A ways back I did a post about the Welcome Wagon’s cover of the Smiths’ “Half A Person” from their debut album Welcome To The Welcome Wagon. The band’s essentially the betrothed duo of Reverend Thomas Vito and Monique Aiuto, but Sufjan Stevens produced and helped arrange the very Sufjan-esque collection and there are additional voices and sounds (horn, string, piano, etc). As mentioned in that “Half A Person” post, the album’s accompanying press materials note:
A self-described agnostic, Vito experienced a spiritual conversion at the age of 20 and soon after enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary to study theology and prepare for ordained ministry. Currently he is the senior pastor of Resurrection Presbyterian Church, a church he planted in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY, in 2005.
I’m not religious at all, so I approached Vito out of a kind of outsider’s curiosity. I wanted to know what it was like to run a church, how that task overlaps with his band, and how it feels to be outwardly religious in a time when the Religious Right’s gone a long way to making this seem less than desirable. He answered everything intelligently and with care, and for that I thank him. After our discussion, take a listen to “But For You Who Fear My Name,” a song written by Lenny Smith (aka Daniel Smith’s father and head of the Famile).
STEREOGUM: How long have you been with Resurrection Presbyterian Church? Who came up with the name?
THOMAS VITO AIUTO: I have been the pastor and church planter of Resurrection for about four years. I was called by a larger network of churches to develop a new congregation in the Community District 1 area of Brooklyn (Williamsburg/Greenpoint), and that’s how the church started. The name of our church is “Resurrection” because we hope for comprehensive renewal — spiritual and physical — for all of our members, for our community and city, and for our world. We believe that the resurrection of Jesus is our hope of that.
STEREOGUM: You operate out of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. Is it common for two different denominations to use the same building?
TVA: It is not terribly common. St. Paul’s Lutheran is a church that has worshiped God and served the community for many years in Brooklyn. We are grateful for their generosity to us in letting us use their space, and we are blessed to be able to serve alongside them. For us it’s a sign that even though we are from different traditions, worship in different languages and are, in large part, racially different, we are one family in Christ.
STEREOGUM: How does one become a pastor? Can you talk about any sort of religious training, etc. You strike me as a fairly young dude to be heading up a church. True or no?
TVA: The training and requirements to become a pastor vary from church to church. For me, it included three years of full-time academic work at a seminary where I studied the Bible, theology, philosophy, church history, counseling, etc. It also included work, formally and informally, with local pastors in New York who helped me to apply my academic training in practical ways. In terms of my age, I feel my inexperience and immaturity all the time. I do feel too young to be a pastor. My hope lies in the affirmation of the Bible that God’s grace is not often revealed in our strengths, but in our weaknesses. So I hope and pray that God works through me, and through our church, despite our weaknesses and flaws and our immaturity.
STEREOGUM: What are your duties? Can you discuss a typical day as a pastor?
TVA: My main duty is to lead people in worship, which includes teaching the Bible, leading in prayer, and celebrating the Eucharist. My job also includes meeting with people to think and listen and pray with them as they seek to discern what God is doing in their life. This sometimes occurs at times of transition, i.e. someone who is getting marriage, or who is sick, or who has lost a job — but it also sometimes occurs in the midst of everyday, mundane life. Through these interactions, my hope is that people will come to know more fully God’s grace — his unmerited love for love them — and thus lead them in to more love for God and for the people around them.
STEREOGUM: So you are able to bless the Eucharist … and give Confession, etc? I admittedly don’t know much about Presbyterians, so forgive me if this is an obvious question.
TVA: A big part of my job is blessing and serving the Eucharist. The Christian faith is imminently tied up in food — right there at the center of Christian worship is God giving his people bread and wine, it’s the whole Gospel summed up in a simple action. Christianity is a religion of feasting with God and neighbor. That’s what the Eucharist points to. I do not hear Confession in the same, formal way as some priests and pastors do, even some Presbyterian ones, but I often hear Confession as I talk with people about their spiritual lives. And of course my responsibility and joy is to repeatedly extend God’s forgiveness in Christ to them.
STEREOGUM: I went to the church’s website: You have an active community section with classifieds, etc. You also invite people to your home for Home Groups. Is this something unique to your church? It seems like you’re providing a kind of full-time community that moves beyond just the mass, or whatever.
TVA: Home groups are not unique to our church. They simply provide a format for our church to be a community of love for one another, and for the neighborhoods we live in. We hope that our worship of Christ on Sunday spills over in to relationships of care and service, and organizing home groups is one way to do that. Our home groups usually meet once per week in one of our members’ homes, and they end up being a place for people to talk and share a meal, pray, study the Bible and reflect thoughtfully on who God is, and who God is calling them to be.
STEREOGUM: Does a strong web presence — streaming sermons, etc. — help with attracting new members?
TVA: I think that it does. When someone new comes to the church and I ask them how they found us, they often answer that they found info through the web. So we want to let people know that we are here in as many ways as we can.
STEREOGUM: This is written at the site: “We invite you to join us for worship no matter where you are spiritually — skeptical or curious about Christianity, or a committed follower of Jesus Christ — and we look forward to serving you. ” Do skeptics often take you up on this offer?
TVA: Yes, sometimes. We hope that our community will be a place where people who are not believers, or who are struggling to understand the Christian faith, can come and ask honest, difficult questions and get honest answers. We also hope to be a place where it’s OK not to be OK. A church is a spiritual hospital that works on the assumption that everyone is in need of God’s healing grace.
STEREOGUM: I was going to ask if your parishioners aware of the Welcome Wagon and then I saw that you had your record release party at the church. The band seems like it’s inextricably linked to your ‘day job.’ How do you separate your job as a religious leader and a band leader? Or don’t you?
TVA: Well, that is a question that I am even now in the process of answering. I think of my job as the pastor of our church as, outside of my vocation as a husband and father, my first and most important calling. But I like the idea of having our music be a creative endeavor that inhabits a space alongside and informed by my work as a pastor. Some of my favorite artists were not full-time, professional artists: William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician. Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive. Frank O’Hara was a receptionist, and eventually a curator at the MoMA. Phoebe Snow was a full-time mom to her brain-damaged daughter. Dan Smith, of the Danielson Famile has been, among other things, a carpenter, and I don’t know of a more vital songwriter and performer working today.
STEREOGUM: Are there any folks who seem drawn to the congregation because of your music?
TVA: That’s beginning to happen a bit. We’ve had folks say they came to our church because they heard about the album, and I’m glad that they were there. People decide to come to a church for all kinds of reasons: because it’s close, because they feel some kind of need, because a friend asks them to go. My wife’s parents told me they once picked a church because — this is going to sound fabricated, but it’s true — it met later in the morning than the other churches in the area and that allowed them to watch The Lone Ranger. God always works through human means, so it’s all good. Maybe somebody will come to this church because they know about our music, but then they’d come to know the love of God in Christ better. I’d be grateful for that.
STEREOGUM: Do you have a longstanding congregation? Or, because you’re part of a youthful community, do people come and go?
TVA: There has been a remarkable continuity in our congregation, considering how young we are, and how transient our demographic tends to be. We hope that some people will choose to make their lives here and to spend themselves in the service of God and others here in Brooklyn, and we’re seeing that happen.
STEREOGUM: With the rise of the Religious Right, etc., people often assume a number of negative things straight off the bat about religious people. Do you run into this sort of thing with the band or the church? It’d be interesting to hear some of your thoughts on contemporary issues. What are some of your Church’s core beliefs?
TVA: I haven’t gotten much negative reaction with our band in that regard, or with the church really. In terms of our church’s core beliefs, they are best summed up in the Apostle’s Creed. No doubt we believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus has all kinds of social and economic and political and spiritual implications. But it all begins with Jesus Christ. It begins and ends with believing that in an act of free grace, the death of Jesus on the cross, and the fact that God raised this man from the dead, is a gift to humanity that puts to death everything that separates us from the love of God, and gives us life, here and now, as well as eternally. Everything else flows out from that.
Welcome To The Welcome Wagon is out via Asthmatic Kitty.
[Photo by Denny Renshaw]