Flory, Margaret (1914-2009)
Mission innovator and educator
Margaret Flory was born in Wauseon, Ohio in 1914. She received both her bachelors and masters degrees at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Her dream of being a missionary to China was thwarted by World War II. Although she got to travel and teach in Japan and the Philippines after the war, she found her life’s calling when she began the Office for Student Work for the Presbyterian Board of Missions on January 1, 1951 (later the Office of Student World Relations of COEMAR, the Commission on Ecumenical Missions and Relations). In one way or the other she worked with and on behalf of students for the remainder of her life.
From Flory’s office flowed a river of innovative and groundbreaking programs that introduced American students to the world and offered open-armed hospitality to international students in the United States. In 1953 she founded the Junior Year Abroad program, one of the very first in the country, that placed several hundred Presbyterian students in universities in places like Lebanon, India, and Japan. In 1961, she founded Frontier Internship in Mission that placed new college graduates, either alone or with a spouse, on a mission “frontier” in order to explore new ways for the church to be in relation with others in a post-colonial world. That program was internationalized and moved to Geneva in 1974. In 1970, Flory founded the Bi-National Servants for people who had lived and worked in two cultures to continue to travel and explore new cultures. Countless study and service trips in Asia, Africa, and South America introduced students to the struggles of the Christians in those places. Wherever possible Flory worked collaboratively with people in other denominations and in other countries also working with students.
Flory also worked with the national and international organizations for Christian students in a variety of capacities. She is perhaps best known for planning the 1955 and 1959 Quadrennials of the Student Volunteer Movement held in Athens, Ohio. Between 3,000 and 4,000 students–one-quarter international students–gathered for week-long conferences that put students in direct contact with people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bola Ige, a civil rights and democracy advocate from Nigeria and the struggles of people worldwide to overcome repression. The idea to focus on mission “frontiers” came out of the 1959 conference.
Flory was a key American supporter of the World Student Christian Federation. She was instrumental in proposing and carrying out the eight-year WSCF plan focused on the Life and Mission of the Church that began in 1956 and was capped by a contentious teaching conference in Strasbourg in 1960 that resulted in a dramatic break with traditional mission practice and instead moved WSCF mission thought directly into the world so the world, not the church, would set the agenda. Although far from a radical herself, she was always able to hear new ideas and respond to student concerns. After the University Christian Movement, the WSCF branch, voted itself out of existence in 1969, Flory continued as President of WSCF Trustees until 1990 and worked tirelessly to reinvigorate it.
Flory retired in 1980 but worked as the program director at the Gilmor Sloane House at Stony Point Center in New York until 1988. “….[W]hen persons of different cultures and nationalities are drawn together in a common experience, they teach each other in life-changing ways,” she later wrote in her WSCF Centennial History. “Global bridging,” she called it on another occasion. Either way, the relationships Margaret Flory nurtured and the cross-cultural understanding she fostered are the strong foundation for continued work in the student and the ecumenical world today. She died in Brevard, NC on October 1, 2009.
Written by Ada Focer based on material from Flory’s autobiographies and on personal interviews with Margaret Flory held in November 2008 and August 2009.
Flory, Margaret. Dear House: Mission Becomes You: Gilmor Sloane House, Stony Point, New York, 1949-1999. 1st ed. Louisville, KY: Bridge Resources, 2000.
_____. From Past to Future. New York: The History Project of the World Student Christian Federation, 1997.
_____. Moments in Time: One Woman’s Ecumenical Journey. New York: Friendship Press, 1995.
Flory, Margaret, and Alice Hageman. The University, the Church, and Internationalization. [St. Louis]: UMHE Publications Office, 1968.
“Margaret Flory,” taken by Ada Focer on August 14, 2009.