“They must think something of this space because it’s on the subway map at the 145th Street station,” said Dalen Ratzlaff as he stood in the fellowship hall on the basement level of a renovated Harlem row house. Women in long, simple dresses and devotional caps served up casseroles and mashed potatoes as a line of Mennonites made their way down the buffet table.
On Sundays, the Mennonites of the Sugar Hill Mission worship for an hour and a half. After that, they serve lunch to the 20 or so men and women who come to pray with them in a small, dimly lit hall – their church of sorts. Then, the day of rest is spent doing the Lord’s work.
“We tell the gospel story and we help our neighbors,” said Ed Warkentin, the leader of the mission. “We just kind of spread the love.”
As Mennonites, the descendants of Anabaptists, they hold that baptism can be given only to adult believers. The Warkentins follow a particularly conservative branch of Mennonite known as the Church of God in Christ. They shun war, technology like radio and television and end formal schooling once children reach their teenage years.
Warkentin and his wife, Yvette, left Alabama and arrived at the Sugar Hill Mission in the spring, taking over for a couple that had led the mission for three years. Easily mistaken as Amish, with her plain dress and his fluffy beard, their simple lifestyle seems out of place in the hustle and bustle of a traditionally African American neighborhood in Harlem.
Though their tradition is an outlier in a group of about a half-dozen other far more liberal sects of Mennonite in New York City, the Warkentins have had to adapt to the modern metropolis they live in. They use subways and buses to get around. Equipped with walkie-talkies in case of trouble, a few of the mission’s visiting Mennonites even drive a van to pick up a blind man who joins them for Sunday worship. They have a telephone, a computer and use the Internet for business purposes. Warkentin said the good that comes from the exceptions they make outweigh following the faith to the letter. “We don’t live by laws. We live in the liberty of the spirit,” said Warkentin. “We can do anything we want to, but what we want to do is controlled because we want to live in Christ.
In Sugar Hill, churches take up a lot of real estate, with a house of worship on nearly every block. Warkentin said he knew a traditional Mennonite church was a tough sell. “A lot of them don’t know what’s here. A lot of them walk straight on by and never look.” No matter, Warkentin said there are still people out there looking for their brand of faith. Faith isn’t geographically sensitive for Warkentin and he said that’s reason enough for the Mennonites to continue spreading their message in Sugar Hill. “The thing is is that there are things in the Scripture that probably were for a time relevant, but we can still make applications for our times because we’re still made out of the same cursed dirt. It all comes from the earth,” said Warkentin.
No matter how unlikely the mission’s presence in the neighborhood, the leaders of local churches think that after 23 years in Sugar Hill, the Mennonites have found a fit among all the others. “This is a city, everybody jams in,” said pastor George Ramsudh of the Mount Zion Lutheran church, just a few blocks away on the corner of 145th Street and Convent Avenue. “Each one of these entities has its own objective, its own uniqueness. Yeah, we’re clustered together. We’re competing, it appears. But at the back of all that we have our own goals.”
A fellow Mennonite, Don Toews said the goal is not to establish a huge Mennonite congregation in a place like New York City, but to illuminate the faith for someone looking for it. “Our goal is to hold up a light and so if somebody responds, fine. If not, we still did our part, we held up the light. It’s God’s light,” he said.
A Colorado businessman who sells oil field equipment, Toews was in the city visiting his 20-year-old son Carson. Along with two other young men, Carson Toews volunteers with the Warkentins at soup kitchens in the Bowery, in the children’s oncology unit of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and with humanitarian groups like Habitat for Humanity. Other days are spent helping the random stranger who shows up on the doorstep of the mission, like one man who needed help tracking down the name of his birth mother and with the assistance of a church-filtered Internet search engine, a name and address were found.
But most of the energy of the mission goes into small pamphlets containing Bible verses and inspirational messages, passed out at subway stations or in front of the mission on St. Nicholas Avenue.
“We sit down on the steps a lot and just smile,” said Warkentin. “Someone said if you sit and look at the New York City people’s faces, they all look like they had a fight and lost. That’s kind of the way they go around, kind of glum, and so we spread smiles.”
Since their arrival seven months ago, the Warkentins say they’ve seen the congregation grow to about 20 regular worshippers and diversify, counting Indians, African-Americans and even a Jewish man as congregants. Even with that, the church’s size hasn’t made it any easier in spreading the faith. “It takes a while to get through that New York crust, that protection shell we tend to have,” said Warkentin.
But with patience, it’s a challenge Warkentin’s wife, Yvette, said they are willing to take on. “Jesus said go out into all the world. He didn’t say bypass Harlem.”