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The Welcome Wagon feels its pain

Vito Aiuto is hitting his late 40s, and it’s making him think.

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Illustration based upon Albrecht Durer Young Woman Attacked by Death_The Ravisher c1495

Vito Aiuto is hitting his late 40s, and it’s making him think.

The Michigan native-turned-Brooklyn-pastor-slash-musician has a lot to think about from the last two decades. Aiuto has released three original albums and worked with the indie music guru Sufjan Stevens, both on his own projects as well as touring with Stevens’ band, despite not picking up a guitar until he was almost halfway into his twenties. On top of that, Aiuto has cultivated a small but consistent congregation of New Yorkers into a church in the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyln.

With these accomplishments under his belt, he still finds that he has more to learn about the work he has ahead of him.

“When you’re young, you feel a little bit more invincible, and you feel like you have everything in front of you,” the Michigan native reflected. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to achieve some of the things that I wanted to achieve, and then other things I haven’t… Certain things I’m really happy turned out this way, and then other things I’m disappointed in.”

He chuckles and notes, “You start answering questions in a different way. I think it just really has to do with age, getting older and seeing your life in a different perspective.” The subject that he has found himself learning the most about is vulnerability: with God, with himself, and with his wife, Monique.

Vito and Monique Aiuto make up the Brooklyn-based musical duo The Welcome Wagon. Vito is also pastor of the church Resurrection Williamsburg, which he planted in 2005. Being bi-vocational, the duo have released their three albums across a span of nine years. With the distance between each one, the albums reflect the different stages of life that the Aiutos are in when they wrote them.

Vito and Monique Aiuto. Photo courtesy of the singers.

Their first album, Welcome to the Welcome Wagon, was like a collection of elementary lessons set to music to be recited in a red schoolhouse on a Midwestern prairie.

The follow up, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, conveys the enthusiasm of a young adult experiencing his first love and looking ahead to all that life has to offer.

And the most recent album, Light Up The Stairs, are the songs of a mature adult who understands what it means to struggle through the everyday with God.

The Welcome Wagon has never shied away from singing about the death of Jesus, with their first album covering traditional gospel songs like “He Never Said A Mumblin’ Word” as well as containing the original “Up On A Mountain,” both of which tell of the moments leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion.

“Up On A Mountain,” for example, captures the fear and abandonment that the songwriter imagines Jesus must have felt the night before he was crucified. Knowing that there were authorities looking for him and that the next day a horrific death awaited him, Jesus took his disciples to a garden inside Jerusalem and asked them to keep watch while he prayed. He walked further into the garden, asking God if there was any way for him to avoid the trauma of crucifixion, but heard no answer. While his back was turned, each disciple fell asleep. Jesus came back to find that in his hardest moment, his closest friends had let him down and that God was not responding to his cries.

Light Up the Stairs turns these stories inward and meditates on what it looks like to let that knowledge affect them and be carried out in their lives. The tracks also include songs that depict the struggle to put these beliefs into action.

The album starts with a hazy, lilting chromatic run. The notes float up up, down up down down, then up up down up down down—more reminiscent of the Cowboy Junkies than the Hillsong Worship Band. A delicate, halting voice breaks over the reverie: I…have been crucified…with Christ.

“It’s an audacious way to begin and an audacious thing to even say,” acknowledges Aiuto. The contrast between the dreaminess of the music and the brutal image of crucifixion is stark.

Crucifixion is one of the most slow and painful ways of execution ever devised. The victim is hoisted up to a horizontal beam and secured with their arms spread out in a “T” shape, either by tying them or by driving a nail through the highway of nerves and veins of the wrists into the beam. With their arms outstretched and their body weight dragging downwards from their chest, the person is unable to draw a complete breath. The strain on their arms pulls their shoulders out of their sockets. Decreased oxygen in the blood causes it to thicken and pool, stiffening the lungs and squeezing against the pumping of the heart. The person might hang in excruciating pain, slowly suffocating, for hours or for days.

Yet the image of a crucified body is precious to Christians. They believe that this was the mode of death God chose to suffer in order to purify the world. The same way that a filthy shirt needs to go through a vigorous wash cycle to work out the dirt and stains, the mass of pain, cruelty, and hardship on Earth required an equally ruthless punishment to clean it. By letting himself be torn apart like a laundry detergent pod disintegrating into nothingness, Christians believe that Christ’s sacrifice spread throughout the load of humanity and cleansed away the dirt and grime.

If the detergent pod did not break apart, then the pieces in the clothing would be spun around and churned and soaked in water but would not really be cleaned. Only by destroying the very thing that contains the necessary soap does the turmoil of the wash cycle achieve anything.

Then, the singer on the track goes one line further. Monique lilts, It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. The singer sees themselves going through that same vigorous wash cycle and coming out clean, and then becoming someone who is willing to undergo the same duty for someone else.

Aiuto says that his congregation are his best teachers for what it looks like to “be crucified with Christ.”

“There are people on our church who are very sacrificial with their time, then people who are sacrificial with serving people who they normally wouldn’t even be friends with,” he offers as examples. “My own inclination is to be with people that I like naturally, in my own comfort. I’m worried about how much money they make or if I’m secure. To die to myself is to die to those things when they conflict with the call to love others and to love God.”

“I don’t want to die, none of us want to die” to our own desires, he says, but he hopes that by repeating the verse in song, the meaning of it will stick in his head.

The second half of the lesson is to “quit believing I’m irredeemable…. to quit believing all the lies that anyone tells me about my own self sufficiency,” Aiuto takes the verse a bit further. In the second song on the album, the chorus repeats, I’m not afraid to say I’m not okay//but I’m terrified to stay this way. To “be crucified with Christ” is to admit that oneself is dirty and needs to be tossed into the washer with Jesus.

Other songs address the singer’s tendency towards self-righteous attitudes towards other people and the fight to be honest about one’s weaknesses when habit says to cover them up. In the song “Maybe You’re Right,” Aituo croons, This is a prayer, this is a show, this is a game but it’s all I know how to do.

Here returns the theme of vulnerability. Church needs “to be a place where it’s okay to not be okay,” a scary admittance in a go-getter place like New York City.

In addition to writing lyrics from excerpts of the Christian Bible, Light Up The Stairs features covers of liturgical songs and an excerpt of the Heidelberg Catechism. A catechism is a collection of questions and answers about Christian doctrine that are used to instruct children and new converts about the foundations of Christianity. The Heidelberg Catechism was composed almost half a decade after the Protestant church split from the Catholic Church

The song “HQ1” features the catechism’s first question and answer: What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.

The Catechism is unmetered and does not rhyme, so putting the words to music was a technical challenge to Aiuto. The content also is a challenging because it promises that, in addition to a spiritual cleansing for believers, God watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Doesn’t that sound like once a person becomes a Christian, bad things stop happening to them?

“There’s a huge tension there I can’t begin to unravel,” Aiuto acknowledges. “The answer…doesn’t say that God causes the hairs to fall from my head.” Instead, he points out, “Jesus, in his ministry, didn’t cause people to get sick, he causes people to get well. He doesn’t cause people to die, he causes people to be raised from the dead.”

Despite not understanding why bad things happen to anyone, Aituo says this verse at least assures him that it is not because God will them to happen.

Whiteney Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

Another song transforms a chant that is traditionally sung in Catholic Mass into a very Sufjan-esque waltz that croons a single line over a backdrop of piano, guitar, and flutes: Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world. Grant us your peace.

But any Christian will admit that there are times when God doesn’t seem to be handing out peace, and Aituo sings about that, too. One of the most notable songs on the album is the slow “St Tom’s Lullaby” that at the beginning seems to be a song written for Aiuto’s ten-year-old son. But subsequent verses address the singer himself as well as his absentee father. The lullaby is a type of “self-soothing,” explains Aiuto. “It’s pretty common to sing to babies to help them sleep, and when our son was a little baby, we would love to sing to him.” In a conversation, a friend pointed out to Aiuto that a person can sing a lullaby to themselves to bring themselves peace or help themselves sing. Aiuto started to think about what it would look like to sing a lullaby to himself when peacefulness is a far-off dream.

“In the middle of the night I forget that God is real or I forget God is good, or I forget that there’s going to be hope in the morning,” confesses Aiuto. “You need somebody to sing to you…and sometimes you’re that person for your own self for a time.”

He compares “St. Tom’s Lullaby” to Psalm 42, in which the writer asks themselves, “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God.” It’s more than “giving themselves a pep talk,” Aiuto cheers; it’s reminding oneself of what one believes to be true when the terrors of the night are not so close at hand.

The album ends with a cover of Sufjan Steven’s song “The Greatest Gift.” After the meditations on restlessness and self-righteous defensiveness, the album turns to Jesus’s decree to his disciples recorded in the book of Mark: But the greatest gift of all and the law above all laws is to love your friends and lovers, and lay down your life for your brothers, as you abide in peace.

Inside the brutality of crucifixion is a sweet, delicate note of hope that there is a remedy to all the ills of the world. Jesus died to save the world; but as Christians wait for the fulfillment of that belief, they can start carrying out the work of cleaning the world with their own acts by not putting themselves first and helping others. Aiuto looks forward to the time that he does not have to work so hard against his own inclinations to be that good for others. In the meantime he hopes Light Up The Stairs helps others to learn how to help themselves.

Click here to purchase & download "Light Up The Stairs"

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