The People’s Church! A 50th-Anniversary Roundtable on the Young Lord’s Occupation of the First Spanish Methodist Church in NYC

AHA Session 134
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Sutton Center (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Jorge Rodríguez V, Union Theological Seminary
Prefiguring the New Society at the People’s Church
Johanna Fernandez, Baruch College, City University of New York
Cocreating New York: Reflections from a Young Lord
Juan González, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
(Re)Imagining Jesus, the Young Lord: Lessons for Activists, Organizers, and Clergy 50 Years Later
Dorlimar Lebron Malave, First Spanish Methodist Church—The People's Church

Session Abstract

After months of failed negotiations with church leadership, in December of 1969 the New York Chapter of the Young Lords Organization—a group of [Afro]Puerto Rican/Latinx radicals—occupied East Harlem’s First Spanish Methodist Church. The Young Lords bolted the doors shut with railroad spikes, replaced the United States and Christian flags with a flag of Puerto Rico’s Independence Party, and hung a banner from the Church’s second floor renaming it “La Iglesia del Pueblo—The People’s Church.” Amidst the group not identifying as “Christian” or “religious,” in their occupation the Young Lords re-liturgized the space to make clear they “liberated” the Church so it could fulfill the “true mission of Christianity”: serving the people. For eleven days, from December 28 to January 7, 1970, the Young Lords organized a breakfast program, held political education classes, clothing drives, and tested and treated community members for tuberculosis and lead poisoning. A loudspeaker played from artists like the Impressions and speeches by Malcolm X. The occupation electrified the neighborhood and inspired activists, community leaders, and artists across the city.

The brevity and sensational theatrics of the occupation, and its role in shaping Latinx civil rights politics, has until recently remained an untold story. Part of the problem is that in the immediate aftermath evangelical news outlets like Christianity Today disregarded their importance calling the Young Lords a “gang” that trashed churches and advocated violence all while the governing body of the Methodist Church denomination called the occupation a “campaign of harassment.” In reality, the occupation ignited an important debate between religious leaders and activists about the responsibility of institutions to their surrounding communities. But perhaps what many did not expect was that the occupation would become a staging ground for a Nuyorican identity that in the 1970s became both a political and cultural force in New York City. From the Nuyorican Poets Café to the progressive evangelical group “Acción Civica,” the occupation of the First Spanish Methodist Church left an important legacy that we believe deserves an important place at the American Historical Association in 2020. This is all the more important given that the AHA will take place during the 50th anniversary of the occupation in the very city the occupation occurred. We believe that this overlap will attract participants both from the AHA and the city of New York.

This roundtable will bring together former Young Lords activists, the current Pastor of the First Spanish Methodist Church, and three historians who have written about the movement to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the church occupation that turned a small Latinx mainline Protestant church into “the People’s Church” in 1969 and 1970. Each of our invited guests have confirmed and are eager to participate: Juan Gonzalez and Iris Morales (former Young Lords activists), Dorlimar Lebron Malave (current pastor of First Spanish Methodist Church), Johanna Fernandez (Assistant Professor of History, Baruch College), Jorge Juan Rodríguez V (Ph.D. Candidate in History, Union Theological Seminary), Felipe Hinojosa (Associate Professor of History, Texas A&M University).

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