A freshly cleaned and renovated townhouse on East 19th Street, Manhattan, rang with the sounds of homecoming on September 19-21, 2008, as former housemates reunited and mingled with current residents at the 50th anniversary party of Menno House.
“This is the room I lived in,” Bob Keener announced to one room’s occupant, Zak Klauck.
“Half of this room,” corrected his wife, Rhoda. In the 1970’s, when the Keeners lived in the building as volunteers, several large upper-floor rooms had been divided in half.
In room 6, on the third floor, John, Mim and Rick Buckwalter stood by the windows and tried to recreate a 1959 photo that John had pulled out of his pocket. Rick, a baby in the picture, was born while the couple lived in the room during their voluntary service term.
The weekend’s keynote address was brought by John Rempel, a professor at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, and pastor of Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship (MMF) when that congregation purchased Menno House in 1997.
Rempel challenged the group to “live unreservedly with the ambivalence that has carried Menno House through its stages of life.”
“Embrace the city and its people, with all their diversity,” he said, and at the same time “embrace Christ, the whole Christ – friend of outsiders, prophet for the poor, savior from sin, lord of life.”
Reunions and reminiscences were punctuated with music, art, poetry and food. North Bronx Mennonite pastor Ruth Wenger, who was a resident with her husband, David, and son, Stefan, in the late 1970’s, led the group in a rousing hymn sing on Saturday afternoon. Pianist Francesco Lecce-Chong and violinist Amy Kauffman, both regulars at MMF, performed a Brahms sonata they had presented at a Menno House fundraiser in Lancaster, Pa., in May.
On Saturday evening, dinner was served under festive paper lanterns and a clear, late-summer sky in the courtyard of the 15th Street Friends Meetinghouse nearby. Afterward, singer/songwriter Gina Holsopple, manager from 2001-03, performed, and Julia Spicher Kasdorf, a 1983-85 resident, read poems set in the immediate neighborhood of Menno House.
During the Saturday evening program at the meetinghouse, Myrna Burkholder, manager from 1977-1982, was honored with original calligraphy for her vision in implementing the residential structure that still guides Menno House today.
MMF’s Sunday service concluded the weekend of celebration, with a prayer Pastor Shirk Charles adapted from Nathan Showalter’s re-dedication of Menno House in 1977: “We ask…that the euphony of Good News about Jesus reverberate within the plaster of its East Side walls, and find sympathetic vibration…among the homes and peoples of this neighborhood.”
Afterward, a number of guests commended MMF for sustaining Menno House as a vibrant, vital ministry. “In our various visits to Menno House over the 48 years since we left, we never saw the place so attractive and clean as you keep it now,” John Buckwalter wrote.
“This [anniversary] is a sign of Mennonites living meaningfully in the city,” said Rempel.