Hand in Hand, we the people of Park Slope United Methodist Church - black and white, straight and gay, old and young, rich and poor - unite as a loving community in covenant with God and the Creation. Summoned by our faith in Jesus Christ, we commit ourselves to the humanization of urban life and to physical and spiritual growth.
The following was mostly distilled from a wonderful church history prepared by Rusty Moore in 1984 on the occasion of the church Centennial celebration. It has been supplemented with additional information from church members and friends and is by no means comprehensive. For those seeking more, the original document is highly recommended. Copies are available from the church office.
Park Slope United Methodist Church arose during the Brooklyn building boom that took place following completion of the Brooklyn Bridge. On June 29, 1884 a Board of Trustees composed of area Methodists purchased a 100 x 150 foot lot on the northwest corner of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street for $7,000. The new church was named Sixth Avenue Methodist Church, occupying the present Camp Friendship building, and was an instant success.
Over the ensuing years the church's fortunes have been erratic, largely reflecting the profound demographic and economic swings of the surrounding neighborhood. During the twenties, membership declined as the population in the area shifted from predominantly Protestant to predominantly Catholic. Largely due to concerns over this decline, the church merged in 1930 with the 18th Street Methodist church. The present building was constructed and the name of the merged church became Park Slope Methodist Church.
The 18th Street Methodist church had some years before been the site of a remarkable moment in social history: Around 1895, Jacob Riis, the renowned photojournalist, attended the church and was converted to Christianity by the fiery preaching of the Pastor. Upon his conversion Riis asked the pastor if he should leave his profession as a journalist to become a minister. The Pastor assured him that he could answer his calling just as well by being a morally dedicated journalist using “the power of the pen” to carry out Christ’s mission. Riis became the first photojournalist to document the wretchedness of the immigrant poor in New York City. He constantly argued that the "poor were the victims rather than the makers of their fate".
A noteworthy change in the members of the Park Slope Church occurred in the 1930s, with an influx of immigrants from Newfoundland, some of who remained active into the 1970’s. These newcomers provided an important source of leadership for several decades. It was at the start of this "newfy' period that the church forged the links between faith and social service that have been so much a part of its identity ever since. Important charitable groups became centers of church activity. The pastor’s discretionary fund made emergency money available to the poor. And long before national support of the Farm Workers Union became a popular crusade, 6-, 7- and 8-year olds from Park Slope United Methodist were collecting money for the children of migrant workers.
Despite the merging of the two churches and an energetic and committed core, membership went from 800 to 691 in seven years and continued to decline steadily until 1975. A planned youth center was never established as existing programs and structures absorbed ever-dwindling church resources. The shift in Park Slope away from both Protestantism and affluence continued. This coincided with shrinking church involvement for Americans as a whole.
Throughout the 50s and 60s, the neighborhood continued to experience changes in ethnic composition, with a dramatic rise in the African American population and large increases in Hispanic households. The membership of the church at the time reflected these changes. Though much smaller and less affluent than its predecessors, the church remained optimistic, making efficient use of scarce resources to maintain the physical space and to sustain still-vital youth and adult programs. During the 60s, the church had a strong choir, excellent youth participation and vital Education and Missions Commissions.
Reverend H. Philip West became the church’s minister in 1967 and the church's direction changed decisively. West had been chosen by a pastoral relations committee committed to, in the words of Lay Leader Allenby Lyson, “community involvement” as the “prime goal of our church.” This focus attracted a number of new members who placed practical action at the center of spiritual life. This shift was not without its detractors. A survey of church members at the time found a number of parishioners lamenting both the presence of “hippies” in the church and Reverend West's involvement in political matters that they felt could compromise membership and financial support.
Amidst these tensions, Reverend West and church members organized P.R.Y., Project Reach Youth, a community-based organization housed in the church. PRY provided youth with activities, support and educational assistance. While no longer affiliated with PSUMC, PRY continues to be a vital organization today, helping youth and families in the community. Reverend West also undertook measures to beautify the church, transforming the rubble strewn vacant lot next to the church into a beautifully designed and landscaped garden.
Despite the many positive changes and creative energy in the church, membership declined during this period. Between the final years of Reverend West’s stewardship and the first few years of his 1972 successor, Finley Schaef, Sunday attendance had fallen from an average of 70 to 50. From the early 1960s to the early 70s, the New York Conference had been recommending closing the church and consolidating it with another congregation.
Further into the seventies, the church went on an upward swing, deepening bonds between existing members and attracting new ones through visible, creative involvement in social justice movements and community improvement. Between 1975 and 1984, despite financial difficulties, PSUMC was a prominent force in local mobilizations against apartheid, support of the United Farm Workers and in local community efforts such as the The Park Slope Buying Club and the Park Slope Energy expo. It also sponsored well-attended concerts and social events.
Central American liberation theology and liberation movements and a sister church in Managua Nicaragua were important elements of the church life as well as the organizing of the Brooklyn Ecumenical Cooperatives (BEC). BEC obtained abandoned housing in Brooklyn and supervised the renovation, which provided affordable housing for church members and other Brooklyn residents. The Church provided meeting space to groups such as Gay Friends and Neighbors, Brooklyn Independent Democrats, LAMBDA Independent Democrats and others.
Interest and involvement in the church grew following the visit to PSUMC by Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista President of Nicaragua, who spoke from the pulpit. As Park Slope’s membership grew, its pulpit was often open to those involved in peace and justice struggles. Mayoral candidate Carol Bellamy; Political Activist Brian Willson, Mayoral candidate Frank Barbaro; Union Activist Victor Gotbaum; WBAI Radio personality, AIDS Activist and founder of The Fortune Society, David Rothenberg; and theologian Thomas Berry all spoke at the church during this period. The PSUMC Creed was adopted at a Church retreat in the 1970s and the phrase “straight and gay” was added in the 1980’s, announcing to the neighborhood and the city that it is a church for all people regardless of class, race or sexual orientation.
In the mid-nineties, PSUMC merged with the Windsor Terrace United Methodist Church. The merger brought only 3 members but added $250,000 to the endowment fund, which had recently been inaugurated by a gift of $100,000 from Guy D’Angelo.
In 1997, after serving as pastor of PSUMC for 25 years, Rev. Schaef announced his retirement. The church garden was named “The Schaef Earth Garden” in honor of him and his wife, Nancy E. K. Schaef. The congregation then faced a challenging transition to new pastoral leadership.
Rev. Elizabeth Braddon was appointed as Pastor in July of 1997. Under her leadership, PSUMC continued its strong involvement in social justice issues and nurtured new areas of growth in the church’s programming. The Reconciling Committee became very active, sending a delegation of representatives to the quadrennial General Conference of the United Methodist Church to try and change church rules regarding the role of the LGBT community in the church. After a period of discernment, the church adopted its present Wedding and Holy Union Policy.
This period was also one of strengthening ministries with children and youth. A strong Youth Group was formed, and a children’s choir, the Beautiful City Singers was added. This also meant an expansion of staff, adding a part time Youth Worker and Sunday School Director. The creative arts became a crucial part of the fabric of PSUMC and frequent art installations graced the sanctuary. A stained-glass windows project rallied creativity within the congregation, resulting in lively panes that fill the sanctuary windows.
Following the attacks of 9/11, PSUMC helped form the Coney Island Avenue Project to advocate on behalf of South Asian immigrants who were hurt by bias attack and discriminatory policies that arose in the post-9/11 climate.
A Capital Campaign project was initiated to raise funds for the renovation of the kitchen, continued development of the garden, an upgrade of electrical wiring, the addition of a fire alarm system and the purchase of a new piano. A second phase of the Capital Campaign is scheduled to begin in January 2007.
In July of 2004 Rev. Braddon left PSUMC to pastor a new congregation. Rev. Herb Miller was then appointed by the Bishop and continues to serve the congregation.