2018 — Menno House extends peace through hospitality (The Mennonite World Review)
2013 — Manhattan’s crash pad for modern Mennonites (The Wall Street Journal)
2010 — New Yorkers organize a bake sale for immigrants (The Mennonite Weekly Review)
2008 — Mennonites celebrate 50 years of peace and low rent (Town & Village)
— Music makers will play for Menno House (The Intelligencer Journal)
— Upgrade in New York City (The Mennonite Weekly Review)
2007 — Making Manhattan possible (The Mennonite)
— In New York, intern got bigger view of ministry (The Mennonite Weekly Review)
Menno House extends peace through hospitality
Michelle Kennel Shenk, Mennonite World Review
October 8, 2018
On a summer afternoon, a taxi cab idled outside Menno House. The driver pulled out his phone to take a picture of the “Black Lives Matter” and “No matter where you are from, we are glad you are our neighbor” signs, the latter written in English, Spanish and Arabic.
He then exited the cab, found a piece of cardboard from a nearby recycling bin to use as a makeshift mat and said his prayers- knees, hands, and forehead pressed lightly against the sidewalk pavement.
He smiled as he resumed his work. A neighbor had waited for him to finish his prayers before asking to enter his cab.
The signs had signaled welcome to him, a Muslim man who was also black, and had told him it was a safe place to express his faith.
Passersby frequently pause to take in these two messages, before turning to the third sign, which reads “Menno House, est. 1958.”
Located near Manhattan’s East Village, Menno House has long been a home to Mennonites living out their Christian faith and witness in New York City. The house was initially purchased by the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions to provide housing for conscientious objectors during the Korean War. Today, Menno House is a ministry of hospitality of Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship, providing affordable community housing for a small group of voluntary service workers, students, and non-profit employees as well as welcoming visitors to the city through its guesthouse rooms, rented out nightly.
Now in its sixtieth year, Menno House is often described as a haven, a place where residents and guests can catch their breath from the hustle and bustle of the city outside its door. Sitting around the kitchen table, residents share stories about their days, the frustrations and joys of life in the city, and their faith.
Housemates come from numerous American states as well as other countries. Recent residents have had a variety of denominational backgrounds including Mennonite, Lutheran, Church of Christ, and Catholic. Living together gives everyone opportunities to share about their own perspectives and learn about each others’ life experiences.Through the overnight guest rooms, Menno House has offered hospitality to visitors from every continent, in town for many purposes: United Nation work-groups, professional conferences, work trips, college visits, graduations, anti-racism workshops, and documentary screenings. While not every interaction among residents and guests is very in-depth, taking the time to chat can lead to valuable opportunities to learn and connect across difference.
While most of Menno House’s overnight guests are in town for leisure or work, every so often, the guest is seeking safety and freedom as an asylum seeker to the United States.
Menno House has hosted seventeen asylum seekers for complimentary one night stays since beginning a hosting relationship with Seafarers International House in 2017. Individuals at different points of the asylum application process are referred by service providers to receive housing at Seafarers. Due to NYC housing laws, they can stay only a limited number of nights before they need to stay somewhere else for one night. After a night away, they return and resume their stay at Seafarers.
Menno House board member Katrina Yoder learned about this program and recognized the harmony between it and Menno House’s mission of hospitality. Seafarers reaches out to Menno House when they have someone in need of a place to stay for a night and, if Menno House has a vacancy, the asylum seeker is welcomed for the night, free of charge.
In June, a man from Nigeria checked in at Menno House for a complimentary one night stay. He shared that it was a special night for him- he would be attending a dinner party thrown in his honor by a law firm that had represented him in his asylum case. They were celebrating that they had won and he was granted asylum. He had been in immigration detention for eight months and had only been released a month earlier. Since then, he had been staying at Seafarers, a short walk away from Menno House, and this was his first night staying somewhere else.
Manhattan’s crash pad for modern Mennonites
Jo Piazza, Wall Street Journal
April 25, 2013
It’s possible to rent an apartment in Manhattan’s upscale Gramercy Park neighborhood for less than $500 a month. The trick? You have to know—or, even better, be—a member of the Mennonite faith.
From outside the brick townhouse on a tree-lined stretch of East 19th Street, the only indication that the four-story structure it isn’t another multimillion-dollar home is a sign with a small green image of Menno Simons, the 16th-century founder of the Christian religion. …[continued via link]
New Yorkers organize a bake sale for immigrants
Sheldon Good, Mennonite Weekly Review
November 8, 2010
Heavy foot traffic in New York City is normal. Bake sales are not. Combine the two, and it’s a recipe for success,
Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship ran a bake sale Oct. 17 to benefit Haitian immigrants living in New York City.
“No one bakes here,” said Kay Hershberger, an event organizer who envisioned the bake sale. “We just set up a table on the street. Some people would pull up in a car, jump out, jump in and drive away.”
Church members were “schlepping cupcakes on the subway,” according to Hershberger. The baked goods were also transported to Brooklyn for another event.
But most of the $735 in sales came via foot traffic along Seconnd Avenue and East 19th Street in Manhattan — an intersection near the church and Menno House, an affordable housing unit where Mennonite Voluntary Service workers live. …[continued via link]
Mennonites celebrate 50 years of peace and low rent
Sabina Mollot for Town & Village, New York City
October 9, 2008
Even as rents in Manhattan have stubbornly continued to climb, the management of one building, a brownstone in Gramercy Park, has steadfastly been charging its residents a measly $400-$600 a month. Besides use of a private room, this arrangement also offers tenants access to common areas of the building, like a library and backyard garden.
The catch? Those who wish to be residents have to be willing to give something back–to the community, that is.
The dozen residents who live in this building, known as Menno House, are chosen by the organization that runs and owns it, Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship. A non-profit group affiliated with the Mennonite Church USA, the fellowship has had a tradition of opening its doors to people earning low incomes, if their jobs are in the non-profit world, or even interns who earn no money at all. Students are also welcome at Menno House, as are people seeking more short-term lodging. Long-term residents get a one-year lease, with the option to renew the next year.
The house provides a base for people who are in services where they do service for others,” explained Linda Hood, Menno House board chair and a resident of Stuyvesant Town. “It allows them to do that work so they don’t have to worry so much about rent.”
Anyone interested in rooming at Menno House, which is located at 314 East 19th Street, must apply for the privilege. Being Mennonite might be helpful in attempting to win over the house board, but then, so might having an entry-level job with the U.N. or volunteer work with the Peace Corps lined up.
“We like to have as much diversity as we can,” said Hood. “So we’ve had all sorts of people.
“The Menno House building was originally owned by a widow named Ann Gillet, who purchased the property for $7,000 in 1853. But for the past half-century–an anniversary celebrated last month–the building has been run by Mennonite groups. In 1958, its purpose was to offer lodging to young men who had been drafted, but had chosen to do alternative services such as medial or clerical jobs.
A rejection of violence and war is actually a core value of the Mennonite belief system, a sect of Christianity that’s hundreds of years old and places an emphasis on separation of church and state. Hood, formerly a Methodist, converted to the religion in her college years. “They just seemed sort of genuine,” said Hood. “I had a lot of issues with hypocrisy at the time.”
Many of the other Mennonites around Menno House, meanwhile, have been raised in the religion, mostly in rural areas of the country. Those people are generally looking for a way to “get off the farm,” said Hood, who grew up in a rural setting herself in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “They want to have a good time, but they also want to connect with their Mennonite roots.”
Lowell Brown, a resident of Menno House and its manager, grew up outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. For him and the other Mennonites living in the building, a major challenge as been fighting stereotypes New Yorkers attribute to the religion–including the belief that all Mennonites are Amish.
“If they’re not confusing us with Mormons, they’re probably thinking of horses and buggies,” said Brown. “And in New York, if you’re affiliated with any religious organization, people think you’re a scary conservative with draconian ideas about everything from sexuality to philosophy.” For Brown, what sets Mennonites apart is the emphasis on peaceful living and “the strong work ethic and community sensibility,” he said.
Current residents at Menno House, Mennonites and non-Mennonites, vary from university students to an aspiring actor to one married couple. Since 1997, the Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship, a congregation formed by residents [in the 1980’s], has owned the house. The group bought the building from the Salunga, Pennsylvania-based Eastern Mennonite Missions for $300,000.
Today, about $75,000 is left on the facility’s mortgage, but even the residents’ low rents pay for the cozy but creaky building’s needs, like the occasional water damage repair or renovated floor. The property is well-preserved, but not perfect. It’s slightly lopsided, three inches higher on one side than the other, although the ground floor was recently retiled to disguise this.
The ground floor houses a library, a dining room and a kitchen that leads to a back yard. This is where the residents keep their bikes, inside a shed built recently by a team of Amish volunteers.
Most of the time, guests and residents are on their own for meals, but once a week they dine together, a tradition known as “Soup Tuesday”. According to Hood, the conversations held over the dinner table on this night are what life at Menno House is all about. She referred to a recent discussion about violence in New York City and how it evolved into what a peaceful response to witnessing an act of violence should be.
“So it’s not your typical Sunday School environment,” she said. “People are finding that this is a place where they can ask any question and can count on their housemates to be a part of that conversation.”
Observant Mennonites at the house don’t have to travel too far for their spiritual needs. Services are held every Sunday at the [15th Street Friends Meetinghouse], a Quaker church on Stuyvesant Square. Services are led by Pastor Sylvia Shirk Charles, who was previously a campus pastor at Goshen College, a Mennonite school in Indiana. Hood described the services as being “Protestant in style.”
At any given time, there are about 50 congregants, [including many] people in their twenties and thirties, who come from all over the city. “There’s a core of people who have lived here, people who have made a choice about their career that takes them to New York,” said Hood. “The make-up of the congregation reflects what young adults are doing in New York City.”
Stephanie Weaver for The Intelligencer Journal, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
May 31, 2008
Lancaster city will get a taste of the Big Apple tonight compliments of the Mennonite community. “Music From New York,” a benefit concert for Menno House, a hostel in New York City, will be held at 8 p.m. at Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster, 328 W. Orange St.
The concert features three musicians who share a classical background and an enthusiasm for promoting Menno House, a Manhattan hostel. Amy Kauffman, violin, Francesco Lecce-Chong, piano, and Rachel Smith, soprano, live and perform in New York City but grew up in Indiana, Colorado and Florida, respectively.
Smith, who moved to the city to further her musical studies, has been a Menno House resident for the past 10 months. “Cost was definitely a huge factor,” Smith said of her decision. “(Music) lessons are very expensive. To knock a couple hundred dollars off my rent, that’s huge.”
Although she will be leaving the hostel in a week to go on a scholarship-based, “open-ended trip” to Germany, Smith said she loved her time at Menno House for “thousands of reasons.” “Everyone should know that Menno House is probably the best place on earth,” she said. “It’s heaven in Manhattan.”
Smith, who has starred in operas such as “Madama Butterfly” and “Paris and Helen,” will perform some solo works as well as two pieces from Vaughn Williams’ “Along the Field, 8 Housman Songs” with Kauffman. “It’s a very unique sound,” Smith said of the combination of voice and violin.
Kauffman first appeared in New York in 2002 to play with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, after earning her Masters degree from the Juilliard School in 1999.
The youngest member of the trio, 21-year-old Lecce-Chong, composed his first piece as a teenager in 1999 and earned numerous awards before he began his studies at the Mannes College of Music.
The concert will serve as the premiere of Lecce-Chong’s latest work, “A Straw to Thatch the Marshes.” He will perform selections from the sacred song cycle, written in memory of Tom Fox. Fox was one of four hostages taken in Iraq in March 2006 from the Christian Peacemaker Team. The other three hostages were released, but Fox was killed.
The musicians “are really fantastic,” Menno House manager Lowell Brown said. “I’ve heard them once in rehearsal; they’re very bold. It’s an exciting, new contemporary work by an up-and-coming composer and pianist.”
Brown met the talented musicians as a member of Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship. After the church was founded by Menno House residents, the small congregation bought the hostel from Eastern Mennonite Missions in 1997. “Music has been really important to the congregation,” Brown said. “I felt like this was a magical moment of having all three (musicians) in the same room playing a concert. It just seemed like too good of an opportunity to let slip by.” The concert will serve as the first, and possibly last, collaboration of the musicians, with Smith’s move to Germany and Kauffman’s busy schedule.
Proceeds from the concert will go directly to Menno House, Brown said, to help the congregation pay off the mortgage before the hostel’s 50th anniversary in September. “We can almost smell it,” Brown said. “We’re tired of throwing money into interest that can be used for other things.”
Menno House was bought in 1958 by a group of Mennonites from Salunga to house conscientious objectors as they completed their alternative government service. EMM, the mission agency of the Lancaster Conference of the Mennonite Church, ran the house for 40 years until MMF bought it, which Brown said explains the location of the concert. “We feel like we have a connection with Lancaster County,” he said.
Since 1976, Menno House has served as a residence for students, social workers and volunteers in the heart of New York City. “It provides affordable housing for people who need to live in Manhattan and couldn’t otherwise do it,” Brown said. “We’re probably the cheapest, private hotel room or hostel room in the city.”
Although its name may suggest otherwise, Brown said the residents come from a “considerably wider range” than just the Mennonite church. “Almost everyone has a connection to Mennonites at some point; often, for our guests, it’s pretty far removed,” Brown said. “We’re open to everyone – our staff makes no stipulations about religious beliefs.”
“The great thing about New York is that so much is accessible by public transportation,” he says, “but it takes a little bit of doing.”
Making Manhattan possible: Congregation provides affordable housing
Anna Groff for The Mennonite
October 2, 2007
In an intensely busy and competitive place—Manhattan—one church has intentionally provided a space and community for young adults through Menno House, a townhouse owned by a local Mennonite congregation, Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship (MMF).
Lowell Brown, the manager of Menno House, says the community at the house “takes the loneliness out of moving to a big city” and has financial strengths with the affordable housing.
He says many professionals can’t even afford to live in Manhattan, but people at MMF are “committed to providing housing for volunteers and nonprofit employees.”
“I wish there were dozens of churches doing this. … It’s a unique and effective way of addressing one of the city’s most glaring needs,” he says.Lowell is proud of the church for addressing the need for affordable housing—despite the real estate in this extremely lucrative housing market.
The house primarily provides affordable, low-cost housing for volunteers, students and non-profit workers, but three bedrooms are available for overnight guests, and the church also uses the house for office and meeting space.Relationships naturally form through Menno House. “When there are so many different people in the same space, connections just happen,” Lowell says.
“Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship has been good about making opportunities for community but not forcing people to be involved,” he says. “We want honest relationships more than just bodies in the pews. And we’re a small congregation, so we really do want bodies in the pews. Usually it works out pretty well—currently about three-fourths of the house residents attend church with some regularity.”
House residents gather for a weekly meal, and a committee of church members meets with the Mennonite Voluntary Service workers. They are reading Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. One couple started a Bible study in their apartment that draws people who may not feel as comfortable attending Sunday church services at MMF, Lowell says.
Through his work Lowell sees the newcomers to the city and what they face. For some people, he says, noise is a problem. The front of the house can be pretty loud, he says. Other people find directions around the city difficult. “I still notice that I don’t get enough sky,” says Lowell, who moved to New York City in 2002. He makes a point of walking in parks and on the beach.
“The great thing about New York is that so much is accessible by public transportation,” he says, “but it takes a little bit of doing.”
In New York, intern got bigger view of ministry
Harley Marshall for The Mennonite Weekly Review
August 27, 2007
Morgan Kraybill got a taste of what pastoral ministry is like when she interned this summer at Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship. She had been toying with the idea of the ministry since she entered Goshen (Ind.) College two years ago.
“People in my congregation, Community Mennonite Church [in Harrisonburg, VA.], encouraged me to consider the ministry,” Kraybill said. “They empowered me.”
She also got a nudge from Jason Harrison, a campus minister at Goshen who coordinates the Ministry Inquiry Program. He suggested she intern at Manhattan Mennonite and put her in touch with Pastor Sylvia Shirk Charles.
“It was frightening at first, considering the Ministry Inquiry Program at Manhattan Mennonite, because I don’t have a seminary degree or even many college-level Bible courses under my belt,” she said. “But it has given me an expanded view of ministry.”
Kraybill carries a double major of peace, justice and conflict studies and social work.
Charles involved Kraybill in all aspects of pastoring, from leading worship, writing the Sunday bulletin and making hospital visits to sitting in on countless committee meetings and making birthday cards for church members. Charles said Kraybill is a quick learner and a positive presence. “She is a wonderful person,” Charles said. “I have really enjoyed our time together.”
Kraybill lived at Menno House, a 19th-century walk-up in a quiet neighborhood on the
city’s East Side. Menno House provides housing to church volunteers, non-profit workers,
students and newcomers trying to get a toe-hold in Manhattan. On July 15, Kraybill
delivered her first sermon. It was on Paul’s letters to the Galatians, encouraging Christians to be servants of one another. Kraybill wrote the sermon on her laptop in a coffee show near Menno House. “It helps me to get away from the normal routine when I write,” she said. Then, she practiced it at a nearby apartment complex. “I sat on the grass in the shade of one of the tall buildings,” she said. “People passing by must have though I was strange.”
“I learned that writing and giving a sermon is a survivable experience.”
As part of her internship, Kraybill worked with a program that provides an alternative to incarceration, teaching offenders anger management, parenting and nutrition. She also visited a farm where urban children learn about gardening and farming as a means of developing self-esteem. That sort of involvement has her leaning toward the social service side of ministry rather than a pastorate in a congregation, perhaps assignments through Mennonite Central Committee in Africa or Latin America, where she has already spent time. She also has lived with her parents in South Africa and in India.
She would like to return to New York as a Mennonite Voluntary Service volunteer. “New York helps tie together all the countries I have lived in and worked in,” she said. “Besides, Rollerblading across the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset was like I was in a movie.”