Photo: Brooklyn Peace Center occupies a former synagogue on Marcus Garvey Boulevard in Brooklyn, New York. Photo provided by Brooklyn Peace Center
When Mennonite Mission Network church-planting coach Mauricio Chenlo attended the 60th anniversary of Primera Iglesia Menonita de Brooklyn in New York City last August, it did not take long for him and others to catch God’s vision for planting a renewed peace witness there.
After the anniversary celebration, Chenlo and leaders from Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) of Mennonite Church USA and pastors from the New York City Council of Mennonite Churches listened to the Spirit’s promptings.
Their discernment led to the birth of Brooklyn Peace Church, a plant of ACC and Brooklyn Peace Center. The two entities are partnering to develop their ministries and vision together.
The idea of a renewed peace witness within the Brooklyn community quickly took hold, given a sense of high need and broad opportunity.
“The community provides many opportunities for a peace witness to thrive, especially in light of this pandemic and the pain and injustice surrounding it,” said Chenlo, who will serve as peace church coach for three years.
Upon recommendation of ACC, the former congregation made the difficult decision to retire its ministry. After Primera Iglesia Menonita closed its doors last fall, the new peace witness began to emerge. Brooklyn Peace Church/Brooklyn Peace Center began developing ministries in the same space — a former synagogue on Marcus Garvey Boulevard.
Then came a pandemic lockdown and protests denouncing violence and discrimination against Black people.
The planned May 31 launch of Brooklyn Peace Church was postponed because of the pandemic. Yet, the slowdown has not shut down New York City Council of Mennonite Churches leaders. In fact, Brooklyn Peace Center developed online programming, such as a virtual art gallery with Common Humanity and a weekly online webinar series, “Teaching Peace,” which features interviews with prominent peacemakers.
“We’ve had more time to do fundraising, strategic planning and online programming,” said Jason Storbakken, who is leading the Brooklyn Peace Church launch team and is a member of the center’s transitional board. He is also pastor of Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship.
In a recent “Teaching Peace” program, Malinda Berry, a professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, “discussed how our peace witness can be embodied in helping to dismantle systems of injustice in the here and now,” Storbakken said. “We cannot wait for the future, when the wholeness of eternity breaks into our broken world.”
Storbakken co-directs Brooklyn Peace Center with his wife, Vonetta Storbakken. He said the center plans to offer conflict mediation and classes and workshops for the community.
A large immigrant population, public housing projects and a public hospital across the street amid development and gentrification signal the diversity surrounding the center.
Ruth Yoder Wenger, ACC conference minister for New York City, and pastor of North Bronx Mennonite Church, said the new peace initiative is being sown in the soil tilled by New York City Anabaptists for a half century.
“A peace witness has been bubbling in our NYC churches for years,” Wenger said. “Now we have a new opportunity. The Brooklyn Peace Center adds a fresh and necessary voice to the mix of our national discussion right now.”
Several other groups contributing to the peace witness are based out of Brooklyn Peace Center, including the New York Mennonite Immigration Program, the Radical Living Youth Program and Believers Mennonite Garifuna Ministries. Before the pandemic, they were meeting collectively on Saturdays to share a meal in community.
Merv Stoltzfus, ACC’s executive conference minister, said many Anabaptists in New York City are excited about a peace center and responding to injustice and are looking for this type of congregational life.
“The hope is that these initiatives will be a place for people to live more fully into their passions of peacemaking,” he said.
Storbakken said the guidance of Chenlo’s coaching has been a huge catalyst. Chenlo is also connecting the center to other initiatives around the world, such as a developing peace center with an MMN partner in Quito, Ecuador.
“People often perceive Mission Network as only doing international work, but we are also engaged in the United States,” Chenlo said. “At the same time, I hope that the peace witness in Brooklyn helps bring together people from different cultures.
“What other place brings together people of all nations like New York City? The world is here, and because of that, we can better connect Mennonites in the city with those in other cities across the world with the same kind of vision.”