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Church center for United Nations marks 40 years

11/6/2003 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

A photograph is available.

By Tracy Early*

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
For 40 years, the Church Center for the United Nations, the United Methodist-owned building across the avenue from the 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. A 40th anniversary celebration is planned Nov. 10. UMNS photo by Richard Lord/WCC ©, Photo number 03-418, 11/6/03
NEW YORK (UMNS) -- For 40 years, a building across the avenue from the 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.

Called the Church Center for the United Nations, the United Methodist-owned building at 777 U.N. Plaza provides 12 floors of office and meeting space for religious and other non-governmental organizations concerned with U.N. issues and is a focal point for their activities. A 40th anniversary celebration is planned Nov. 10.

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 executive Dwain Epps - who once staffed the council's liaison office in the center - 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.

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. 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 also the practical support of a desk and a phone at the church center. A U.S. financier who now lives in the Bahamas, Sir John Templeton, visits every year to announce the winner of his religion-linked Templeton Prize.

The vision for the center originated with the 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 Women's Division, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, assumed ownership and full responsibility for its operation.

According to Epps, 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 U.N.'s General Assembly and Secretariat buildings.

From the beginning, the building was a church center, 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 denominations.

The religious groups, which receive priority for rental space, 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.

A key person at the center 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 center when they came to the United Nations.

In the beginning, Adjali said, 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 U.N. representatives reporting on world issues and how they are addressed at the United Nations.

But subsequently, more church offices secured consultative status with the U.N. 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 explained. The United Nations itself, she added, has become more open to the views of churches and other non-governmental organizations.

Epps said that although the churches have not exerted major influence on the United Nations, they have had some success in shaping that body's 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," he noted.

The center has a chaplain's office, currently unfilled, for people who may be looking for religious counsel. A chapel on the ground floor, designed for people of various religions, serves for weddings, memorial services and commemorative occasions of many kinds.

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*Tracy Early, a freelance writer in New York, wrote this story for the World Council of Churches, which originally distributed it.

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