Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hope College Arts Events

Veritas Prequel November 3 & 4
Presenting Poet and Songwriter Reverend Vito Aiuto of the Welcome Wagon

November 3:

  10:30am Dimnent Chapel

“The Sacred & the Creative Process: Reflections on Ministry and Art Making” the Reverend Vito Aiuto of the Welcome Wagon followed by a panel discussion with Trygve Johnson and Joshua Banner
   3:00pm Hemmenway Auditorium

Poetry and Songs by Vito Aiuto of the Welcome Wagon, Joshua Banner and Susanna Childress of the Ordinary Neighbors and various Hope College students
   7:00pm Hemmenway Auditorium followed by a dessert reception in the Martha Miller Rotunda

November 4:
“Reflections on Worship Music by Vito Aiuto”
9:30am Dimnent #16

The Veritas Forum is a biennial event at Hope College. This year’s topic is “True Community True Selves: Exploring True Community in a Virtual World,” with lectures Thursday January 13, 2011 through Saturday morning, January 15. The forum will conclude with a concert featuring The Welcome Wagon (read below to learn more about this musical group). The Veritas Forum Prequel is a series of events to launch interest in the forum as well as various arts events that will coincide with the January forum which include:

Poetry Contest: $50 Prize*
Winners to be judged by Professor Pablo Peschiera. All submissions should be sent to opus@edu.edu Deadline for Opus Submission is November 14. However, you can still submit poems for the contest as late as January 10.

Visual Art Contest: $50 Prize* Winners to be judged by Professor William Mayer. Artists submitting should contact Professor Mayer. Photos of works can also be submitted to Opus. Again
the deadline for Opus Submission is November 14. However, you can still submit visual art for the contest as late as January 10.

8 Minutes Max*: we are seeking auditions of any original performance art pieces (songs, bands, singer songwriters, classical or jazz compositions, dance choreography, short film, theatrical vignettes. Selected performance pieces will perform January 15 before the Welcome Wagon at the Knickerbocker Theater. Auditions will be held December 9. Please contact Joshua Banner to sign up for an audition time.

*All visual art, poetry and performance pieces must somehow respond to the Veritas Mission statement, the focus of the lectures for January 2011. Contests and performances are only open to Hope College students.

Veritas Mission 2011
Perhaps no other human longing is more powerful than our desire for true friendship and true community. While ever-changing technologies provide instant connection with others, we often suspect that connection and community are not the same thing.  While information abounds online, intimacy eludes us.  We struggle even to maintain a sense of personal identity in the face of an avalanche of insistent marketing, must-have products and impersonal branding.  What is required at this cultural moment in order to cultivate true communities and to interact authentically with others and in our increasingly virtual world?  How can we experience authentic friendship, stable relationships, and an identity that was not manufactured for us?  Simply put, where do we find true selves and true communities?  Please join us as these and related questions are thoughtfully explored in light of the enduring truth of the Christian gospel during the 2011 Hope College Veritas Forum.


The Welcome Wagon is a married couple, the Reverend Thomas Vito Aiuto and his wife Monique, who execute a genre of gospel music that is refreshingly plain. Their hymns are modest and melodic takes on a vast history of sacred song traditions, delivered with the simple desire to know their Maker—and to know each other—more intimately.

Vito was born in Tecumseh, Michigan, and attended Western Michigan University where he developed a love for writing poetry.  His first book of poems, Self-Portrait as Jerry Quarry, was published by New Issues Press in 2002.  A self-described agnostic, Vito experienced a spiritual conversion at the age of 20 and soon after enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary to study theology and prepare for ordained ministry. Currently he is the senior pastor of Resurrection Presbyterian Church, a church he planted in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY, in 2005.

Raised on a farm, by a gentleman farmer father and choir teacher mother, in the same small town as Vito, Monique moved to New York City after high school to study art, first at the Cooper Union (BFA), then Columbia University (MFA).  Since then she has worked as a pre-school teacher, craftmaker for Martha Stewart, and as a mother.  She also serves as the Welcome Wagon's resident visual artist.

The Welcome Wagon began as husband and wife singing in the privacy of their home.  Having little to no previous musical experience or training, Vito purchased a guitar with the desire to sing hymns with his family.  With Monique accompanying on toy glockenspiel or harmonica, the two would amble through old hymnals, psalters and prayerbooks. Their inability to read music was no big issue; Vito simply made up new tunes to old words.

While their most familiar venue was (and is) their living room, the Welcome Wagon have been periodically coaxed to small stages at bars, parties, and seminaries throughout the New York City area, often joined by friends on upright bass, drums, piano, and banjo.  These intimate arrangements preserve the delicate nature of the Welcome Wagon's identity.

But there is another Welcome Wagon, the one that can be heard on their debut album, Welcome to the Welcome Wagon.  This version of the band retains the heart and soul of pastor and his wife singing together, but dresses them up in the transcendent musical vestments of Sufjan Stevens, who produced and helped arrange the record.

The collaboration between Stevens and The Welcome Wagon began in 2001 with their appearance on the Asthmatic Kitty compilation To Spirit Back the Mews (2001), debuting the first song they ever wrote and recorded, "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood." Since that time they have been patiently recording an album of hymns, pop covers, and folksy originals with their friend and Brooklyn neighbor.  But it was the nativity of that first song which established their pattern of work together: husband and wife write and arrange songs with the architecture of a country chapel, while Stevens (as latter-day Christopher Wren) designs and attaches flying buttresses, soaring spires and reliquaries, gargoyles, gryphons and cherubs dotting the façade. Somehow this unlikely partnership has produced a sublime addition to that genre called "church music".

Admittedly, for a gospel duo, there's far less soul than sweet sincerity in the casual songs of the Welcome Wagon. Vito and his wife are unabashedly Midwestern, ordinary and uncool.  But this is precisely what sets them apart from the standard fare of contemporary liturgical music. It doesn't feign emotion; it doesn't pander to stylistic pretensions; it doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: the result of countless, informal social exchanges between friends. A home-cooked meal followed by a few microphones taped to folding chairs. A family gathering, a summary of happy noises, and a room crowded with familiar faces. Sure, there are showy guitar riffs and piano codas and harmonica solos, a rowdy chorus, an imposing flourish of brass instruments like wartime canons. But at the heart of it—if you really listen carefully—there's just a pastor and his wife tentatively singing in the quiet privacy of their own home.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

More Friendship

We need a theology of friendship like we need a functional democracy. If I had the patience or the frame of mind to draw the connections, there could be much to say about the way government might work more successfully if we knew how to be better friends to each other. I found this piece on Slate.com that compares the troubles between the Left and the Right in need of marriage counseling. The comparison is a bit sentimental and overwrought. It fears the democrats' jaded and cutting cynicism is more destructive to our country than the republicans' anger. And this quirky analysis is just the bread and butter of quirk that Slate puts out: how to look at an issue from a somewhat less than conventional twist.

However, I'm thinking about friendship because I've just had a visit from Judson Tompkins. He flew into GR on Thursday. We drove on over to Royal Oak for a Sufjan concert. What a trippy and delightful evening. I got to see David Stith if even for just a second. Jud and I spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the studio working a bit on his music and some on mine too.

And now the day after he's gone I find myself feeling somewhat barren and this makes me feel guilty. I'm here at home, a day off with Susanna and Casper trying to take it easy and quiet and I'm feeling sorry for myself...the sap that I am? Casper is a delight. He is moving into his personality in a vivid way. Sharing these discoveries with Susanna is rich. I can feel parts of my insides expanding, becoming something more. And still I miss the Judson Tompkins, the Brad Kilmans, the Josh Bottomlys of my world.

If there is anything that I really care about it is connection. Art, music, the studio, the creative process, worship, the rehearsals, the services, food at the table, film, literature...hospitality in all its forms. These are all ways to be with people. It is what I've been able to share with deep friends like Judson for years. It is what I share with Hope College students now. I work to create arenas for this to expand the way we think about our capacity for sharing our lives with each other.

Let's all promise to not take each other for granted. Let's promise to go out of our way more each week to share and give something. Let's imagine a way of sharing our times and energy on new people. Let's open ourselves and be surprised by someone we've not been paying attention to. It doesn't have to be grandiose in a dramatic fashion. In fact it is better if it is small and subtle because otherwise the gift ends up being more about us than the other. I feel kinda silly saying these things. I don't want to be naive or to add panic to our already busy lives. I'm working against that mantra, gotta do more...gotta be more. I don't want to be cheesy either. I want the real thing. I want history with people. Rootedness. To be known and to know. To move past small things.

I'm surprised by how much I want to be better at sharing myself. Where does this urge come from? Big thanks to Judson for reawakening this ever so painful yet hopeful ache. It is an ache for my Oklahoma family, but it is more for that. How to find the words tonight? I better not try to say more for now.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

QUICK: After the Crowder Conference

I hate talking about a movie or a concert immediately after it is over. I always feel awkward trying to put the experience into words too quickly [READ Annie Dillard's "Total Eclipse" for a better description of why we should take our time assigning language to experience].

Just finished attending THIS event.  I normally don't look into conferences except a few. It isn't clinically diagnosable, but I choke up in large crowds and long lines. I get anxious, feel trapped and annoyed. But I decided to attend this event because David Taylor was presenting and I could get a free place to stay in his hotel room and a free admission as his guest. Further David and some of us have had this on running discussion about the state of contemporary worship music throughout the summer and the overall framework of this conference seemed like a great way to continue that discussion and the learning curve. It is intriguing that David Crowder included everyone from the Welcome Wagon (who will be at Hope College a few times this year), the Bifrost Arts, Israel Houghton, Gungor, John Mark McMillan, Matt Maher, Matt Redman, Hillsong London, along with speakers like David Dark and Rob Bell. It is apparent that Crowder put this particular group of people together because despite their various disparate musical styles and positions within the church, each impress representing something substantial in Crowder's mind about what is happening in the realm of church music.

My favorites were David Dark because he has always been such great insight and is versatile within pop and higher, historical (or canonical) arts/culture, Israel Houghton because I'm pretty high on gospel music right now with all the good, sweet things that are happening at Hope with our choir, and John Mark McMillan because I love his voice and the raw place he writes and sings from.

It was a very overwhelming experience especially since I had the backstage access and got good time with many of the artists and speakers. I went knowing that It'd be overwhelmed praying that the Spirit would keep me teachable and tender and that I'd have some good connections without having to go way out of my way to ingratiate myself. I'm a bit shy about these things. To top it off, I woke up at 4am Thursday to have time to get my 5:50am departure out of GR with a burning throat. It's been a head cold that has now moved into my chest. So it was really hard for me to feel emotionally present with the people and the worship. Maybe some how the sickness has been good, relieving me of the pressure of having to emotionally connect with the whole enterprise. In fact, this morning I put in ear plugs during the music because the subs were pumping so loud the night before that I felt dizzy.

It will indeed take me some time to fully get my head wrapped around what this all means to me and I don't want to rush that process. I want to at least say a few things.
  1. I love the church. I renounce cynicism and judgmentalism. I began renouncing cynicism a while back, but it is a discipline to practice regularly. Each portion of the last three days contained something that I can learn from. I may not agree with all they do musically or say theologically and I may not be able to replicate exactly what they are teaching or representing, but the event in all its odd eccentricities leaves me loving God and the church more. I'm tired of cynicism. Create in me a clean heart Oh God. I believe, help my unbelief.
  2. With all that I've been exposed to in the last three days, I feel even more delight with what God is doing through us at Hope College. Yes, I've just seen some world class musicianship and some powerful examples of worship leadership, but there is something lovely about the ministry and spiritual community at Hope College. I'm so grateful. We have World Communion Sunday tomorrow night. I'm looking forward to it even if I'm so sick I can't sing.
I'm still in Waco for the night and fly into GR at 1pm. If you read this before then, please pray that my flights are all on time so that I can get back for rehearsal for the Gathering tomorrow night.