Voices with a mission
Pastor plans to take message of hope to grieving Pennsylvania town
Pastor Elbert Mondainé, who pronounces his last name with continental flair and goes by the honorific Apostle, is a big talker.
Ask members of his congregation. Some of them jump-start their days with the sound of his megaphonic orations, which he cranks up at twice-weekly services that start at five o'clock. In the morning.
But the charismatic Mondainé also walks the walk. While maintaining a congregation in his native St. Louis, he has ministered to folks in North Portland for 18 years, inspiring the creation of a small empire of self-empowerment.
On Oct. 28 he'll be in eastern Pennsylvania, leading a choir of voices from around the nation that represents different churches and different faiths.
Named the Voices of 1,000 Angels, the hastily arranged project is designed to show support for a small town devastated by tragedy and to issue a call to America's religious community.
'We will be there, come rain, snow or shine,' Mondainé says. 'If it's 10 people or 1,000 people, we're going to sing.'
On Oct. 2, a schoolhouse shooting in Nickel Mines, Pa., left five Amish girls dead and five others wounded. Mondainé says news of the tragedy affected him deeply, in part because of the image of the Amish as a plain, gentle people.
'I heard about the shooting, and it really, really gripped me,' he says. 'Why did it end up on the Amish soil? I thought, 'What is God trying to say to us?''
The Amish, descendents of 17th-century Mennonite reformers, subscribe to an insular, agragrian lifestyle largely devoid of modern technologies like electricity and the automobile.
'If it's happening in this community, can't you imagine what's happening on the street?' Mondainé asks. 'Do we have to wait until there are dead bodies all over the place before we answer the call? In a crisis, we have to be ready to go.
'What a perfect use of resources. Why not go to where the call was made?'
Mondainé plans to lead between 50 and 100 members of his Portland and St. Louis congregations - most of them paying their own way - to the Lancaster County community, where they'll be joined by churchgoers and religious organizations from around the country.
'It's really taken off,' says Don Elliott, Mondainé's executive assistant. 'There's a church in Denver; there are two churches in Florida that are joining us. We've got churches of all affiliations. All the denominations across the board are responding. Everything from Mennonites to Catholics and Lutherans. Also, the Mormons.
'We haven't even done much of the outreach to Portland churches yet.'
Mondainé says the message he hopes to convey in Pennsylvania is not aimed solely at the Amish community.
'It's about our gesture, to say, 'We love you,' ' he says. 'We're going to sing as the Amish sing. We're going to sing their songs. It's also a call to Christian people. It's time to take our schools and our children seriously.'
The Nickel Mines incident closely followed fatal school shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin. Oregon was home to a 1998 tragedy in which a student at Thurston High School in Springfield killed his parents, two classmates and wounded 25 others.
'They were sacrificed,' Mondainé says of the five Amish girls. 'If we let their sacrifice go unseen and unheard, something's wrong with us. This is His way of telling us it's time to educate our people, also to look at the mental health piece in our community.'
Faith flows before dawn
Mondainé, 47, admits to heading a different kind of organization, something he calls an 'entrepreneurial ministry.' Within one block of its base in Kenton, nondenominational Celebration Tabernacle has spun off an accredited Christian K-8 school, a day-care center, a dance studio, a cafe and an improvisational comedy troupe for young people.
In all, his organization includes at least 20 such 'ministries.'
Mondainé, whose first official role was as a music minister, is also a pianist and singer whose group, Belief, has recorded two energetic, gospel-inspired albums and performed at the Newmark Theatre downtown.
He is an outspoken, outsize personality who needs little time to warm up at the pre-sunrise services, which have become the basis for a planned series of books called 'The 5 a.m. Chronicles.'
On a recent morning his amplified voice rebounded sharply off the walls inside Celebration Tabernacle as he hectored two dozen sleep-deprived souls, tagging the end of passages with provocative exhortations.
'Did you hear what I said?' he challenges, and the faithful respond with expressions of 'Yeah' and 'Amen.'
Then his voice is suddenly soft and almost apologetic. 'Don't you like being screamed at at five in the morning?'
'He's very engaging and accessible, which I think is cool,' says Megan Turvey, 19, a University of Portland sophomore in sweat pants and a hooded sweatshirt. 'A lot of people, when they go to big megachurches, the pastor doesn't even know your name. He's visible.'
The man who can startle associates with his assertiveness one moment can shock them with his candor the next, speaking frankly about growing up poor and suffering abuses as a child.
Elliott says that while the pastor's honesty has put off some church members, it also has helped generate intense loyalty and trust.
'My previous church had 1,000 members and tons of money,' he says. 'I never saw the kind of life change I've seen here.'
The Voices project may call on every tool in Mondainé's skill set. Residents of Nickel Mines reportedly struggled with the media attention attracted by the schoolhouse shootings, but Mondainé says he spoke to Amish leaders, who have approved of his planned visit.
'The message they asked me to pass was that the Amish community is fine,' he says. 'They're doing well. It is not for the Amish alone that we're going. We're going to give praise to God.'
Scott Fischer, executive director of the Lancaster County Council of Churches, says other events, including a community march, had already been scheduled to take place in the area.
'I know the Amish are very private people,' he says. 'We want to be very sensitive about that. We try to be very responsible as we seek to stand with them.'
Given the sympathy he's seen for the bereaved of Nickel Mines, Fischer says Mondainé may have trouble limiting the size of his choir. 'Quite frankly, I could see it being more than 1,000,' he says. 'The Lancaster community is very interested in doing whatever is possible to show our support.'
In an oft-repeated refrain, Mondainé maintains that the trouble for America's youth began when churches, which were once centers of learning, ceded responsibility for educating children to the public sector.
Mondainé says Voices of 1,000 Angels is not about generating policy so much as ratcheting up awareness of the faith community's responsibility to wider society.
'How can we help?' he wonders. 'How can we make this better? We're going to try to say we have to turn our empty churches into classrooms. We're going to say to our churches, teach your people how to educate our children. We're going to have to start understanding the manic behavior that is taking place in our societies.'
In a way, Mondainé says, Christians fail in part of their mission when they insist on prayer in schools while losing sight of the meaning behind it.
'What is the prayer intended to do?' he asks. 'Let's celebrate what that was. Let's bring back unity, the sense of community that religion teaches. The ultimate responsibility is to each and every man to love his neighbor.'