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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.

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.

Rooted and grounded

Surrounding the G train stop in Greenpoint, the northernmost neighborhood in Brooklyn, is a community that embodies today's Brooklyn: ethnic areas with deep-set roots; young, middle-class residents, attracted by low rent; boutiques and health food stores nestled between traditional butchers and bakeries. To your left, the East River sparkles in the late-afternoon winter sunshine.

Three days before the Southpaw show, I'd ridden the nine subway stops here to meet with Vito and Monique. They live with their two-year-old, Isaiah, on the third floor of a brownstone; their Polish landlord lives downstairs and sends up traditional baked goods.

Anywhere else in the country, this would be considered a tiny apartment, but by New York standards it's roomy for a young family of three. Through a door I glimpse bookshelves in a tiny office. Isaiah's toy trains sit in a little heap near the couch; he plays hide-and-seek from the kitchen, and loves the giant construction cranes you can see from the window. A table with chairs and a couch and coffee table take up most of the living room. It's a lived-in home, inviting and laid back.

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."

Putting Down Roots

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.

Monique tells of a friend who, years ago, was going through a tumultuous time in his life, and needed some stability. "After church, he would come over to our house for Sunday dinner. He liked to play guitar, too, and so we would play every Sunday. It's how music entered our family life." They would play each other's songs together, which proved to be a healing force. "He was so generous. He would say, 'Will you play me that song you've been working on?' And that was our first song."

Home-grown music written by amateur musicians jamming with friends in their living room: sounds like a recipe for self-indulgent, derivative, pretentiously overthought songs. But the thing about Welcome to the Welcome Wagon is that it's actually good.

Responses across blogs and magazines have varied, but critics, Christians and nonbelievers alike, agree that it's a genuinely original album—some say in spite of its "Jesus lyrics." The Aiutos cite the Danielson Famile as an influence, along with the show tunes of Monique's youth and the re-set hymns of the Indelible Grace movement. Vito collects old hymnals and often digs for inspiration in the more obscure lyrics.

The Aiutos don't tour much, playing only a few shows nearby. As parents, they wish to preserve their family life, and they're fully committed to their work in the church family at Resurrection Presbyterian.

The communal aspect of the music's living room beginnings has carried over into their album. For instance, the song "Sold! To the Rich Man" was originally written by Dan Smith of Danielson, arranged by Vito as a quiet folk-pop song, rebuilt into a song with more instruments by Stevens, and then, at the last moment, morphed into a more gospel-style choir-driven song on the suggestion of a choir member during the recording session. "That final product has a lot of people's fingerprints on it."

Furthermore, the Aiutos cite the content of their songs as a way of perpetuating their ministry. "It is a way of being honest: our songs are about our shortcomings and our weaknesses, but . . . also about God's mercy and forgiveness." The songs are also about their own relationship: "When we sing, we sing to one another—literally, on stage, but it's a reality no matter where we are at."

And taking a cue from church ministry, their music is also for their audience. "We love them, and we want them to know about the love and lordship of Christ"—whether it's for one struggling friend in the living room, or a few hundred people tapping their feet in a club.

Related Elsewhere:

Welcome to the Welcome Wagon is available at ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.

Asthmatic Kitty has more on the band, including an MP3 of "Sold! To the Rich Man." More songs are at the band's MySpace page.

Christian Music Today reviewed the album.

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