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Ambassador Andrew Young

NEW YORK CITY, November 1999 -- By accepting the National Council of Churches (NCC) presidency for 2000-2001, Ambassador Andrew Young is going back and giving back to the churches and the ecumenical movement so critical to his formation. Gifts he brings to the post include an emphasis on ending poverty, a focus on youth and a desire to broaden the Council’s base of membership.

Andrew Young, born March 12, 1932, was ordained a United Church of Christ (UCC) minister and worked on the NCC staff before serving as a civil rights leader, mayor, congressman and ambassador. His history with the NCC stretches back to its beginning years.

Ambassador Young explicitly credited NCC-sponsored youth events and his tenure with the NCC’s Youth Division of Christian Education in the 1950s with "laying a wonderful foundation for me. It not only prepared me for the civil rights movement, but my involvement in Congress and the United Nations essentially came from my experience in ecumenical Christianity.

"Because the NCC shaped my ministry, I think of the passage, ‘to those to whom much has been given, of them much is required,’ Ambassador Young explained. "All of the gifts of the churches to my life now require me to make an effort to share those gifts, testify about those gifts, and to remind the churches that the gifts of God are still there if we seek them together."

NCC enables Andrew Young to encounter global church

In 1951, at the age of 19, Andrew Young attended an NCC-sponsored conference of the United Christian Youth Movement in Lake Brownwood, Texas, with his pastor, the Rev. Nicholas Hood. He was one of only two African Americans there. In his book An Easy Burden, Ambassador Young looks back on this interdenominational retreat as "one of the pivotal experiences of my life."

He explained in an interview, "at that conference, young people were questioning their family traditions and the basic value structure of their communities because of their realization that the Bible and the Spirit of Christ were different from what they were being taught. I had never before met any white people whose personal faith made a difference in their actions on the question of race. This experience made me examine my own faith. It also led me to seminary."

After receiving his B.Div. from Hartford Seminary in 1955 and his ordination in the United Church of Christ (UCC), the then Rev. Young served a UCC congregation in Thomasville, Ga. He spearheaded a voter registration drive in Thomasville, foreshadowing his future leadership in the civil rights movement.

In 1957, 25-year-old Rev. Young was handpicked by NCC leadership to work for the Youth Division of Christian Education. There, he said, "I was introduced to the global church, and I learned to appreciate the church as an institution with enormous political influence as well as personal significance."

During his three years of service with the NCC, Ambassador Young said, "I learned to transcend my Southern roots and prejudices and see religion as a global force. This would get me into trouble later, because my view of the world was from the perspective of the Christian mission, putting me into conflict with the Cold War analysis being advocated by our government in those years. But I saw people on the other side of the Iron Curtain as brothers in Christ, because I had met youth from the Russian Orthodox Church and I went to Eastern Europe on the way to the ecumenical youth assembly in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1960."

Ambassador Young said he had also come to see "members of liberation movements in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America as products of a century of missionary education." He therefore saw them "not as enemies to be destroyed but as brothers and sisters to be redeemed." Because of these "ecumenical perspectives," Ambassador Young said, "I believe I was later able to bring a new perspective to a lot of our nation’s policies. I saw that our government was ruled by our fears of communism rather than wisdom and understanding about the world in which we live."

While at the NCC, Ambassador Young was intimately involved with the CBS Sunday morning program "Look Up and Live." In his book, he attributes that experience with helping him to understand how to work with media as the civil rights movement unfolded.

In 1961, Ambassador Young left the NCC and joined the Citizenship School Program housed at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, though he continued to have strong ties with the UCC, which helped secure funding for his program.

Ambassador Young served the SCLC until 1970, when he entered the race for Atlanta’s Fifth Congressional District. Although he lost that first race, in 1972, Ambassador Young became the first black U.S. Representative from Georgia since Reconstruction. He served three terms until President Jimmy Carter named him Ambassador to the United Nations in 1977. He was elected to two terms as Mayor of Atlanta and was co-chair of the Centennial Olympic Games in 1996.

Ending poverty, reinvigorating youth are presidency priorities

Ambassador Young, Chairman of GoodWorks International in Atlanta, Ga., now brings his uncompromisingly inclusive view ingrained by his ecumenical training, as well as his media savvy, to the NCC presidency, a position akin to being "chairman of the board" of a company. An NCC president must be capable of communicating with all 35 member communions and be able to interpret their common witness to the public.

If Ambassador Young has his way, that membership number of 35 will increase by the time his tenure has ended. "I would like to broaden the base of the Council’s membership, to possibly include churches like the Church of God in Christ and other charismatic denominations," he said.

Ambassador Young said he looks forward to "working together to realize a vision" for the NCC and the ecumenical movement. To that end, he brings "an experience of the church in several powerful and meaningful times in our history the last 50 years."

"One of the big challenges to our denominational life was overcoming the racial separation which reigned from the Civil War to the 1960s, and institutionally and legally, we have done so," he said. "But in the process, there are wounds that need healing. Church burnings are a clear indication that with all the progress we’ve made, there are still some loose ends to be tied up."

These days, Ambassador Young said he "tends to talk less and less about racism" and more and more about poverty because "racism is one of the symptoms of poverty and insecurity." In fact, he said, "most of the problems we face in America, whether crime or education problems or hate groups, are derived from what Martin Luther King used to call ‘the lonely islands of poverty in the midst of this ocean of material wealth.’"

Thus, "ending poverty" will be one of Ambassador Young’s clarion calls during his two-year presidency and he hopes "the forgotten Black and Hispanic underclass as well as the poor whites in our small towns and rural communities" will "become the focus of our attention."

"America has the wealth, the wisdom and the faith to eliminate poverty," Ambassador Young commented. "It’s not only morally right, it’s good politics and economics."

Another of his priorities involves reinvigorating a faith-based youth movement. "We have abandoned our youth to the secular youth culture. The church didn’t feel as though it had the power to compete for the time of young people. I don’t think that’s true."

"I think we have a very clear opportunity to respond to the needs of youth and young adults in the 21st century. I’m not quite sure how we do that, but we need a clear intention to bring them into the institutional life of the church. The form of youth ministry is not as relevant as the fact that we consciously minister to young people in what I called ‘the Jesus years.’" Ambassador Young pointed out that "we hear about the Jesus in the Bible at 12 and don’t hear any more until he is 30 years old" and speculates, "it took Jesus from 12 to 30 to realize he was God’s child."

One of the keys to the Jesus years, Ambassador Young explained, is that "we’re saved in action and mission" during those years. The civil rights movement "was church" for him and the other young people involved, he said. At the same time, "the ecumenism of the civil rights movement was absolutely essential to its success."

Today, Ambassador Young brings important lessons from the civil rights movement to his newest ecumenical post. Regarding the financial strains and internal struggles of the Council, Ambassador Young is unfazed. "My own experience during the civil rights movement was that if we stayed on the mission, the money would come. When the mission and message were not clear, the management and money were always inadequate."

"I have seen that when the church gets a clear vision, it is empowered by the Holy Spirit to change the world and help make all things new," Ambassador Young stressed. "I remember the work of the churches in the 1950s in helping to deal with the problems of post-war Europe and I saw how powerful the church became in race relations in the 1960s. The most powerful witness of the church in the 1990s was racial reconciliation in South Africa."

"The strains of the Council have all come from attempting to live up to the call of Jesus Christ in the last half of the 20th century," Ambassador Young said. "The challenge is to hear the call of Christ for the 21st century."

For additional biographical information, click here

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