Church uses humor to connect with community
By Sabina Mollot
It’s not unusual for signs in front of churches to have uplifting messages. Often they’re lifted from biblical passages. Other times they’re behavioral suggestions, and if there’s room, there’ll be a bingo schedule included, too.
But in Gramercy, one church has managed to stand out from the parish pack for the messages on its signs, which have become so popular, they’ve actually boosted membership.
That church would be Gustavus Adolphus, a 150-year-old Lutheran church where a recent sign suggested: “Come, search for Pokemon — stay, find God’s grace.”
Another, inspired by pop song “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor, read: “We’re all about dat grace, bout dat grace, no Devil!”
And another reminded passersby: “That love thy neighbor thing — I meant that — God.”
Last winter, during particularly frigid temperatures, a sign pointed out, “On the bright side, we haven’t seen a mosquito in months.”
The signs, which get changed around twice a month, are the brainchild of the church’s pastor, Christopher Mietlowski, better known to his flock as Pastor Chris.
Mietlowski, who’s been leading the church for the past nine years, has been putting up the humorous signs since 2009, sometimes using suggestions from parishioners and church employees. But usually he comes up with them himself, occasionally referencing pop culture in an attempt to reach out to young people in the neighborhood.
“We want to let the community know this is a place where all are welcome,” said Mietlowski, who added that sometimes this means doing so in a “provocative way.”
So far however he’s managed to do this without getting too controversial or posting signs that have prompted complaints. That said, if this did happen, Mietlowski said, “I’d love to sit down and talk with folks about that.”
But fortunately, he’s encountered only enthusiasm whenever he’s outside changing the signs.
“Whenever I pull down the letters, people say, ‘Are you the one that does this?’ and then they say they make it a point to walk on 22nd Street to see it,” said Mietlowski.
He also called the signs a reflection of the parish, describing it as “a place with a tremendous sense of humor,” populated by “yo-pros,” his term for young professionals as well as older people. The church also now has a just-licensed and just-built pre-school onsite.
While he wasn’t able to say how many, the signs have also been the reason a variety of people have ventured inside, ultimately joining the church as members.
One sign was especially responsible for this phenomenon, mainly because it wound up being prophetic. This one, posted a week before Hurricane Sandy flooded much of Manhattan’s East Side, read: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
That message, said Mietlowski, had been aimed at anyone dealing with a personal tragedy, but wound up being especially relevant in the church and the surrounding community, which was without power for a week.
However, the quote that wound up getting the most attention was posted in July, 2013 during a particularly oppressive heat wave. This one stated: “The Devil called. He wants his weather back.” The sign wound up getting seen by an ESPN reporter who snapped a photo and shared it online. It wound up being “the Tweet pic of the day nationally,” said Mietlowski.
One time, though, a sign ended up causing some confusion.
That one read: “God is perfect. Only humans make mistekas.”
Mietlowski recalled having a number of people contact him to say, “’Pastor, you don’t know me but you have a typo in your sign.’ I was like, ‘no that’s the point.’”
Also, occasionally, the church will recycle a message from another church. The Pokemon sign, posted during the height of the Pokemon Go craze last summer, was originally posted by a parish in the Midwest. On the “dat grace” sign, Mietlowski said he’s the Meghan Trainor fan who came up with it.
“My wife introduced me to that song,” he said. “I love that song. It cracked me up.”
Mietlowski said coming up with the signs isn’t too difficult, though being creative consistently does require some effort. At any given time, he’s got a list of potential signs written down somewhere.
Every once in a while, Gustavus Adolphus will even put up a traditional sort of church sign. Last week’s read: “Thanksgiving is good, but Thanksliving is better.” Another memorable one for Mietlowski quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It read: “We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.”
Asked if he would ever dare to be political in his signs, Mietlowski didn’t have an answer, but he did have this to say about the results of the presidential election.
“What I’ll say is I’m very concerned about those in our city, our culture, who are on the margins and perhaps are very afraid of what may be coming for them in the decisions our government’s going to make,” he said. “As I preached on Sunday, we need to be sharper in our purpose as a church. We need to be clear, stronger, more present with those on the margins who are without a voice, without a certain power.”
At this time, as the church celebrates its sesquicentennial, Mietlowski admitted that Gustavus Adolphus has suffered similar circumstances to other churches in the city. Specifically, attendance is lower than what it once was — though there has been a noticeable increase in the past five years with the influx of young families to the neighborhood. However, in general, people these days have less money to spare on donations and less time to volunteer with church programs.
“The church has been struggling for quite a while, and we’re in the process of renewal and have a growing membership,” Mietlowski said.
He added that the worshippers make up a diverse crowd with a 50/50 mix of people from the surrounding neighborhoods of Gramercy, Flatiron and Peter Cooper Village/Stuyvesant Town as well as commuters. “They come because they say it’s worth the trip,” said Mietlowski, of parishioners who travel from as far as New Jersey, Westchester, Long Island and the outer boroughs.
In the neighborhood, Mietlowski’s noticed a lot of New York City transplants, people originally from out of town looking for a sense of belonging. Mietlowski understands this. He’s from a rural area in Buffalo originally, and then, prior to starting seminary, lived in Dobbs Ferry while working as a partner in a graphic design firm.
Despite feeling out of sorts and disconnected upon moving, Mietlowski said he and his family now love living in the city and in Gramercy. Having felt immediately embraced by the community, Mietlowski said he is now proactive in trying to embrace it back. The signs were a part of this effort with the pastor believing it can be intimidating for people to enter churches for the first time.
“It’s an opportunity to kind of communicate to our neighbors our message of hope, of possibility, and identifying that we all go through hard times but we also have a sense of community connectedness,” he said.