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Welcome (Back) to the Welcome Wagon
There is music I listen to when I feel very sad, and music I listen to when I feel very happy. Every once in a while, though, I’ll find a band that fills both of those needs—one that creates the perfect blend of hope, comfort, and space for grief, crafting timeless words and simple choruses like a wise child.
The Welcome Wagon—the brainchild of pastor Thomas Vito Aiuto and his wife, Monique—has long since been such a band. For years now, their music has been the background record of my life: old hymns sung simply and refreshingly, filled with Kierkegaardian lyrics that manage to please both me and my six-year old equally.
That depth and playfulness, though, isn’t a just a fabricated “sound.” In fact, it seems to stem directly from the couple’s other vocations—Vito’s role as a church planter and head pastor of Brooklyn’s Resurrection Presbyterian Church, and Monique’s work as a visual artist and preschool teacher.
This September, The Welcome Wagon launched a Kickstarter for their fourth full-length album, Light Up the Stairs. After realizing afresh what a unique ministry Vito and Monique have created through their music, I reached out to chat with Vito about his church, his music, and how having a foot in both worlds impacts his work as a pastor.
Making Old Hymns New
Vito started off our phone conversation talking about his spiritual history. “I wasn’t raised intentionally Christian,” he said, “but my Mom is Roman Catholic. In college I became a believer—I had a sort of mental breakdown, prayed the ‘Sinner’s Prayer,’ and started attending a local church a few weeks later.”
Vito was a literature major at Western Michigan University, which he now considers as a part of his preparation for being a pastor. “I really love to read and write and think about stories, to enter into them imaginatively,” he said. When he started reading the bible, he was delighted by it all—both the Old and New Testaments. “The stories were so astounding,” he said. “I still get giddy when I read these stories. It’s all about what it means to be human.”
After he graduated, Vito attended Princeton Theological seminary, then moved to New York. There, he met two people who would prove to be major influences in his life—his future wife, Monique, and Sufjan Stevens, the up-and-coming artist and musician who would take Vito under his wing.
When he and Monique married a few years later, Vito acquired a guitar so he could sing songs with his new family. Someone had given him a book of hymns, but since he couldn’t read music, he started coming up with his own tunes for the words. Eventually, a friend pointed out to him that he was writing his own songs.
The Aiutos started performing in local venues, where they often ran in the same circles as Sufjan. “At that point,” said Vito, “Sufjan carried an 8-track with him wherever he went, and he started recording us. It just sort of went from there. Sufjan said we needed to make a whole record. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be a band. He gave us an imagination for what we could do.”
Vito and Monique signed with Sufjan’s label, Asthmatic Kitty Records, and released their debut album Welcome to the Welcome Wagon in 2008. The reviews were positive, though a bit puzzled: Was this quaint married couple with their cutesy aesthetic and old-timey style for real, or was it all an ironic joke?
But for the Aiutos, it was all very much in earnest.
Pastoring a ‘Painfully Hip’ Congregation
Despite his band’s successes, Vito Aiuto doesn’t think of himself primarily as musician, a rock star, or even a creative. Instead, he is primarily a pastor, preaching at Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Resurrection Presbyterian on Sundays, meeting with parishioners, discerning where God is moving, and helping shepherd the people in his congregation.
“It’s not just about standing up on Sunday and helping us all see the presence of God,” he told me; it’s also about “the equipping of the saints for ministry. I am called to help the people in my church to follow Jesus as best they can—with all the gifts and challenges God has given them.”
Currently, the congregation at Resurrection are working on a new “parish” model, where people are assigned community groups based on their address. Each parish contains elders, and the community does everything from prayer meetings to Bible studies to hang-out times on the weekends. Vito says he wanted to structure the life of the church around the community and open it up to all demographics.
When I asked him more about the makeup of his church, it was the first time Vito sounded troubled. As it turns out, his congregation’s bohemian reputation means he gets asked questions about demographics quite a lot. (In 2011, the New York Times ran a profile of Vito and his church with the title “A Congregation in Skinny Jeans,” and the New York Post wrote about “Holy Hipsters flocking to church”—and those are just some of the headlines that seem to pigeon-hole Resurrection.)
“Williamsburg,” Vito told me, “is considered to be ‘painfully hip’; our demographic has been accused of being ‘hipster.’” He paused for a moment. “But we are who we are, and we are trying to be faithful. I get that everybody thinks the hipster angle is funny. But I used to be furious about it. Really, the church is a lot of post-college people wondering what their next move is. We have lots of artists and actors and people doing design work. We have school teachers and professors. It kind of makes me sad.”
When asked about the specific challenges of his unique congregation, Vito reflected on the connotations associated with Resurrection Presbyterian. “I’ve never been an adult anywhere but NYC,” he said. “I’ve lived here for 20 years. It’s all I know. It’s full of really ambitious people who are really excited to serve. New York attracts people who are trying to make something happen. Submit that ambition to the Spirit! Even though your motivation is going to be screwy, you submit it to God.”
‘It’s the Simple Things That Move Me.’
As we talked on the phone, sirens passing in the background, Vito stressed to me how he doesn’t feel like his work, his church, or his parishioners are unicorns—mysterious, rare, worthy of attention. Instead, he said, it’s just a community of people trying to follow God.
“All the things I am most proud of are the things that have nothing to do with me personally,” he said. “It’s the simple things that move me, like people in our church who got married and are having children and living faithful lives.”
Their new album, he tells me, is full of this kind of stuff: more personal content, fewer hymns. “This record, more than any other—it’s about our own lives and our marriage. Not just songs about praising or crying out to God, but God being present as I try to figure out who I am. I am a follower of Jesus, so everything I do—it’s all going to be filtered through that lens."
As Vito and I drew toward the end of our conversation, Monique got home from work and popped on the phone to say hello. “I’ve been praying for your interview,” she said—and based on everything The Welcome Wagon’s music has shown me about the Aiuto’s, I knew she meant it.