Mennonites in the City


In 1965, my white, Amish-Mennonite preacher father moved from a Pennsylvania horse-and-buggy holler to start a beards-and-bonnets church in a Black neighborhood in the nation’s capital.

Living cross-culturally for much of our lives, my siblings grew up singing “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” in their white skin and homemade Amish-Mennonite clothes, without a second thought.

In the mid-2000s, I moved back to my childhood street in Washington DC. I found a neighborhood on the edge, forcing me to drop writerly distance and join my neighbors in their struggle against urban ills brought on by decades of disinvestment. So while my father, Elmer Lapp, came of age in a fertile farm valley, I learned to turn the other cheek in the trash-strewn alleys of Kenilworth, just like my dad had a generation earlier.

This is the story of a son wrestling with the legacy of his religiously conservative parents’ cross-cultural outreach while charting his own journey to openness and racial understanding, often helped (though sometimes hindered) by his unorthodox childhood.

The manuscript’s first-person narratives, from myself and others, present intimate stories of Amish-Mennonite family life and raw tales of ‘hood hardships. I also mine my cross-cultural childhood and globe-trotting adult life to draw lessons for our national conversation about racial and economic justice.

Because if a group as closed in as the Amish-Mennonites can learn to do diversity, anyone can.

Full of insight and occasional irreverence, this is a surprisingly rollicking tale of what happens when the a capella hymns of the plain people meet the sweaty go-go music of Chocolate City. The real-life reality of Mennonites in the city, coming (hopefully) soon.

It seemed like every day brought something new, and I enjoyed the opportunity to ‘put the gospel in shoe leather,’ in other words to be out on the street. We learned, and people were kind to us.

Elmer Lapp

A lot of people in Kenilworth just couldn’t understand — all this blackness, why is this white group so deep in here?

Lenora Dubard-Burke

I saw them sucker punch you. I was looking out the window of that house you was born in, Joseph. I called the police. I said, “They hittin’ that whiteboy out there.”


(Learn more about the Fellowship Haven Chorus, pictured above.)