Peggy Marie Billings, age 90, passed away on July 19th, 2019 at Bridges Cornell Heights in Ithaca, New York, after suffering a severe stroke in June 2018.
Peggy was born into a McComb, Mississippi, railroad family on September 10, 1928. The youngest daughter of Dave and Inez Billings, she outlived her sister and seven brothers.
After attending elementary and secondary school in Pike County, MS, Peggy graduated in three years from Millsaps College in Jackson, MS. A two-time state tennis champion, she taught tennis while attending Millsaps.
Peggy grew up in a Methodist family and became a missionary under the then Woman’s Society of Christian Service. After a year of preparation at Scarritt College, Nashville, TN, and a year of language study at Yale University, she arrived in Seoul, Korea in 1953, with the assignment to reclaim the Tai Wha Community Center, used by the US Army during the Korean War, as a renewed social center.
On a year’s leave in the US, she earned an MA degree in Social Work from Columbia University in New York City. Peggy then returned to Seoul to direct the Tai Wha Community Center until 1963.
Peggy’s career with the United Methodist Women began in 1963 upon her return to New York. She was assigned to represent the UMW in the Civil Rights struggles of the South. Her activities, including her participation in the Selma March with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, earned her the enmity of Mississippi’s political and religious leaders, who urged her not to return to her home state “for her own safety”.
Undeterred, Peggy continued her activist life both South and North, in the Civil Rights Movement, the Peace Movement, and the Women’s Movement. In 1968, she became the Assistant General Secretary for Christian Social Relations in the Women’s Division of the Board of Global Ministries, United Methodist Church.
Peggy’s influence continued to expand as she served as professor of religion and society at Candler School of Theology at Emory University from 1972-73. She also was a lecturer on World Christianity at Yale Divinity School in 1989. In 1973, she delivered an address to 10,000 participants at the quadrennial United Methodist Women’s Assembly. Her speech from that event has been used as a basic text on the Purpose for United Methodist Women.
In 1984, Peggy was named Associate General Secretary of the World Division of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. During her tenure there, she chaired the North American Coalition for Human Rights and contributed to the Center for International Policy and Global Education Associates, as well as serving on the Board of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Peggy’s commitment to human rights worldwide resulted, in 1986, in her being awarded an honorary doctorate from Ewha Women’s University in Seoul. Additional honors include the Public Welfare Medal through the Republic of Korea, the Human Rights Award from the Korean Christian Scholars Association of North America, and the Ball Award from the Methodist Federation for Social Action. For her work she received Citations in Human Rights from the National Council of Churches in Korea and the Korean Institute for Human Rights.
Her books about Korea include “The Waiting People”, “In No One’s Pocket”, “Paradox and Promise in Human Rights”, and “Fire Beneath the Frost: Korea, Speaking Out in the Public Space”.
In 1975, Peggy purchased a house in Trumansburg, NY, built in the 1820’s by Quakers, that had served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. She repaired the house and recently installed solar panels and geo-thermal heating. When she retired in 1989, Peggy was able to live full-time in that fully restored home.
Since retirement, Peggy has become an accomplished poet. Her published works include “Half-Light” and “Red Rooster Crowing”, as well as “Tracing the Path”, with other Tompkins County, NY, poets.
She recently received two awards from Who’s Who in America: the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018 and the Humanitarian Award in 2019.
Peggy is survived by her sister-in-law, Dorothy Billings of Memphis, TN, as well as dozens of nieces and nephews and great nieces and nephews. Mary Lou Van Buren, her longtime friend, colleague and partner of 50 years, continues to live in their Trumansburg home.
We wish to thank the staff at Cayuga Ridge for their care during the summer of 2108. For Peggy’s care a number of months since, we want to express much appreciation to the staff at Bridges Cornell Heights for their special care, the Hospicare team, and many friends near and far for their faithful support.
A service of Celebration and Thanksgiving will be held on Saturday July 27th at 1:00pm at the Church of the Epiphany, 11 Elm St. Trumansburg, NY. Her ashes will be buried in McComb, Mississippi, beside her beloved brother Bob and near her parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters.
In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts are welcome at: Ithaca City of Asylum (ithacacityofasylum.com) or Church World Services (cwsglobal.org), Church of the Epiphany or Mecklenburg United Methodist Church.