This week, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
On the 16th of November in 1964, four women and four men appeared in their underwear at the Judson Memorial Church, happily cavorting with each other and rubbing their bodies with carefree smiles. They piled up together, humping and sensually touching each other in a mess of raw fish, chicken and sausages. It was an event devoid of modesty, an unapologetic, uncensored expression of sexuality.
Meat Joy was the name Carolee Schneemann gave to the performance she authored and that the church sponsored and hosted for three consecutive days. The premier was not the first time the church’s actions provoked commotion and the raised brows of parishioners and other New Yorkers who questioned its piety. Since its founding in 1890, Judson Memorial had been a pioneer in breaking with tradition, a place where sermons could be conjugated into an acts of provocation and defiance.
Meat Joy was a performance to protest the censorship of sex and of the female body. But even earlier on, the church’s embrace of the liberalization of women’s bodies was a hallmark of its mission. For instance, the Rev. Howard Moody, who had been the church’s minister since 1956, had always taken a stand in defense of prostitutes. Some days, he would go out to distribute cookies to them. Along with the sweets he gave an invitation to come to the Village Aid and Service Center, an initiative he founded that provided outreach assistance to prostitutes and drug addicts and, later, to AIDS patients. His most recognizable efforts were aimed at women with problem pregnancy. Before abortion was legalized, Moody promoted a change in the law and helped women who needed abortions to obtain them.
It all started in 1957. Moody had been Judson’s minister for a year when a woman from Florida knocked on his door seeking his help to end a pregnancy. She said someone had given her Moody’s name.
Moody didn’t know what to do. He made calls until he got an address in New Jersey. That same day, he drove the woman to the location, but once they arrived he didn’t know how to ask for the service. So they just drove back to New York where Moody made more calls until he got a local address. For $600, the service was performed in an apartment on the Upper West Side.
Ten years later, on May 27, 1967, Moody announced the creation of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, an initiative involving 20 ministers and rabbis who assisted women in need of these services. At the time, abortion was legal in only eight states, and only when the mother’s life was at risk.
“We are deeply distressed that recent attempts to suggest even a conservative change in the New York State abortion law, affecting only extreme cases of rape, incest, and deformity of the child, have met with such immediate and hostile reaction in some quarters, including the charge than all abortion is ‘murder,’” the clergy’s forceful statement read. “We affirm that there is a period during gestation when, although there may be embryo life in the fetus, there is no living child upon whom the crime of murder can be committed.
“Therefore we pledge ourselves as clergymen to a continuing effort to educate and inform the public to the end that a more liberal abortion law in this state and throughout the nation be enacted.”
Noting the mortal danger that women risked to obtain these services, the statement went on, “Therefore believing as clergymen that there are higher laws and moral obligations transcending legal codes, we believe that it is our pastoral responsibility and religious duty to give aid and assistance to all women with problem pregnancies,” including “referral to the best available medical advice and aid to women in need.”
As the Boston Globe reported, within two years, similar clergy-sponsored consultation services had been established in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Boston and soon after that in North Carolina, Detroit, Connecticut, and Chicago, helping some 20,000 women obtain abortions.
Sometimes women would be sent to Puerto Rico for the operation, or even to Japan or London. At other times, the abortion would be performed illegally at a clandestine US site. In those cases, the woman would arrive at a designated midpoint and be brought blindfolded to have the surgery performed.
Moody’s role in promoting safe abortion was considered vital, one of the major forces that helped bring about the change in federal law in 1973. Today, the church is especially proud of Moody’s contribution to the abortion struggle, especially given the tapping of his telephone and his constant risk of arrest.
This legacy of outreach had been one for the church’s cornerstones since its founding June 30, 1890. Edward Judson conceived of the church as a memorial to his father, Adoniran Judson, one of the very first US missionaries to travel overseas. Judson fils wanted to do for the neglected masses of New York what his father had done abroad. In a Dec. 15, 1907 op-ed in the New York Tribune, he criticized the conventional church. “The local church, when it finds itself in a peculiarly unresponsive and adverse environment instinctively proceeds to supplement its ordinary functions, as preaching, prayer meetings, Sunday school and pastoral visitation,” he wrote. “. . . In this way it becomes an institutional church. Church institutionalism is nothing more than organized Christian kindness. At bottom it is no new thing.”
The Judson Church’s location at the corner of on the Washington Square South and Thomson Street was a strategic one, well located to both serve the disadvantaged and attract affluent parishioners. At the time, Washington Square Park was the epicenter of class divide. To the north of the park was the wealth of Fifth Avenue; to the south, the teeming poverty of the tenements a few blocks to the east and downtown.
During a coal shortage in the winter of 1918, schools had to close down for lack of warmth. Judson’s minister at the time, A. Ray Petty, opened the church to provide hot soup and refreshments to anyone suffering the cold. The church also had a program with activities for the children who weren’t going to school because of the coal famine. At the end of each day they had movie nights.
Three years later, the basement of the church became the Judson Health Center, a free clinic for health and dental care. The clinic grew so fast that four months after its foundation, Eleanor Campbell, then director of the Center, petitioned for more space in a letter she sent to the Baptist City Mission. “I am already discovering that my Clinic, if it continues to expand at the same rate that it has since its founding in January of this year, will have to have larger quarters,” she wrote. This being the case, by the end of that year, the Center moved to 237 Thompson Street and grew soon to be recognized as the largest of its kind in the area.
In 1961, the church expanded its mission to include the creative community. Back then, Al Carmines, associate minister, created the Judson Dance Theater and the Judson Poet’s Theater. It began providing young local artists the opportunity to use the church as a venue to present their work. It was hard for new artist to present their work either because of lack of money to rent a venue or lack of sponsorship for creations often considered too experimental. “We were very isolated and excluded […],” said the dancer-choreographer Yvonne Rainer. “But all of a sudden, we had this space where we could perform and have a weekly workshop, and so there was a sense of community.”
The Judson role in dance and stage-performative arts is highly regarded in dance studies. Some consider the Judson as one of the main headquarters in the revolution of postmodern dance. In their first five years, the Dance Theater alone presented 68 plays of 48 different playwrights. Prominent artist like Meredith Monk, Yoko Ono and Alan Kaprow performed in the theater of the church. Even Andy Warhol collaborated in designing scenario sets for several performances.
Carmines himself was a playwright and presented some of his own works as well, among them his controversial “The Faggot” in March 1973. The church promoted it with an enormous canvas of two naked gay couples, displayed on the wall behind the altar. Newsday reported on the clashes of opinion the production generated for presenting homosexuality as normal, not a deviation. There were others who complained because they felt the play misrepresented gay men with stereotypes. The furor over The Faggot even had people within the artistic community debating the role of theater.
At the same time, the church was active in the movement against the war in Vietnam. It organized anti-war demonstrations in the park and every day posted a body count from the war on the signboard at the church’s front door.
Another church-organized happening that attracted controversy was its People’s Flag Show, an exhibition of 100 U.S. flags designed by different artists meant to “challenge repressive laws governing so-called flag desecration,” a flyer for the November 1970 exhibition declared. It featured flags with blood, flags with the stripes simulating prison bars, flags with the stars arranged in the shapes of the swastika or guns or draped over toilets and even one in the shape of a penis. The opening included a flag burning ceremony during which dozens of American flags were burned in front of the church and in Washington Square Park.
Four days later, the church closed the exhibition after police arrested three men whom they charged with desecrating the flag. Many people within the church and the city’s artistic community protested the arrest of the so-called Judson Three. They were eventually sentenced to pay a $100 fine.
Besides the arrests, contempt against the Flag Show emerged swiftly. Again, the religiosity of the church was doubted, as can be noted in several derogatory letters it received and in a condemnatory op-ed published in several newspapers in the country.
But animosity never bummed out the Judson. Contempt is an inevitable outcome of its defiant nature. The church boldly describes itself as a “sacred and profane place.” Today, it continues being known for its active role in artistic expression and political subversion, whether its hosting some the city’s wildest art performances, helping Muslims celebrate Eid, or advocating for tenants rights. In 2009, it started hosting its Judson Arts Wednesdays, in which, after 7:15 p.m., it open its doors to offer free arts, food and company.
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article mistakenly noted that Judson Memorial was located in the East Village, it’s located in Greenwich Village.