Near the end of his life, the late Reverend Howard Moody had a memoir published, which chronicled Judson Church’s historical role during the latter half of the 20th century.
As the child of one of its long-term members (Reathel Bean), I’d been eager to read Howard’s perspective and ended up reading the book cover to cover numerous times. “It was great to watch you grow in the midst of the story,” reads his inscription inside the front cover of my copy. “Those were the days, my friend.”
My sister Emmy once gave a description of Howard that sizably matched my own memories of him—a grandfatherly figure. As a young child, she was more aware of his deep and soothing tone and cadences than anything having to do with the content of what he was saying. I do remember catching a few snippets of his messages here and there, but his overall value lay more in his comforting presence than in anything else.
As a child, I was only marginally aware of Judson’s unique culture and history of cutting-edge advocacy and artistic revolution. Both had been demonstrated to me in various ways (particularly at parties), but I didn’t ask questions. To me, church was a place where you went on Sundays. It didn’t matter if it involved a crucifix or mache puppets.
Judson had provided Dad a haven from the draft in 1966. Dad had told me that he was a “conscientious objector,” which one of my teachers soon explained was something that was very difficult to be—something that required an explanation likely comparable to the one Morgan Freeman’s character provided for his failure to understand the meaning of the word “rehabilitated” prior to his parole.
In Dad’s case, he was about to fly off to Canada, when he received word that Judson would provide him not only a job as a janitor and handyman but a room in the student house next door to the church. According to another book that was written about the specific history of that building, the okay on both of these things was delivered the same day he received approval from his draft board of his alternative service (cleaning and fixing, instead of killing).
One of the earliest examples of Judson’s long history of public outreach efforts was the Judson Health Center—a free medical and dental clinic run by Dr. Eleanor Campbell. Founded in 1921, its mission was to provide care to the Italian immigrant population living on the west side of lower Manhattan, many of whom suffered the side effects of poor nutrition. Within a year of its inception, the health center relocated out of the church basement to a larger accommodation in the church’s Judson House property (next door at 237 Thompson Street), due to its sheer volume of service. By the end of 1924, the clinic was the largest of its kind in the US, having cared for 22,000 visitors and conducted 14,000 field visits that year alone.
The church’s present-day sanctuary (on Thompson Street and West Fourth Street—across the street from Washington Square Park) was to be a memorial for founder and clergyman Edward Judson’s father, Adoniram—one of the first Protestant missionaries to Burma. It soon became the home of the younger Judson’s Bearean Baptist congregation (also in the neighborhood), which had been expanding beyond the capacity of its original Downing Street building. Completed in 1893, the new building had not only received the backing of prominent Baptists (including John D Rockefeller), but a charming stone and marble building design and inlay from the Italian Renaissance—the combined efforts of noted architect Stanford White, stained-glass artist John La Farge, as well as sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Herbert Adams.
Just Google “stained glass windows” and you’ll receive digital images of minimal variety—mostly circular patterns and simply drawn images of scriptural figures which are completely non-provocative. A remarkable resemblance between the familiar images on Judson’s windows and specific members of its congregation was apparent to me, while I was growing up there. La Farge put an astonishing amount of detail into his renditions, which served as an unintentional reinforcement of Moody’s trademark claim: “The church is not the building, it’s the people.”
In grade school, I can remember a feeling of general ineptitude when it came to executing just about any assigned art project. One or more classmates would inevitably point to some misalignment on my part with the stated directions (coloring outside the lines, using the wrong piece of construction paper for the wrong thing). When it came to classroom art, I was always off the mark in one way or another. As both embarrassing and frustrating as this was, I have reason to believe that it might have had something to do with my rather unorthodox and nontraditional understanding of art—the likely result of how the term “art” had been defined and relayed to me by the Judson community.
Over the years, Dad casually mentioned several examples of art, as he had seen it presented by Judson. One involved a guy sitting on a stool smoking a cigarette (and nothing else). Another involved the destruction of a piano and the assassination of a chicken. An anti-censorship campaign I’m remembering from my teenage years took place in the same space and involved a wall-to-wall multimedia display of the human anatomy.
I don’t want to create the impression that these hard-edged works somehow define Judson’s character or culture. Judson was and is far from being a community made up of flaky, uncompromising absolutists, and it has, over the years, hosted plenty of softer elements, too. Some of the best examples are performances by The Bread and Puppet Theater.
Founded in New York during the early 1960s, Bread and Puppet is currently based in Glover, Vermont, and has perhaps been best known for its annual Domestic Resurrection Circus in and around a natural amphitheater. For me, who attended it once in the late eighties, a striking similarity between my memory of the crowded festival grounds and some of the footage from the 1970 Woodstock film was obvious—particularly with respect to what happened on the sidelines. Although the show, itself, took place on a field surrounded by hills, several makeshift stages were set up around the field, each of which would host short performances (presented by both children and adults).
For at least a couple of back-to-back Decembers in the mid-eighties, Judson’s acting group hosted an original play, entitled “The Washer Woman’s Nativity,” which depicted the birth of Christ and the wrath of Herod. At the end of each performance, a large circular loaf of bread was broken into crumbs and distributed to audience members, signifying art as an element as basic to human welfare as bread. While their performances contained political material that would invariably go over the heads of children, there was something inherently child-friendly about their puppets. They were large, imposing figures, which (in many cases) were caricatures of political demagogues. Whether you’d recognize a puppet version of (let’s say) Oscar Romero or not, you’d have to agree that something inherently cartoonish about the puppet and its droll facial expression was apparent—something that anyone of any age could appreciate.
A few years later, my youth group leader openly scoffed at the idea of having an actor as president. My father was a professional actor, so I guess the matter in question didn’t seem as outlandish to me as it might have otherwise. Not only had Dad depicted Reagan (and rapped as him) in a cabaret down the street from Judson a few years earlier, but he also delivered a mock address in his Reagan voice at a Judson party one night during this period. Still, the question looms: How did we feel about having a professional performer (someone whose job it was to put on a face) in charge of the country?
I remember no social issue more observable during my upbringing than the AIDS epidemic. It killed several members of the Judson community (at least one of whom was a close family friend), so I had no excuse to ignore it. Fortunately, I received plenty of preventative education in high school (involving the unrolling of condoms onto wooden rods in health class), and was also aware of the many ways in which AIDS could not be transmitted (i.e., by hugging and/or kissing someone who has it). Still, the AIDS epidemic provided a far-too-early exit for an unbelievably large fraction of the population and was (for the most part) labeled as a divine punishment for homosexual acts by The Moral Majority (who publicly sided with the Reagan administration).
For several years, Judson has serviced a syringe exchange program on the Lower East Side, by way of assembling harm reduction kits at regularly scheduled work parties. Saving the lives of drug addicts (in my mind) is an honorable act, yet I’m sure that this type of ministry (providing the addicts with clean equipment rather than intervention) could easily have received scrutiny and controversial reactions. The late Arlene Carmen’s hospitality bus project (ministering to prostitutes in Times Square) likely received such reactions, as well. She, herself, even spent a night in jail during a law enforcement sweep, which obviously targeted not only the prostitutes, but anyone identified as their associate.
It’s become obvious to me over time that Howard’s role was unique and irreplaceable. His leadership was followed by that of an interim, a shorter-term replacement, one or two other interims, and (currently) a more established and permanent replacement.
In 1990, I attended a performance of “Christmas Rappings” (a narrative musical covering most of the same ground as “The Washer Woman’s Nativity”) during Judson’s bicentennial celebration. The focus of the performance was largely on the music of composer/clergyman, Al Carmines, who opened the piece at the piano (which was the performance’s focal point), singing the scriptural list of who begat whom. The rest of the company would hit the stage in pairs or in small groupings (and even solo maybe once or twice) and would then disappear to make room for whoever was slated to perform the next number. Seventeen years later, the exact same musical was presented in the space in a completely different format.
The company (made up of a mostly younger generation) opened the performance, taking turns with different lines of the “begat” number from different corners of the room. At one point, two large puppets (inspired by a Bread and Puppet element, no doubt) depicted Herod—one before the slaughter, and one (with blood on his hands) after it. The focus was clearly not on Al, his piano playing, or the company of players surrounding the piano to support him. “Christmas Rappings” had become a true ensemble piece. No member of the company had an observably more or less important role than any other.