From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
WCC: Church Centre for UN
"WCC Media" <Media@wcc-coe.org>
Wed, 05 Nov 2003 15:44:52 +0100
World Council of Churches 7 Feature
Contact: Juan Michel, Media relations officer
Office: +41 22 791 6153 - Mobile: +41 79 507 6363
firstname.lastname@example.org 7 www.wcc-coe.org
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - 05/11/2003 - feat-03-13
Church Centre for the United Nations: celebrating 40 years of
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
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
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
Methodists join forces with Quakers, Unitarian Universalists,
Presbyterians, Seventh Day Adventists, Lutherans and other
the world community were addressed ecumenically. There, United
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
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
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
A high-resolution version of a photo of the Church Centre for
the United Nations is available on our website:
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
For more information contact:
Media Relations Office
tel: (+41 22) 791 64 21 / (+41 22) 791 61 53
The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now
342, in more than 120 countries in all continents from virtually
all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a
member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest
governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every
seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in
Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary
Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.
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