison office in the Centre - suggests: "If walls could talk…!"

In the 1990s, when the world's attention turned to a series of international conferences - Rio on the environment, Cairo on population, Beijing on women, and others - unprecedented numbers of people from non-governmental organizations came to New York to follow the preparatory committees and try to influence their outcomes. These visitors found a base of operations, support from each other and practical assistance at the Church Centre.

During the Cold War, a Methodist executive based in the building, Carl Soule, devoted much of his energies to building ties with people in Eastern Europe. In this period, the Church Centre hosted events like a day marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution or, later, a "Day of dialogue with Marxist Humanism", with Czech philosopher, Milan Machovec sharing new Marxist thought.

When the struggles for majority rule in southern Africa were both prominent and highly controversial, particularly in the United States, leaders of that struggle found not only sympathy but the practical support of a desk and a phone at the Church Centre. There, representatives of the Namibian organization, SWAPO, and the Zimbabwean ZANU got together to negotiate a joint statement for presentation to the UN Security Council, and a secretary provided by one of the offices in the building typed out the negotiated text as it emerged page by page.

Later, in the years when many eyes turned toward Latin America and liberation theology, people from the churches who were opposing Reagan policies came together at the Church Centre to coordinate their work.

But it was not only liberation movements that found the building useful. A US financier who now lives in the Bahamas, Sir John Templeton, comes to the Church Centre every year to announce the Templeton Prize winner. A church-owned building with an international orientation is an appropriate venue to announce the winner of a prize awarded on an international inter-religious basis.

The building also has meaning for the people on the other side of the avenue. Looking across at it, UN diplomats and staff see a structure that says that churches are watching them, developing their own views on international affairs, and offering support for efforts to serve the world community.

The vision for the centre originated with US Methodists, and it was constructed by the Methodist Board of Christian Social Concerns (now the United Methodist Board of Church and Society) with financial support from the Methodist Women's Division. In 1984, the United Methodist Women's Division assumed ownership and full responsibility for its operation.

Epps says United Methodist Women deserve special tribute for seeing the role such a building could play, and for their willingness to invest a substantial amount of money in this vision. They put up $500,000 just for the land, a corner lot at an ideal central location providing a direct view of the UN's General Assembly and Secretariat buildings.

The CCIA has maintained an office at the Centre, and in fact had its whole staff based there until the director's office was moved to Geneva in 1969. A spot with such direct access to the UN headquarters is "very beneficial" to an office operating as "the eyes and ears of the WCC". Church representatives have access to a library whose resources include a comprehensive collection of documents on the UN and women's issues, named for the woman who began it, Esther Hymer.

From the beginning, the building was a church centre, not a Methodist one, and it has served as a place where the needs of the world community were addressed ecumenically. There, United Methodists join forces with Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, Presbyterians, Seventh Day Adventists, Lutherans and other allies.

Some groups that formerly maintained offices and programmes at the Centre, including the US national council of churches, decided that tightening financial pressures would not allow them to continue, though the council's refugee, relief and development arm, Church World Service, has now re-established an NCCCUSA presence. And new groups have come in, including two orders of Roman Catholic nuns and the World Conference on Religion and Peace.

The religious groups, that get priority in renting space, now occupy about half the building's offices, and the rest is used by non-governmental organizations like the International Women's Tribune Centre, Rotary International, International Peace Academy and World Federalist Association. Epps says the building has come to serve not only as a centre of church activity related to the UN, but as "the heart of global civil society efforts" to make its presence felt at UN meetings.

A key person at the Centre is Mia Adjali, who was working for the Methodist women when the building was planned, served on the staff there from the opening in 1963, and today directs the United Methodist Office, which includes a representative of the Board of Church and Society.

Born in Algeria to Methodist missionaries from Norway, she had a special interest in Africa, and during the period of struggle for majority rule in southern Africa, helped arrange for national liberation groups to work at the Centre when they came to the UN. And similar help has gone to others - representatives of indigenous communities and people coming to promote causes such as independence for New Caledonia and East Timor.

Adjali says that in the beginning, the church offices concentrated largely on constituency education, and that this remains a big part of the work. People come from across the United States to seminars where they hear church and UN representatives reporting on world issues and how they are addressed at the UN.

But subsequently, more church offices secured consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and this enables them to participate in its commissions by suggesting language for statements, sharing information and presenting church positions on issues, Adjali says. And the UN itself, she adds, has itself become more open to the views of churches and other non-governmental organizations.

Year in, year out, the Church Centre serves the entire NGO community as a place where people of similar interests can get to know each other and form networks, a coordinating point, a convenient location for holding committee meetings, luncheons, receptions, press conferences, panel discussions and briefings..

Epps says that although the churches have not exerted major influence on the UN, they have had some success in shaping the UN agenda and the tone of debate. "They have kept in the forefront a moral and ethical approach to global issues that tended to be treated as mechanics."

The building and its staff also provide an important a pastoral service to people in the UN community, supporting "people of conscience" when they are struggling to maintain a sense of moral purpose in the face of bureaucratic and political pressures, Epps says.

More directly pastoral, the Centre has a chaplain's office, currently unfilled but to be continued, for people who may be looking for religious counsel. And a chapel on the ground floor serves for weddings, memorial services and commemorative occasions of many kinds. It is designed to serve not only Christians, but people of other religions as well, and many international couples, often inter-religious, have found it an appealing site for weddings.

Commemorative occasions have been many and varied - anniversaries of significant world events, memorials to leaders in the cause of peace, celebrations for forward steps in the struggles for justice. And now, on 10 November, the chapel will provide the space for a commemoration of the Church Centre itself, the vision of its founders and the witness of its forty years.

A high-resolution version of a photo of the Church Centre for the United Nations is available on our website:

www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/churchcenter-ny.html

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During the week of 10-14 November, the World Council of Churches' Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) is organizing an "Advocacy Week" in New York. It will take place in the Church Centre, and will bring together key people responsible for international affairs in churches, specialized ministries and ecumenical organizations throughout the world to coordinate strategy and make their work more visible at the UN. It is intended to express "support for United Nations work on peace and conflict resolution," says CCIA director Peter Weiderud.