For Riverside Church, social justice is part of the gospel | The Black Church

Standing majestically in Morningside Heights is The Riverside Church, a towering presence on Manhattan's Upper West Side but for reasons more impactful than its grand structure.

"We're thought of as a social justice church — some people bristle at that," said Rev. Michael Livingston, the interim senior minister.

Yet it's an identification this church has well-earned. 

In 1990, when anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela visited the United States after being released from prison in South Africa, he came to Riverside first and told a capacity crowd of the need for world peace — all before going to Washington to meet with President George H.W. Bush.

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And more than two decades earlier, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his landmark "Beyond Vietnam" speech, in which he voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War and support for social policies reform, at Riverside on April 4, 1967 — exactly one year before he was assassinated.

The Riverside Church was built in 1930 with funding donated by 20th-century New York philanthropist and financier John D. Rockefeller Jr. The early congregants and church leaders embraced a progressive ideology that eventually led Riverside to transition away from being solely a Baptist church but a church for all faiths with a mission of simply doing the work of the gospel.

"I think the real core of it is we care both about the individual person and their growth and development as a child of God," Livingston said. "And we also care about the society, especially the most vulnerable among us."

To that end, a food pantry is open daily for New Yorkers facing food insecurity. Through a partnership with nearby Columbia University, the church is also an adjunct campus.

The church has a community theater for use by off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway performances and a well-renowned AAU basketball and academic development program, which counts among its alumni NBA Hall of Famers Chris Mullin and Nate "Tiny" Archibald. 

Riverside's church membership is reflective of the melting pot that is New York City. It is firmly positioned within a community of color but offers a spiritual tenet that redefines the Black church.

"We are an interdenominational, interracial, international, open, welcoming, and affirming church and congregation," the church's website states. "Whoever you are: You are safe here. You are loved here. You are invited into full participation in our life together."

The Riverside Church in the City of New York | 490 Riverside Dr., New York, N.Y. 10027 | 212-870-6700 |

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