Mennonites reach out to skeptical souls in Harlem

Advocates of plain living find few adherents in their new mission field

October 28, 2002|By Joseph Berger | Joseph Berger,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - Fred and Agnes Schrock left the Cumberland hills of Tennessee three years ago to do missionary work in New York City on behalf of their conservative sect of Mennonites, a branch of the Pennsylvania Dutch. They ended up settling last year in Harlem, in a turn-of-the century rowhouse in Sugar Hill, at St. Nicholas Avenue and 148th Street, right in the neighborhood to which Duke Ellington took his jazzy A train.

"We just felt this is where God wanted us to be," said Mr. Schrock, a tall man of 60 with a white Lincolesque beard and a laconic manner of speaking. "It just felt warm that way."

The path they are urging is hard - they shun television, popular music, flashy clothes and schooling beyond the eighth grade - but the Schrocks have worked steadfastly and patiently to win souls. They have helped out in hospitals and homeless shelters and struck up conversations with an assortment of their Harlem neighbors, from the architect and insurance agent next door to one man who, Fred Schrock is pretty sure, is dealing drugs. "We could alert the authorities, but that's not our mission here."

15 new adherents

Yet, the Schrocks count no more than 15 new adherents, and that includes believers from around the city who were introduced to their sect, the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, over the last 14 years by previous missionaries who put down stakes in other neighborhoods. And their prospects for winning many more adherents are not that rosy, given the experience of a church down the hill, the Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church, which represents a far more liberal Mennonite branch, the Mennonite Church U.S.A., and does not demand a dress code or ascetic life. It has been in Harlem for more than 50 years, yet today has just 30 members.

Francoise Vieux, the insurance agent next door, says the neighborhood is not exactly short of churches seeking souls. "Given that scenario, I would guess their audience would be very limited," Vieux said diplomatically. Still, she is enchanted by the idea of disciples of the Pennsylvania Dutch in Harlem.

Fred Schrock does not seem to care much about the odds against him. Although he and Agnes Schrock occasionally pass out tracts, they mostly proceed in low-key fashion, posting themselves in places where they can do good works and hoping people will ask about their faith.

Trying to make friends

"We just try to make friends," Fred Schrock said. "All our mission's effort is to help people to be saved, people living a life of sin to have a better life. My definition of proselytizing is not to get people to join the church - that's secondary. It's more to reach their hearts and help them."

The Schrocks spend many days in the emergency room of Columbia-Presbyterian Center of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, taking blankets to patients or calming relatives by their quiet, steady presence. And, along with a second Mennonite couple, Jim and Veonna Toews, they supervise three young Mennonite men who live in the Harlem mission and distribute food at pantries and do construction work at a Habitat for Humanity site in Brooklyn.

Earlier this year, Fred Schrock spent many days conveying a Mennonite understanding of the Bible to a down-and-out 36-year-old Tanzanian who was disenchanted with his Muslim faith. The man has now moved to a traditional Mennonite settlement in Shippensburg, Pa., taking a job reconditioning automobile parts. He is on the verge of being baptized into Schrock's sect, which has 12,000 members across the United States.

"In spite of my racial difference, I'm received so well," said the man, who wanted his name published only as Mehboob J. "People accept me as one of their own, like I've been here in Shippensburg forever, like I was born here."

Though it would surprise many, more liberal Mennonite sects have proved attractive enough to a range of New Yorkers that by some estimates the majority of the city's Mennonites are black and Hispanic. Nationally, of the 120,000 Mennonites in the Mennonite Church U.S.A., the largest of 20 denominations, roughly 6,000 are black and Hispanic.

All Mennonites, descendants of the 16th-century Anabaptists who include the Amish, are linked by a common belief that baptism can be granted only to adult believers and is not a birthright. They also share a deeply pacifist outlook, one that forbids them to bear arms.

Long reclusive

They became reclusive, usually choosing rural areas, in response to long periods of persecution by both Catholics and Protestants and only gradually emerged to seek believers. Together, the 20 Mennonite groups have dispatched 600 missionaries and volunteers around the country, and increasingly, church officials said, they are working in big cities.

"We need to be at home in the city," said the Rev. John D. Rempel, the U.N. liaison for the Mennonite Central Committee, an umbrella group of Mennonite churches that cooperate in worldwide relief.

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