In Memory: Rev. Howard Moody
In this day and age, we rarely talk of saints, but if the movement of faithful action for reproductive justice had a founding saint, it would be Rev. Howard Moody, who passed away on Wednesday, September 12th. His prophetic stance for women seeking abortions in the years before Roe fundamentally changed the nature of the debate. Through the more than 1400 clergy who would eventually join the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion he touched the lives of thousands of women who went to those clergy for counseling, not to mention the millions more whose perceptions of that issue were changed by the powerful image of clergy of different faiths standing on the side of justice and women seeking abortions. Today we at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice are proud to carry on Rev. Moody’s work through our prophetic and pastoral work for reproductive justice. Through the Rev. Moody Clergy Consultation Fund, RCRC raises money to fund programs that carry on his work of pastoral care and education of clergy and future clergy in how issues of abortion and reproductive justice touch the lives of those we serve.
For Rev. Moody in the 1960’s,abortion wasn’t just an abstract political issue to be debated in Congress and the Supreme Court. It was an issue of great pastoral concern for the women who came to him and other clergy in the most difficult of circumstances, trying to discern what they should do. It was an issue of compassion for the emotional, physical, and legal dangers that women had to face in order to acquire the medical care they needed, and for the women who suffered injury or death in botched back-alley procedures. It was an issue of justice that women were judged and criminalized for trying to do what they thought was best for themselves and their families. In his words, “Women are enslaved by not having reproductive freedom.”
From his first experience in his first year at Judson Memorial Church of going with a woman he met through the congregation to try and secure an abortion in an illegal setting in New Jersey, to his oversight of the Clergy Consultation Service, he kept the needs of each individual woman who sought his help foremost in his mind. He saw the judgment so many women faced, and sought to replace it with compassion. As he explained later, “Everybody was making judgments about women who had abortions. They were criminals. … We were not to be judgmental … we were to help them go through this and be with them through the process.”
Today, in my own work as a pastoral care giver and a trainer of others in how to offer pastoral care to women and families as they explore issues of reproductive choice and loss, I have often looked to Rev. Moody as a guiding light. In those training seminars I have led for clergy and seminarians, I have often reflected that we need W.W.H. D. bracelets- what would Howard do? Forty-five years later, his focus on the pastoral needs of the woman in question, and the idea that any work for justice must flow from that is still at the center of RCRC’s work.
As I reflect on my memory of this wonderful man and all the lives he touched, I remember that my own life felt his influence long before I came to my ministry with RCRC. As a teenager in New York City in the early 90’s, I could often be found at Judson Memorial Church. I had not yet become a Christian, and I don’t think I ever walked through the doors on a Sunday morning. But for a good portion of my time in High School, I could be found on most Friday afternoons at an open-mic poetry reading that was hosted in Judson’s garden or meeting rooms. My friend ran the open-mic, and we had found our way to Judson after being turned away almost everywhere else. I remember being pretty surprised that a church of all places would be the place to host this odd collection of high school misfits. Rev. Moody had already retired by that time, but I remember talking to a representative of the church about why they had come to host us. She told me about the recently retired senior minister and all he had done to create an atmosphere of welcome and compassion for all at the church. In its own small way that moment was a key part of what would eventually lead me to the church and to ministry and eventually to the work of RCRC. One more life touched by Rev. Howard Moody, one more way in which his influence continues to be felt in this moment.
Some of my favorites hymns are those such as “For All the Saints” that call us to remember the strength, the passion and the wisdom of those who have gone before us, as we strive to work for justice in our own time. I know the next time I sing one of those songs it will be Rev. Howard Moody I think of, boldly calling us forward to justice and compassion.
Rev. Matthew Westfox
Director of Interfaith Outreach
Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice