They came to Kenilworth in the summer of 1965, at a time when the nation was reeling from the effects of an unpopular war, assassination and the civil rights struggle. Elmer S. Lapp, his wife Fannie and their three small children had left their rural Amish home in Lancaster, Pa., to begin life in an inner-city, black, residential island in Northeast Washington.
"We didn't know what to expect," said Lapp who was then a lay minister in his 20s. But like the Biblical patriarch Abraham in search of a spiritual city, Lapp sought to establish the first (and only) Amish-Mennonite mission in urban America.
The family arrived in Kenilworth carrying with them faith, the promise of a $45 montly stipend from their mission board and little else. Awaiting them was a community known for its high crime, poverty and hordes of children living in a 459-unit public housing project that dominated the area.
During the early years, frustration and financial problems meshed with the good times, Lapp said. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., fear also crept in. Neighbours flocked protectively around.
"If I had probably known everything I would encounter I wouldn't have come," the minister admitted. "But I was in the prime of my life. I didn't know much, except the Lord was calling me here, (and) we were interested in sharing the Gospel."
That was enough.
Now, 12 years later, a church and missionary community known as Fellowship Haven is a vital, growing part of Kenilworth. The bearded man in the plain, black suit accompanied by his frisky children and mild-mannered wife in the white, starched bonnet, are known affectionately as "The Lapps." Residents also call the church "The Lapps." And the young, black men and women who attend services regularly are the harvest "The Lapps" have reaped. There are about 150 parishioners in all.
The Amish-Mennonite faith was developed in Lancaster, Pa., in 1910 after a group of Amish adopted the Mennonite faith and such modern advancements as automobiles to provide more opportunities to spread the gospel, said Rev. Lapp. Out of this religious and cultural union grew a missionary network that has spanned Latin America, reached into Germany and rural and suburban America.
When the Lapps arrived, they found a home on Douglas Street NE, which is located across the street from the Kenilworth Courts housing project. It was there that they began their congregation. Fellowship Haven, and later built a church. It was the first church to be built on Douglas Street. The Lapps also developed tutorial and recreational programs for the youth.
"There wasn't anything like that for the children before they came," said Harriet Wright, whose son Vincent, 18, joined the Mennonite faith when he was 13.
Aided by other Mennonites with a missionary fervor, like midwesterners Gertrude Troyer and Oren Lee Yoder, the Lapps developed a youth camp, neighborhood Bible studies and youth clubs; along with a traveling chorus that has bridged the gap between Mennonites in the cities and those in rural America and Canada.
After meeting the chorus, most Mennonites have marveled "that this good group of young people came out of Washington, DC.," laughed Troyer.
Even Kenilworth residents who remember when "some of everything used to go on around here," claim the neighborhood has improved as a result of the Christian influence.
"From their actions they (the Mennoites) encourage people to live right," explained Deborah Hart. 20, who said she first came to the church when she was 7 years old.
"They've helped me spiritually. If it wasn't for them I wouldn't be as happy as I am today. We know they're out to help us and we can depend on them."
Fitzgerald Reynolds, 15, a recent Mennonite convert, said. "I don't think the neighborhood is any better." He grinned. "But I am."
Other Mennonite youth, like Andre Robinson 15, and Cynthia Sharpe, 23, agreed with Reynolds. They said the Mennonite faith had contributed to their spiritual maturity and general well-being. Not, however, without a price.
Youth involved with the church said that friends abandoned them. Classmates called the girls "cupcakes" because of the white, devotional bonnets the women wear representing submission to Christ. Yet, no one said he or she regretted the choice.
"The things my friends do get them in trouble," said Robinson. His faith doesn't, he said.
"It's a different culture," admitted Patricia Roy, 22. "But now I think it's a permanent part of me."
Conversely, the eight Amish-Mennonite missionaries working at Fellowship Haven feel Kenilworth is a part of them. They said they too have matured by working with the youth. They've learned lessons about generosity and humility, along with a few good jokes to round things out.
Yoder laughingly relates how youth teased him about his "high water" trousers, telling him "the Lord must have given you a vision of an approaching flood." A sight gag about the Rev. Elmer Smoker Lapp's name is another favorite.
The jokester would say "He's Elmer," then puff on an imaginary cigarette and glap his lap.
"I've been here five years," said Yoder, a farm-boy from Kansas. "It was hard to know what to expect, but I've found fulfillment."
Eleven years ago, Troyer said she debated whether she should leave Ohio to work in Kenilworth or a Mennonite home for the aged in Arkansas.
"I said, 'Lord, I don't want to come to this place (Kenilworth),'" she recalled recently. "I've said 100 times since then, I'm so glad I came here.
"The work with the teen-agers has been the closest to my heart. Our Bible studies are the biggest attraction to the children. Will I leave?" Not until the Lord says so, she smiled.
And the Rev. Lapp?
In August 1977, the Lapp family returned to Lancaster to care for his Fannie's elderly parents and introduce his children to the Amish way of life. The Rev. Lapp teaches at Faith Mennonite High School, he said, and ministers in a Mennonite church in the community there. Yet the family appears to be struck between two worlds.
Though they come to Kenilworth bi-monthly for Lapp to preach and minister to his flock, Lapp said his children miss their other hometown-Washington.
Two of his five children were born at Howard Universtiy Hospital. Four attended the city public schools. His ministry, and a good part of his life, developed here. Friends and neighbors are here. The church he and his congregation built in 1975 is here, and he envisions someday extending the ministry to other Washington neighborhoods, he said.
"We miss it," Lapp said of Washington. "However, we're confident we're in the center of the Lord's will where we are."
Still, "if we had the opportunity to (relive the early days) over again, we would," he added. He said they're praying about the future. CAPTION: Picture 1, Cynthia Elaine Sharpe, a member of the Mennonite congregation, talks with children at day care center where she works as a teacher. Photos by Craig Herndon-The Washington Post; Picture 2, Congregation has grown to about 150 members since the Lapps arrived in 1965.; Picture 3, The Rev. Elmer S. Lapp and his wife Fannie with their children Joseph, 4, Lydia 11, Eunice, 14, and Lois, 18.; Picture 4, Rev. Elmer S. Lapp said when he came to Washington, "I didn't know much, except the Lord was calling me here." By Craig Hendon-The Washington Post.