Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Churches of New York City / Richard K. MacMaster

Richard K. MacMaster. Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Churches of New York City. Kitchener, ONT: Pandora Press. 2006. 382 pages.

With Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Churches of New York City, noted American historian Richard K. MacMaster has broached an important and much-understudied element of Anabaptist history: the urban missionary movement among two distinct-yet-similar sets of “plain people.” Unfortunately, MacMaster’s study fails to live up to its full potential.

Described by its author as “the story of those from many backgrounds who worked and prayed together ‘to prepare the members of the people of God to accomplish the task of Christian service and to grow into the Body of Christ’ (Ephesians 4:12),” Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Churches of New York City examines how two religious groups — birthed in rural locales and possessed of a deep-seated suspicion of the “sin-filled city” — came to launch and nurture successful missions to the United States’ largest metropolis. Because of the focus of this blog and the limits of my own knowledge, I will restrict my comments to the portions of the book dealing with Brethren in Christ congregations and missions.

MacMaster devotes one full chapter and parts of several others to telling the story of New York City’s two Brethren in Christ congregations, Fellowship Chapel in the Bronx and Brooklyn Brethren in Christ Church (later Pilgrim Chapel). In those chapters, he provides a solid overview of the initial impulse leading the Brethren in Christ to develop a ministry in New York City. Specifically, he locates key actors (including Mary Wenger, an aspiring missionary with an interest in providing “a testimony among the Jews”), and offers a detailed narrative of the trials and tribulations that befell early attempts to secure a mission location.

More on MacMaster’s analysis, after the jump.

In narrating the genesis and development of Fellowship Chapel, MacMaster focuses on leadership: what leaders came, what leaders left, and how those shifting patterns of leadership affected congregational growth and development. His narrative of the Brooklyn church follows a similar tack. This reviewer was fascinated by MacMaster’s treatment of the pastorate of Cecil Loney, a Nazarene minister recruited by the Brethren in Christ to the work in Brooklyn (p. 220-223). Likely the first non-white minister in the Brethren in Christ Church, Loney arrived in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in the midst of dramatic social and cultural upheavals: the transition of the neighborhood from mixed-race to predominantly black; the collapse of the borough’s economy; etc. It was a difficult time for those living near the church. Yet despite the poverty and inadequate housing surrounding his church and affecting his congregants, MacMaster observes that Loney demonstrated little interest in social ministries; as an immigrant from Trinidad, he “had no empathy with the powerful movements shaping Black America in the 1960s and he belittled Civil Rights leaders from the pulpit” (p. 221). He wanted to constrict the Brooklyn church’s ministry to only evangelistic programming, and was unwilling to consult with the congregation’s Voluntary Service unit or that unit’s leaders — choices that, in MacMaster’s estimation, caused the neighborhood residents to view the church as indifferent toward the “urban situation” (p. 223).

MacMaster also spends substantial time documenting the Voluntary Service (VS) units established at both congregations. These units drew numerous Brethren in Christ conscientious objectors to war, as well as other service-oriented members of the denomination, during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. MacMaster’s writing here especially valuable for church historians and those interested in recent Brethren in Christ history, as it illustrates two important developments in the church in these years. First, it shows in part how the Brethren in Christ began to reinterpret their doctrine of nonresistance during the Vietnam War, building on their World War II legacy of relief work and “service of national importance.” Second, it suggests the extent to which many Brethren in Christ — especially, but not only, young people — began to understand Anabaptist commitments to peace and service as part-and-parcel of a social justice ethic. Many of the VSers, pastors, and other church workers who came to New York City began to see the world differently than their rural and suburban friends and family. As MacMaster tells it, these believers began to understand that social-structural problems — institutional racism, gentrification, urban blight — contributed to the plight of urban dwellers. They began to recognize and call injustice “sin,” and vowed to work against such evil. In other words, they began to link their Christian faith to issues of social justice. Examples abound. In the 1960s, Harold and Cathy Bowers, one of the first pastoral couples at the Brooklyn church, established the United Block Association, which “grapple[d] with real problems of a people trying to walk ‘up the down escalator'” (pg. 219). Similarly, in the 1970s, a VSer named Janet Hykes helped Fellowship Chapel launch a multi-faceted social ministry in the Bronx; the program included an after-school tutoring program, the Little Lighthouse Learning Center.

This emphasis on social ministry did not meet with universal approval. According to MacMaster, Alvan and Theta Book — then-pastors at Fellowship Chapel — expressed their doubts that Hykes “‘had the personal Christian commitment and spiritual resources'” to serve in a church-related program (p. 256). And a conflict in vision between the Brooklyn congregation’s pastor, Cecil Loney, and the social service-oriented VS program resulted in a bifurcation of the two programs, with Loney establishing a new congregation (Pilgrim Chapel) and the VS team remaining in the old space to continue its social ministry. Despite these major difficulties, the Brethren in Christ of New York City often worked comfortably within this perceived tension between evangelism and social ministry, continuing to build their congregations through outreach. MacMaster ably describes these bold efforts.

Despite its many positive attributes, MacMaster’s text is not without obvious oversight and flaw. Most significantly, the author devotes only one sentence to Pilgrim Chapel, the Brooklyn congregation established by the Brethren in Christ in 1969. (This was the congregation that developed after the schism within the original Brooklyn church.) This congregation has had a long and important history of ministry in New York City — and one that has yet to be fully told. Thus, MacMaster’s failure to document (even partially) this important aspect of the Brethren in Christ Church’s New York story is a serious oversight that compromises his authorial integrity.

Furthermore, MacMaster devotes little direct attention to race and racial attitudes in the urban Brethren in Christ churches. When the Brethren in Christ moved into New York City, they were a homogeneous Causasian people with little experience ministering to urban minorities. Yet, as the historical record shows, their congregations soon filled up with blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other ethic and racial groups. What were the racial dynamics in these burgeoning congregations? What challenges befell these formerly plain people as they attempted to reach out to their neighbors? What tensions mounted as white evangelizers brought their interpretation of the Christian faith to these new communities? How did Brethren in Christ leaders think about minorities in leadership — and how did their thinking work itself out in practical, day-to-day matters? These questions deserve answering, and yet MacMaster overlooks them — another major flaw in his writing.

Overall, however, MacMaster’s narrative of the Brethren in Christ churches in New York City is valuable, given the dearth of historical scholarship related to late twentieth century Brethren in Christ urban ministry. Indeed MacMaster — a Mennonite — has done Brethren in Christ historians a great favor in researching and writing this unprecedented (albeit flawed) study.

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About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
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