Pubdate: Wed, 24 Dec 2003
Source: Villager, The (New York, NY)
Copyright: 2003sCommunity Media LLC
Author: Ed Gold


Engaged for almost half a century in a wide range of progressive, even
radical, causes, Rev. Howard Moody is about to take a break.

Leaving the Village for quieter and warmer climes in Santa Barbara,
Cal., he plans to write the story of his 35-year, often tempestuous
and always exhilarating ministry at Judson Memorial Church.

Just a few weeks ago, near his Mercer St. apartment, as he sipped
coffee and a snowstorm raged outside, he reminisced about his
evolution from a Southern Baptist to what he now calls a "Christian

Here was the vintage Moody: the signature crew cut, the infectious
laugh, the resonant voice of the preacher, the humor tinged with
irony, the modest demeanor couching a firm, even fervent, commitment
to improve the human condition.

For starters, this commitment made him a leader in the effort to get
safer and less expensive abortions at a time when that meant violating
the law; as well as an activist in the civil rights struggles and the
protection of civil liberties; an opponent of the Vietnam War; an
advocate of decriminalizing both prostitution and marijuana use; a
noteworthy member of the city's Democratic Reform movement; initiator
of an AIDS Task Force at Judson; and more recently, a champion of drug
law reform.

It all began 82 years ago in Dallas where Moody showed early signs of
ministerial skills. "I started preaching," he says with a smile, "when
I was 5 years old. I was teaching Sunday school at 14. Of course, all
this was as a Southern Baptist."

When he was 20 years old and not too sure of his religious direction
he left Baylor where he had been studying for the ministry and joined
the Marines.

By that time, he remembers, "I realized that Southern Baptism wasn't
the only branch of Christianity."

He joined the Marines in June 1941, just six months before Pearl
Harbor. Trained as an aerial photographer, he was sent to the South
Pacific and took part in the battle for the Solomon Islands where he
served as photographer and side gunner, survived "both Zeros and
ack-ack," but finally succumbed to a bad case of malaria in 1945. Two
years earlier he had married his wife, Lorraine, in Santa Barbara,
which has now become his second home. They recently celebrated their
60th wedding anniversary.

They have two children: Deborah, who is a doctor practicing in New
York, and Daniel, who trains dogs to assist the disabled.

Moody's view of the ministry had changed during the '40s. "You could
be a generalist," he had discovered, "and not be pigeonholed in a
single creed, or doctrine or denomination. And you could deal with all
aspects of life."

He attended Yale Divinity School and afterwards worked with students
at Ohio State, but several trips to New York City while at Yale
introduced him to Judson Church.

"It attracted me," Moody reflects, "because it showed that a church
could be relevant to the life of the community." So in 1956 when he
was offered the senior ministry at Judson he took it, and proceeded to
enhance its reputation as a distinctive church inextricably tied to
its community's artistic, cultural and political life.

Edward Judson had founded the church in 1890 and had engaged in
community activity early on. The minority group at that time was
Italian, made up of immigrants snd their offspring. Judson set up
clinics that taught English and cooking, among other useful subjects,
and showed informative films about the nation. He also kept busy
dealing with drug problems among younger Italians, and worked hard to
keep them out of jail.

"We have to be fair about the church's history," Moody notes. "It
required funding from John D. Rockefeller to get built."

When he became minister in 1956, Moody brought with him his own views
on Christianity. While ordained in the American Baptist Churches and
the United Church of Christ, he recognized the diversity of the
church's membership.

"When I came to Judson I saw this 25-foot cross and thought it was too
large and inappropriate, so I had it replaced," he says.

The church under his leadership has had a special niche in the
community from the beginning of his ministry. It has been a sanctuary
for many protest groups as well as a spiritual oasis, cutting across
all faiths and denominations. Many in the community who were shocked
and bereaved by, for example, the killings of the Kennedys and Martin
Luther King in the '60s, for example, found Judson, with open doors,
as a place to mourn and come together in grief.

Moody has on occasion taken on the role of Pied Piper as he did during
the King March. On an earlier trip to Alabama, he had met with many
students and on that day in Washington in 1963 he ran into some of the
same black teenagers. As they harmonized with protest and freedom
songs, he led them into the enclave occupied by a large delegation
from the Village Independent Democrats, an unexpected treat for the

He may be best known for his activism on the abortion issue. Before
Roe vs. Wade, when providing abortions was a crime, he helped open the
Center for Reproductive and Sexual Help, otherwise known as CRASH. Its
mission was to insure safe abortions at reasonable prices and to offer
many of the indigent free abortions.

Moody tells the story: "We faced fines of $1,000 and one year in jail.
My phone was tapped. But Frank Hogan, the district attorney, knew what
we were doing, but didn't close us down.

"That's because some of the women who came to us were wives of
policemen and some were wives of well-known elected officials."

Moody has also found time to author three books. Two were written with
the late Arlene Carmen who worked at Judson, and dealt with abortion
counseling and prostitution. The third was a collection of Moody
lectures on social criticism.

In 1959, he got involved in local politics in an important way,
becoming president of V.I.D., and he brought the club to within three
points of winning the district leadership against the Tammany leader,
Carmine DeSapio.

He had one amusing if potentially embarrassing, experience at V.I.D.
During the district leadership campaign, V.I.D. was holding a
fundraiser at V.I.D. headquarters. Liquor was served and there was
music. Police arrived -- notified about the event by unknown sources --
and accused the club of running a cabaret without a license. The
police sought out Moody, as chief officer of the club, to serve him
with a summons, but he was not on the premises. The police shut the
party down and left.

Since his retirement in 1992-- he calls it his "redeployment" -- he has
focused heavily on the drug law issue, leading a group called
Religious Leaders for a Compassionate and more Humane Drug Policy --
for which there is no acronym.

"The punishment for addicts," he asserts, "is way out of proportion.
Our jails are loaded with large numbers of blacks and Hispanics, and
discretion has been taken out of the hands of judges." It is a cause
he will no doubt return to when back in New York.

He has perhaps lost a step or two. In fact, he has lost a kidney, and
diabetes has weakened his legs, so he uses a cane for short trips and
a scooter for longer ones. In Santa Barbara his car is being fitted
with hand controls. His spirit remains intact.

As he prepares to head west he recognizes that moral dilemmas will
always plague us, but he is at home with a Christianity rooted in
doing good works on earth.

There are sections in the Bible he takes seriously, he says. But, he
adds, "there are other parts of the Bible that I don't take at all."