In the city, might the saving process go both ways?
By Charlie Kraybill
Making my way through the Union Square subway station in Manhattan, I caught sight of a young woman in ahead covering, the size and shape of which indicated she belonged to an eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite splinter group. I rounded the corner and saw she was accompanied by a dozen plain-dressed people singing hymns while thelargely oblivious passersby, well, passed by. I stopped to find out what they were up to. The woman handed me a pamphlet, which included an address for Pilgrim Mennonite Church in the Bronx. I may be off the Mennonite grid these days, but I live in the Bronx and liketo think I know where the Mennonite churches are located. I was just starting to talk with the young woman when one of her male colleagues approached and took over. Hisname was Tony Hollinger, from Lebanon County, Pa., and a friendly enough fellow. Turns out these Pilgrim Mennonites are renting space, two Sundays a month, in a church at 764 Hewitt Place inthe South Bronx. I’ve walked past this building many times, admiring its century-old onion domes. Constructed in1906 as the Montefiore Hebrew Congregation, it’s a lovely remnant of the area’s heyday as a ghetto of Europeanimmigrants. The Jewish population departed decades ago, and the building has housed Spanish-speakingChristians ever since. At this stage of their project, none of the Pilgrim group have taken up residence in the Bronx. The entirecongregation commutes from Pennsylvania, on day trips, including for their Sunday services. I suggested to Hollinger that head coverings will hinder any proselytizing efforts. City folk don’t go for the wholewomen-are-subservient thing. When he replied that the covering is required by the New Testament, we discusseddifferences between his way of reading Scripture and mine. It’s not unusual to see conservative Mennonites performing public hymn-sings around Manhattan. They drive infrom Pennsylvania, spend a few hours singing and distributing tracts, then get back in their vehicles to head homebefore dark. Several summers ago I encountered a conservative Mennonite group in Washington Square Park, in the heart of Greenwich Village. I thought that none of them looked happy, though they were supposed to be selling happinessin Jesus. Meanwhile, swirling all around were the denizens of the Village: laughing boys on skateboards, smilinggirls on bicycles, grinning geezers on roller blades, swooning lovers on open lawn. The contrast between the hymn-singers and their audience was stark. I couldn’t imagine why anybody in the parkwould be tempted to trade what they had for what these peculiar-looking Pennsylvanians were offering. If anything, I thought I detected envy in the eyes of some of the Mennonite youth, as if they were thinking they’drather spend the day relaxing on the grass with the fun-loving New Yorkers than be stuck behind an old hymn book. I asked the group’s leader why he assumed the people of the park were so sinful. He replied with somethingabout the urgency of getting folks into God’s kingdom. I stretched out my arm, made a sweeping gesture towardthe mass of humanity before us — a diverse assortment of people, all colors, shapes, sizes, ethnicities — andexclaimed: “Look around, man. This right here is what the kingdom of God looks like!” For a moment I thought hewas viewing the scene the way I saw it. But just as quickly he retreated into revivalist cliches. It’s not just that conservative Mennonites, due to their 19th-century appearance, will have difficulty making anappealing pitch to a city audience. The problem also lies with the assumptions behind such missionizing urges.