MFSA HISTORY                          


Methodist social action tied to 20th century history
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May 18, 2007
A UMNS Report By Linda Bloom*
(from United Methodist News Service)

To consider the path of Methodist social activism in the United States
during the 20th century, one need only pick up a history book.

In 1907, the first official business of what originally was called the
Methodist Federation for Social Service was to be presented to President
Theodore Roosevelt at the White House.

During World War I, the independent federation supported the rights of
conscientious objectors and political dissenters. During the steel strike of
1919, it supported the rights of labor, working toward decent wages, humane
working conditions and collective bargaining. The 1920s and '30s brought further
concerns about workers' rights and unchecked capitalism, leading to charges
of Bolshevism and Communism and even an appearance before the House
Un-American Affairs Committee in the 1950s.

In the latter half of the century, the Methodist Federation for Social
Action endorsed lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides and all other actions
promoting civil rights and racial integration; opposed the nuclear arms race and
Vietnam War; demanded the denomination's pension agency divest from South
Africa during apartheid; and supported gay and lesbian rights, both inside and
outside the church.

"We really are an organization which responds to the current context," said
the Rev. Kathryn Johnson, the executive director of MFSA since1998. "Over
the past 100 years, we are continuing that tradition."

The federation is an unofficial part of The United Methodist Church and
acknowledged its founding, history and future during an April13-15 conference
in the Washington area. A capital campaign called "Faithful Witness for a New
Century" has been launched to raise money for organizing and outreach,
upgrading communications and building a modest endowment.

As its membership in about 30 chapters ages along with the rest of the
church, MFSA hopes to do more organizing and leadership training with young

Small but influential

Throughout its history, the federation's official membership always has
been small - roughly 5,000 - especially in relation to the millions of U.S.
church members. But often it has been able to expand its influence in the

At the 2004 General Conference, the church's top legislative body, one in 10
delegates was an MFSA member, Johnson pointed out. "Frequently, it is MFSA
members who are most active in the process of submitting, tracking and
amending legislation," she added.

The Rev. Jeanne Knepper of Portland, Oregon, believes the federation "is
still timely and effective and necessary."

After Knepper became active in MFSA in the 1980s, she became curious about
the influence of such a small organization. Her interest led her to write
her doctoral thesis on "Thy Kingdom Come: Methodist Federation for Social
Service and Human Rights 1907-1948," completed in 1996.

From an activist point of view, she said, she wanted to learn what was
effective and not effective in the federation. As a historian, she wanted to be
as truthful as possible.

The research "gave me a lot more respect for what the federation could do
and was doing" - and an awareness that people who had denigrated the
organization over the years often did so because of  "half-knowledge and partial
understanding and dismissing things that were too radical."

Knepper's research included three boxes of declassified FBI files obtained
by the Rev. George McClain, the MFSA executive director from1974-98, who
has catalogued much of its history.  Those files showed her that "we, as a
culture, really didn't get how thoroughly the government was involved in getting
the Methodist church to repudiate the federation."

A year after its founding, the federation gained recognition from the 1908
Methodist General Conference and convinced that body to adopt the first
denominational Social Creed. The legislative assembly will mark the 100th
anniversary of the creed when it meets next year in Fort Worth, Texas.

The partnership of the Rev. Harry Ward, brought on as federation executive
in 1911, and Bishop Francis J. McConnell, chosen as its president in 1912,
proved significant to the organization over the next 32 years as it fought
the social sins of labor exploitation, profit motivation, militarism, racism,
and imperialism.

Monitored by the FBI

Some were affronted by the federation's attacks on capitalism, and the
organization became a target of accusations about Communist leanings or
"red-baiting," both inside and outside the denomination. Based on actions during the
steel strike, for example, J. Edgar Hoover had the FBI make reports on Ward
for years. "The FBI report on Ward's 90th birthday was an inch thick,"
Knepper reported.

Another FBI target was the Rev. Jack McMichael, who succeeded Ward as the
federation's executive secretary in the 1940s. In 1951, he was called before
the House Un-American Affairs Committee to testify about accusations by paid
informants that he was second-in-command in a Communist cell in New York.
The charges were easy to refute, she said, because McMichael was a
16-year-old high school student in Georgia at the time.

Still, the FBI effectively blacklisted him. McMichael's widow told Knepper
that the harassment continued "for a long time" after he had returned to
serving congregations in the California-Nevada Conference.

Picking up on accusations against the federation, the 1952 General Conference
officially expressed disapproval of "many of its statements and policies"
and voted to evict the organization from its rented office space at the
Methodist Building in New York. At the same time, it approved a
Federation-backed proposal to create an official Board of Christian Social Concerns, which later became the Board of Church and Society.

That MFSA survived the 1950s at all was due to "dogged perseverance,"
according to McClain. "We were nearly killed and had no money for national
staff," he said. "It was held together by volunteers alone for nearly eight years."

Finally, the Rev. Lee Ball was hired as executive secretary in 1960 and led
a revival through the continued publication of the Social Questions Bulletin,
"plus a lot of knocking on doors of Methodist clergy around the country,"
he added.

Social activism

When McClain, who lives in Staten Island, N.Y., became the MFSA executive
in 1974, "the mandate was to start new chapters and be active in the church."
One of his first actions was to send two interns to support striking workers at a
Methodist hospital in Pikesville, Ky. The hospital was refusing to negotiate.
"A serious witness was made and that reassured us that we did have an important
role to play," he recalled.

Other labor-related actions followed, along with attention to gay and lesbian
concerns, corporate exploitation, the Vietnam and Gulf wars and the Palestine/Israel crisis. "I was always looking for issues ...where the church was either lagging behind
and needed to catch up or was taking the lead," McClain said.

One such issue was apartheid in South Africa. The focus was on convincing
the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits to join the
ecumenical movement encouraging U.S. corporations to divest from South Africa.
Actions included dialogue and demonstrations at pension board meetings and
resolutions at annual conference and General Conference sessions.

"We had a number of allies on the board, which at one point included the
president of the board," McClain noted. "I think we really enabled the church's
larger voice to be heard."

Under new leadership, he added, the pensions board "steadily moved to taking
a role among church-related shareholders, which they have to this day."

MFSA has long supported same-sex unions and ordination for gays and lesbians
and was active around the church trials of the Revs. Jimmy Creech, Greg Dell
and Beth Stroud. "We so vehemently disagree with the stance of the church
(on homosexuality) and are so very aware of the pain and anguish that it causes,"
Johnson said.

In today's post-9/11 world, issues of security, war, civil rights and racism also
are in the forefront of MFSA's concerns, she added.

But while the Federation continues to be a justice movement rooted within
the denomination's local churches and annual conferences, it tries to maintain
its independence.

"We want to impact the church, on the one hand," Johnson said. "On the other
hand, we try hard not to have the institutional church define us."

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.



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