Union Faculty Dr. Jorge Rodríguez Reflects on the Resilience of the East Harlem People’s Church of El Barrio

Union Faculty Dr. Jorge Rodríguez Reflects on the Resilience of the East Harlem People’s Church of El Barrio

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Dr. Jorge Rodriguez gives a more in-depth perspective on how the People’s Church has lent a hand to the community of El Barrio since its founding over 100 years ago.


New York – In the heart of East Harlem, there is a story of resilience, community, and faith that has spanned more than 100 years. Union Theological Seminary’s Visiting Assistant Professor of Historical Studies, Dr. Jorge Rodríguez, sheds light on the exceptional journey and contributions of this beacon known as the First Spanish United Methodist Church but known by many as the People’s Church of El Barrio.

“The church was a beacon to the community in East Harlem throughout the pandemic. They founded vaccine clinics, food drives, self-defense classes for women and children, acupuncture clinics…” said Dr. Jorge Rodríguez as he explained the church’s present social services in the community.

Dr. Jorge Rodríguez also enlightens us about the church’s initial days as a sanctuary for travelers, particularly the influx of Puerto Ricans seeking solace and a new beginning in the United States during the mid-20th century. He also touches on the dynamic association between the People’s Church and the Young Lords, a radical group of Puerto Ricans that formed in the late 1960s advocating for the creation of a socialist society and independence of Puerto Rico. In 1969, the New York Chapter of the Young Lords occupied the First Spanish United Methodist Church to host social programs they claimed the church was not embracing. Although some of those Young Lords that attended were religious while others were not, they agreed that a church is a place that feeds the poor, the hungry, and takes care of those marginalized by society.”

Fast-forwarding to the present, the legacy of the First Spanish United Methodist Church has found a way to combine its historic place as a haven for new arrivals to this nation and the radical vision they were invited to by the New York Young Lords. This legacy has manifested through a passion for social justice, community upliftment, and open-hearted sermons, allowing the church to serve as a lighthouse for Black and Hispanic communities striving to navigate life’s storms.

“They are continuing to be a space for the possibility of radical transformation in East Harlem by continuing their social program and services,” says Dr. Jorge Rodríguez. One of the projects he highlights is the “Our Good Life” Project, designed to help people in underserved communities have their voices heard in achieving better futures. He also closes off with a statement for all those who are fortunate enough to become acquainted with the People’s Church, “The work of liberation begins and ends with a community in struggle and a community grounded in love.”

About Union Theological Seminary

Union Theological Seminary (UTS), founded in 1836 in New York City, is a globally recognized seminary and graduate school of theology where faith and scholarship meet to reimagine the work of justice. A beacon for social justice and progressive change, Union Theological Seminary is led by a diverse group of theologians and activist leaders. Drawing on both Christian traditions and the insights of other faiths, the institution is focused on educating leaders who can address critical issues like racial equity, criminal justice reform, income inequality, and protecting the environment. Union is led by Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, the 16th President and the first woman to head the 187-year-old seminary.