This is a portion of a current autobiographical project documenting the historical account of Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church in Harlem, New York City from its birth in 1954 leading to the 65 Church’s Anniversary in 2019. (Part I Resolve: 1954 – 1975) Part II Resilience: 1976 – 1996) (Part III Restoration: 1997 – 2017)
It was in the heat of the civil rights movement on June 2, 1961, when my father, Richard W. Pannell, a twenty-one year old African-American man first arrived from Coatesville, Pennsylvania, to the historic village of Harlem, New York City. Harlem was known as a predominately African-American community that had a “southern presence” due to the “Great Migration” that fueled Harlem’s population in the 1920’s. Harlem was often called “the spiritual home of the Negro protest movement,” as noted activists Marcus Garvey, A. Philip Randolph and W. E. B. Du Bois led several protests and organized ideas around social justice movements. The growth of organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the radical writings of The Messenger magazine empowered Harlem residents to speak up and advocate on behalf of their community. 1
Harlem was also an oasis of cultural, social and intellectual enlightenment that gave birth to the “Harlem Renaissance” (1918 – 1930s). Literary figures spoke to the social disparities and suffering of the people of Harlem as mirrored in the famous poem entitled “Harlem” by Langston Hughes:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?2
Theologically speaking, Harlem was a community of vibrant yet contradictory ideologies and beliefs in the early 1960s. Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X was deemed the “Prince of Harlem” and regularly held protests on the corner of the infamous 125th Street and Seventh Avenue to mass supporters. Televised speeches of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could be heard echoing throughout tenement house hallways on Lenox Avenue, and were emulated by black preachers like the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in the pulpit on Sunday mornings. Yet on almost every dining room wall of black families living in the projects, there hung a picture of a blond haired, blue-eyed “White Jesus.” This was Harlem; a radical, renowned and resiliently beautiful community.
It was here in the place known as the “Black Mecca” of the world that John H. Kraybill, a young white Mennonite pastor, greeted my father in front of 2526 Seventh Avenue and welcomed him to Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church. It would be a moment in time that would change the trajectory of the relationship between the Harlem community and the broader Lancaster Mennonite Church Conference throughout the civil rights and black power movements. 3
John H. Kraybill was the founder and first pastor of Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church (originally named Harlem Mennonite Church). Kraybill had arrived in New York City from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in May of 1953. Kraybill, once a student at Ontario Mennonite Bible Institute from 1951 – 1953, was drafted during the Korean War (Jun 25, 1950 – Jul 27, 1953 ) and was given classification as a “conscientious objector,” “a person who refuses military service on the grounds that he or she cannot in good conscience participate in the machinery of war due to personal beliefs.”4 Kraybill was ordered to work two years at a nonprofit institution that addressed national health and safety. It also had to be at least 150 miles from his home town in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Bellevue Hospital in New York City was the ideal place for Kraybill to serve his two years. However, unbeknownst to him at that time, Kraybill would spend thirteen years building the mission church plant of Seventh Avenue and ushering in a shift that would serve to save, strengthen and call a generation of radical and diverse young leaders to serve this Harlem Church for the next fifty years.
Kraybill arrived in New York City in the spring of 1953 and became a member of one of the mission churches planted by Lancaster Mennonite Conference in partnership with Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities. St. Ann’s Mennonite Church, located in the South Bronx, was founded in 1951. Harold Thomas served as the pastor. Prior to then, the Fox Street Mennonite Church was founded in 1949 under the pastoral leadership of Aquila Riehl. Shortly after Kraybill arrived at St. Ann’s Mennonite Church, he learned that the congregation had a vision to plant another church across the bridge in Harlem. Kraybill recalled a dear elderly sister in the congregation named Olive Lucas, who felt passionate about supporting this new vision and gave a few dollars as she could to help it come to pass. The congregational leadership also believed that they had found the perfect person to serve as the pastor of this new endeavor: John H. Kraybill.
With a leader now selected, a group from St. Ann’s Mennonite Church located a vacant lot in Harlem on 147th street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues to start their mission. There they established the Open Air Bible School for two weeks in the summer of 1953. Over fifty children attended this outreach and it continued throughout the fall. Kraybill began getting to know the families in the community and informed them of his search for a vacant building to establish the new church. Soon Kraybill came across a building for sale on Seventh Avenue between 146th and 147th street. It was a five story building with thirteen apartments and two store fronts. Kraybill rented the building and made plans for the first service.
On January 17 1954, the opening service was held for Harlem Mennonite Church at 2526 Seventh Avenue, later to be renamed Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church. That same year, John Kraybill married Thelma Synder and was credentialed for the ministry through Lancaster Mennonite Conference. The first members included Willis Johnson, Minese Hamilton and Glen and Florence Good Zeager, urban blacks and rural whites coming together as one. This was the beginning of a quiet resolve to build a cross-cultural church intertwining two very separate communities for the greater purpose of the radical love of Jesus Christ.
In the spring of 1954, Glen Zeager encouraged Kraybill to consider purchasing the building to expand the ministry that included Sunday School, Bible Classes and Sunday Morning Worship. In June 1954, John Kraybill and Glen Zeager gathered together a down payment of $3,000 and was able to miraculously purchase 2526 Seventh Avenue for $26,000. Later, in order to increase sustainability for the property, Kraybill and Zeager sold the building to Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities in 1959.
The ministry of Seventh Avenue continued to flourish with the help of many Mennonites that came from Pennsylvania through Volunteer Service or 1-W service assignments (conscientious objectors). It was a 1-W service assignment that brought Richard W. Pannell to Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church on that summer day in 1961. My father was introduced to the Mennonite church in 1952 as a twelve year old living in Newlinville, Pennsylvania. In 1946, the Newlinville Mennonite Church emerged from a summer Bible school program held by the Coatesville Mennonite Church among African Americans in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. There my father attended Sunday School and was later baptized at the age of fourteen. Under the pastoral leadership of Elmer D. Leaman, Pannell developed a deeper understanding of Anabaptist values, community and practices. Once stating that he felt “a part of the family,” Pannell was accepted, valued and loved by his new church community. As a teenager, Pannell shared fond memories of participating in summer camps such as Camp Tel Hai, Camp Men-O-Lan and Camp Hebron. Pannell also had the opportunity to meet and socialize with other black Mennonite youth from different urban outreach churches such as Diamond Street Mennonite Church in Philadelphia through the many mission station gatherings that were held in the area. Some of these other young black Mennonites from Harrisburg and Philadelphia such as Harold Davenport, Margie Middleton and Doris Allen Perkins also came up to New York and joined in this counter-cultural idea of building a Mennonite church in the heart of Harlem. A new radical Anabaptist community of young, diverse and energetic modern day missionaries would live in the apartments above the church that was developing.
- Richard W. Pannell, phone interview by author, November, 17 2017. All following comments about Richard W. Pannell’s life are taken from this interview. ↩
- Langston Hughes, “Harlem ” in Collected Poems, ed. Arnold Rempersad (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 426. ↩
- John H. Kraybill presentation and personal notes from April 30, 2017 at Infinity (Seventh Avenue)Mennonite Church Building Celebration; John H. Kraybill, email interview by author, on November 15, 2017. All following comments about John H. Kraybill’s life are taken from this documentation and interview. ↩
- Hanspeter Jecker, “Conscientious Objection,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, accessed August 15, 2014, http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Conscientious_objection. ↩