Committed to Their Communities

Committed to Their Communities
Children at United Methodist Women-supported Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House in East St. Louis, Ill. Photo by Paul Jeffrey

United Methodist Women’s work today at institutions in cities across the United States traces back to early settlement houses. The Settlement House Movement in the United States evolved in the late 1880s with roots in London’s Toynbee Hall, founded in 1883.

The Neighborhood Guild (later the University Settlement) opened in lower Manhattan in 1886; and just two years later Jacob Riss undertook work (also in lower Manhattan) with the King’s Daughters, which became Jacob A. Riss Settlement House in 1901. Hull House opened in the Near West Side of Chicago, Ill., in 1889, co-founded by Jane Addams. These first settlement houses had tangential influences on early Methodist city missions.

Settlement house work was done as a direct response to the arrival of hundreds of thousands of European immigrants between the 1880s and 1930s. This new approach rejected the friendly visitor or charity model of social work for social justice and reform. It was a method of serving the poor in urban areas by living together in community and addressing the community’s needs.

Activities varied, but social groups and services were offered through arts, clinics, athletics and citizenship classes. Women staffed most settlement houses. The movement grew, and by 1920 there were an estimated 500 settlement houses in the nation.

Woman’s Missionary Societies

The Woman’s Home Missionary Society (WHMS) of the Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1880, became involved in settlement work as early as 1883 through the efforts of Elizabeth E. Marcy of Chicago, Ill.

By the time of their 1930 Jubilee celebrations, the WHMS supported 13 centers serving immigrants through city missions, settlement houses and community centers in 11 states. Individual names varied.

Women of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, were involved in charity work as individuals in the early 1890s, but some believed efforts should be organized and administered through the Woman’s Parsonage and Home Mission Society.

In 1896, the renamed Woman’s Board of Home Missions set out to implement such plans. With the firm belief that “little of permanent value could be accomplished unless the workers lived within their districts,” the board pioneered settlement programs in Nashville, Tenn.; Dallas, Texas; and Atlanta, Ga. By 1904 four others had opened.

Most settlement houses that sprang up across the country were non-denominational, and operated independent of church support. They placed little or no emphasis on religion and were wary of the intentions of Christian groups.
WHMS settlements were overtly Christian-based with religious activities and church organizations as common features. A few even housed churches with appointed pastors.

Marcy: The First Center

Ms. Marcy organized Rock River Conference WHMS (now Northern Illinois Conference United Methodist Women). Work with Bohemian immigrants began on Chicago’s Maxwell Street in 1883, co-sponsored by the Conference WHMS, the City Mission Society and the General Missionary Society.

Ms. Marcy was one of the volunteers. The mission was located in an area home to 40,000 Bohemians (Czech/Germans) and 20,000 Poles. In 1888 the mission was taken over by the Conference WHMS.

In 1896 a new building was acquired in a new location, and the program was named the Elizabeth Marcy Industrial Home. Activities expanded to include kindergarten, day nursery, a cooking school, manual training classes, and boys’ clubs with a focus on athletics, temperance and anti-smoking. In 1903 The Elizabeth Marcy Industrial Home became a national WHMS project. In 1912 the name became Marcy Center.

Women of southern Methodism experienced severe criticism and opposition to their settlement house plans from pastors and other church leaders. The word settlement had come to mean non-evangelical or even non-Christian.

Recognizing the term settlement house was troublesome, Belle Bennett, president of the Woman’s Board in 1906, recommended a change of names. Wesley House was selected and used almost exclusively until settlement work was undertaken in African-American communities in cities where Wesley Houses were already established.

Bethlehem Center or Bethlehem House became the official, distinguishing title in African-American communities. The women categorized these projects as “City Missions-USA” or “Other Social-Evangelistic Work.”

By 1940, more than two dozen Wesley Houses served such groups as Italian workers in Alabama steel plants; Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Italians in Florida cigar factories; and Austrian, Bohemian, Polish and French seasonal workers in the oyster and shrimp fisheries in Mississippi.

The First Bethlehem Center

Augusta, Ga., was the site of the first Bethlehem Center. The idea for work among African-American women was proposed by Mary DeBardeleben in 1911 and approved by the Woman’s Missionary Council. Initial support came from the women of North Georgia Conference. Work began the following year in Galloway Hall as the first community center for African Americans. 

Center programs grew to consist of clubs, a kindergarten Sunday school, and a night school for women and working girls. With continued support from North Georgia women, 45 acres were purchased for a camp. In 1936, Call to Prayer and Self-Denial funds helped construct a two-story building.

Center activities were supported by prominent African-American women and students from Paine College and Haynes Institute in Georgia. By 1940 there were eight Bethlehem Centers in six states.

The Deaconess Movement

The Office of Deaconess, authorized by the 1888 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church provided an opportunity for single laywomen to serve the church in a recognized capacity. Even before the General Conference action, Lucy Rider Meyer had established the Chicago Training School for Christian Women in 1885 in association with the WHMS. She called her students “deaconesses.”

Elizabeth E. Marcy taught a home missions course at the school and involved her students in the Maxwell Street mission. WHMS leaders moved quickly to incorporate deaconess work into its national program after 1888. Historian Ruth Esther Meeker records, “The deaconess movement was really the answer to the Society’s groping efforts to reach neglected groups in the cities.”

In 1902, the Woman’s Board of Home Missions petitioned the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, to establish the Office of Deaconess. Belle Bennett, board president, was acquainted with the work of deaconesses in Europe and had visited Toynbee Hall in London. The memorial was accepted after “critical scrutiny and long and bitter debate.”

“Development and control” of the new movement was assigned to the Woman’s Board. Following General Conference action, the Woman’s Board made Scarritt Bible and Training School in Nashville, Tenn., the official training school for deaconesses — today the Scarritt Bennett Center — as they began to staff the growing network of national projects.

Earlier the board had requested Scarritt Bible and Training School employ a teacher of sociology. Mabel K. Howell was employed. Prior to undertaking the assignment, she did extensive study and research, living in the Jacob Riss Settlement in Long Island City, N.Y., for several months, taking sociology courses at the University of Chicago and visiting Hull House in Chicago.

In addition to her teaching, she was a member of the Woman’s Board and helped shape the development of its social work and community programs.

Supporting projects

The work of the northern and southern missionary societies was combined within the Woman’s Division of Christian Service at church union in 1940. The various plans each society used for securing funds were remarkably similar and form the basis for many things United Methodist Women and the Women’s Division, United Methodist Women’s national administrative body, do today.

Often overlooked is the fact that projects undertaken in response to recognized need did not have an organizational support structure. The two national woman’s mission societies, founded in 1880 and 1896, had to organize a church-wide system of local woman’s societies to support the projects being initiated.

The pledge to mission of the individual member was basic to all else. Additionally, they organized Juvenile Missionary Societies to educate and fundraise. Such groups frequently contributed to only one assigned project.

Magazines, leaflets, study books and Schools of Christian Mission told the mission story. Supply Work (now Hands-on-Mission) or material resources, originated as “missionary barrels” to provide needed supplies. Mite Boxes, special offerings and “Life Memberships” (now United Methodist Women Mission Recognitions) were introduced.

Endowments were established. Annuities and bequests were promoted. Women of the southern church initiated the Call to Prayer and Self-Denial observance in 1911 with offerings designated for new construction at designated mission facilities.

Conference Societies established projects to meet compelling needs in their areas. Clear rules governed these procedures. Permission was given by the national society for these projects only upon the assurance that the conference would continue to pay its pledge to the national work. The Conference Society had sole support of any new work it initiated. Later these became national projects.

In 1941 there were 325 deaconesses and home missionaries serving in 100 projects related to the Woman’s Division’s Bureau of Urban Work, including settlement houses, community centers, Bethlehem Centers, Wesley Houses, co-operating councils, institutional churches and other types of city missionary activity. Deaconesses or home missionaries headed 70 percent of these ministries. Most lived in facility staff quarters.

1960s: Upheaval and transition

For two decades following Methodist unification, the Woman’s Division gave oversight to a growing body of mission personnel, institutions and programs in the United States and worldwide. Deaconesses were appointed to the institutions, and each project received an annual appropriation, which covered most of the budget.

In the decade of the 1960s, restructure within the Board of Missions and widespread social unrest collided with the far-reaching impact of the division and its institutions.

Home mission projects, founded, administered and supported by women for almost a century, were assigned to a newly reorganized National Division. Clergymen in staff and top leadership were more interested in community organizing than institutions.

Although the Woman’s Division continued to provide major funding to the National Division for its former programs, the institutions suffered. Their boards of directors were urged to incorporate, which separated them from national policies and guidance.

Supply Work was discontinued. Institutions long-related to the Conference Woman’s Society instantly became related to Annual Conference Boards of Missions, which were totally unprepared, and not too interested in, this sudden change. Projects became eligible for church’s designated Advance funding, but monies were slow to come in. Institutions felt in limbo.

The 1960s was a time of racial protests and rising awareness of the need for indigenous community leadership. Most centers were headed and staffed by white deaconesses, professionally trained in social work and early childhood education.

Local boards of directors displaced these leaders in favor of community members, usually clergymen with little or no social work experience. The National Division ceased appointing deaconesses.

As part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act initiated numerous community programs such as Job Corps, VISTA workers, Head Start and Upward Bound. The integrated boards that included community and client representation were often the only agencies in the community qualified to receive government funds.

Community center boards of directors saw opportunities to secure funds and workers to expand programs. Centers debated the relative values of government money versus government restrictions of their religious activities. New funding was especially attractive because of declining church resources.

Mission institutions today

Since 1964, the world and the centers, known commonly as national mission institutions, have changed dramatically. Some have closed; Bethlehem Centers and Wesley Houses in the same city have merged under a single board and executive director; and new programs have emerged.

Some operate from multiple sites. Annual budgets have significantly increased. While maintaining United Methodist identity, institutions survive with support from a variety of community sources: grants, the United Way; major fundraising events; state, local and federal government funds, and continued support from United Methodists.

And today, United Methodist Women’s Mission Giving provides an annual appropriation to national mission institutions. Most properties are owned by the Women’s Division, which has carried capital maintenance and insurance expenses.

Centers continue to be eligible for Advance funds. And local United Methodist Women units respond generously to Hands-On-Mission requests. Sadly, funds from the church provide only a fraction of total budgets today.

Still, these centers continue to serve the needs of new immigrants and changing communities:

  • Tacoma Community House in Tacoma, Wash., known for its work with war brides and other Asian immigrants, served persons from 57 different countries during 2007-2008.
  • Nearby, Atlantic Street Center in Seattle, Wash., works with Latinos, African Americans, East Africans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and other youth and families from Southeast Asia. Staff members are competent in eight languages.
  • Toberman Neighborhood House in San Pedro, Calif., is recognized for its work with Latino gangs and preventing gang violence.
  • Bethlehem Center in Charlotte, N.C., manages Head Start for the entire city, serving a large African-American population.

Whatever the name, wherever their location, the century-old commitment to their communities is unchanged in today’s national mission institutions.

Barbara E. Campbell is a retired United Methodist deaconess and retired staff of the Women’s Division. She lives in Asheville, N.C.

Posted or updated: 3/31/2010 11:00:00 PM