October 21, 2010


A Song Grows in Brooklyn: Inspired by community, biblical truth, and good music, a Brooklyn couple makes music in their living room—as The Welcome Wagon. (Alissa Wilkinson, 6/29/2009, Christianity Today)

It's not hard to find good music any night of the week in Brooklyn. What's less common is a packed-out crowd of hip twenty-somethings alternately stomping, clapping, and whistling while the band onstage sings from Malachi 4:2:

But for you who fear my name
The Son of Righteousness will rise
With healing in his wings

And you shall go forth again
Skip about like calves
Coming from their stalls at last …

It's a Thursday night at Southpaw, a cavernous venue in an old dollar-store space, plastered with concert photos and lined by a long bar. And the band onstage is The Welcome Wagon, fronted by Vito and Monique Aiuto, a Presbyterian pastor and his wife.

Whoever said New York is a godless town should probably drop by.

Despite their audience and appearance—Vito is in a tweed suit and brimmed knit cap, and Monique wears a demure pencil skirt and tights with her vintagesque vest—the Aiutos aren't trying to be ironic or cool. They cheerily hand out a Polish poppy seed strudel from the stage as a "welcome wagon" gift. Their church, Resurrection Presbyterian (PCA), which Vito pastors, meets in Williamsburg, the epicenter of postmodern hipsterdom, and their congregation is top-heavy with zeitgeisty artists and musicians.

The Aiutos recently released their first album, Welcome to the Welcome Wagon, on the Asthmatic Kitty label, with album art by Monique. Produced by their longtime friend and indie poster boy, Sufjan Stevens, the music has Stevens' unmistakable fingerprints all over it—so much so that one might be tempted to assume that this is really his music, and that the Aiutos are an alter ego for the musician who has worked hard to distance himself from the Christian mainstream.

But it's just not true; all insist that this is really the Aiutos' music, and what Stevens mostly contributed was orchestration and arrangement—and a theologically perceptive liner-note commentary on the Asthmatic Kitty website.

The Aiutos' met Stevens at a quirky event called "Christ-a-Go-Go," a kind of Christian arts extravaganza that Stevens helped organize. Monique helped curate and Vito made the food. "We didn't even know [Stevens] played music at the time," says Vito.

Sufjan later asked Vito to play in some early iterations of his band. "It was really ridiculous," says Vito, "because I don't know how to play the guitar. I still don't know how to play that well." Still, a friendship was born. [...]

Vito and Monique are equally inviting—fitting for a couple with a band called The Welcome Wagon. In fact, hospitable strikes me as a prevailing characteristic of their lives, music, and ministry. Both raised in the same town in a farming community in Michigan, the Aiutos count their friends and parishioners as family. It's an unabashedly Midwestern frame of mind, in many ways; whereas the typical urbanite has a more transient mindset, the Aiutos have purposefully planted their lives in north Brooklyn in order to minister to that diverse community.

Monique arrived in New York City in 1992, to attend college at the prestigious Cooper Union. Two years later, after meeting again in Michigan, Vito and Monique began to deepen their acquaintance into a relationship. Vito moved to attend Princeton Theological Seminary in 1995, and the pair married three years later. In 2001, Vito began ministering with Reformed University Fellowship at New York University.

While Monique grew up in a family that went to church and prayed together, she first began to own her faith as an adult while attending Times Square Church during college. Vito, on the other hand, was an agnostic when he began college. By his junior year, he realized that the life he had constructed—one that was built around his own happiness and pleasure at the expense of those around him—was bringing him to his knees. "I can see that God's grace was such that it would not allow me to pursue my own destruction." Though he had considered prayer to be primitive or intellectually weak, he realized one day that it was his only hope—that only God could save him and order his life.

He decided to go to seminary because he felt called to study, but he says, "I don't think I realized that ministry was my vocation until after I left seminary; the calling emerged as I first worked in the church." The call to New York City as a place to raise a family and pursue ministry was also a surprise—but the Aiutos have come to love the city. "We plan on being here a long time, if the Lord wills," Vito says.

In late 2004, Vito began work on planting Resurrection Presbyterian Church in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. Whereas his ministry experience at NYU had been mainly limited to undergraduates, who lived in the same place as students and were at roughly the same place in life, he has found that as a pastor, his experience is much more broad. "I deal with people at various stations of life: married, single, older, younger, children; baptisms, sicknesses, and weddings."

From the start, the Aiutos' inspiration for creating music has been family and home. In the early 1990s, a friend of Monique's introduced them to Dan Smith of the alt-Christian band Danielson Famile. The couple went to a Danielson concert at the legendary Knitting Factory—an experience they both term "the most incredible show I've ever been to."

"It was like he had honed in on something that was wholly his own voice, and I realized that part of the reason he could do that was because he grew up in a family with music," says Vito. "I realized I couldn't really be him, but maybe I could foster that kind of thing."

The Aiutos are well-acquainted with the rootlessness that often afflicts young New Yorkers. In contrast, they have set down roots and begun raising a family—both in their own home, and in their church. And that family is nurtured through playing music together.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 21, 2010 5:41 AM
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