Grants help church plants thrive

Jason Storbakken, far right, with members of Brooklyn Peace Church at its 2022 launch. — Mennonite Church USA Jason Storbakken, far right, with members of Brooklyn Peace Church at its 2022 launch. — Mennonite Church USA

Mennonite Church USA is helping to fuel growth and diversity with its Thrive Church Planting Grants. This year’s repeat award recipients, Brooklyn Peace Church in New York and Community of Hope Mennonite Church in Bellingham, Wash., are building circles of community in creative, Jesus-centered ways.

“It’s wonderful to witness how church planters and those in these worshiping communities are reimagining what it means to be a missional peace church,” said Rachel Ringenberg Miller, MC USA’s denominational minister for ministerial leadership.

Brooklyn Peace Church — which opened for worship in 2022 and averages 15 to 18 people at its monthly worship service — “feels like a house church in a big sanctuary,” Jason Storbakken said. Congregants call him “pastor” because he “kind of fills that role,” he said, but everything is volunteer led.

The congregation is bilingual, with some people who only speak Spanish and others who only speak English, so they use interpreters and extend a lot of grace to each other.

The congregation shares its space with two others — a Garifuna English congregation that’s part of the LMC Anabaptist denomination and an Indigenous Kichwa group from Ecuador.

“We’re all connected,” he said of the three congregations. “There’s a lot of synergy. I’m really interested to see what might come of these three congregations who are sharing this space and who value peace. We’re in genuine Christian relationship with each other, even though we are different congregations.”

A 2022 Thrive grant helped to cover Brooklyn Peace Church’s basic operating costs, including renovation of the space and the purchase of chairs, worship items and a projector. It also provided resources for a website.

The congregation gathered for several special services in 2022, including one in which pastors and leaders from other Atlantic Coast Conference churches offered prayers and blessings.

Storbakken hopes the new Thrive grant will continue the momentum, helping the church expand its reach, increase accessibility and build operating support. The goal is a full launch, with the congregation meeting weekly for worship by the end of 2023.

“We’re nimble, robust and have a big vision to hold a lot of perspectives, voices and identities,” Storbakken said. “Through partnerships, we can reimagine what traditional church looks like.”

Rachael Weasley, foreground, with members of Community of Hope Mennonite Church. — Mennonite Church USA
Rachael Weasley, foreground, with members of Community of Hope Mennonite Church. — Mennonite Church USA

Community of Hope has a growing “wild church,” or outdoors, ministry. Pastor and church planter Rachael Weasley has found advantages of ­meeting outdoors that she didn’t anticipate.

“It makes us accessible to immunocompromised folks and those who have religious trauma and aren’t comfortable in a church building,” Weasley said. “I think we are shaped by the architecture of the outdoors. It helps us remember that nature is outside of our control, and so is God. There’s something helpful about that, es­pecially when you’re doing queer theology.”

Not everyone at Community of Hope identifies as queer, but they seek to do church in a queer way, Weasley said. This means looking at the gospel through the lens of queer theory, seeing how Jesus operates at the margins of power.

The church, which started as an online community, has expanded through the help of the Thrive Grant to include in-person gatherings outdoors in the wild church tradition.

The online community, which meets by Zoom on the first Monday of the month, has grown from 13 participants in the summer of 2022 to 30 current participants from across the country, with gender-inclusive language for God and liturgical arts to support a queer constructive theology, as well as a traditional sermon and hymns from the new Voices Together hymnal. Many of those folks also attend Mennonite churches in person in their local areas, Weasley said.

In person, Community of Hope meets monthly every third Saturday in parks around Bellingham, where winters are mild. The worship services attract about 15 participants, including parents of queer people and those seeking a less patriarchal church. Weasley said the outdoor model meets their needs in important ways, such as minimal overhead costs and prioritizing accessibility to a space that feels safe for queer visitors.

The congregation hosts Queer Theology Sunday School, a quarterly event on Zoom open to people across MC USA and Mennonite Church Canada. Guest speakers share on topics such as biblical hermeneutics and trauma and healing. It also hosts two online support groups — one for parents of LGBTQ children and one for queer people in ministry.

With the help of Thrive grants and a grant from Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference, Weasley has increased her hours from 8 to 15 per week. She plans to use the extra hours to do publicity and outreach.

Community of Hope anticipates no longer needing a grant next year. Self-sustainability means “queer and trans folks, their allies and family members will have a safe online place to worship and ground their spirits in a way that does not conflict with their love for the diversity of human sexuality and gender,” Weasley said. “It means that queer and trans folks will have access to a queer online pastor and to one another . . . [and] that local folks who have been harmed by church have a safe place to ground their spirituality in the outdoors.”

MC USA established the Thrive Church Planting Grant in 2020. The program offered a $5,000 renewable grant to support new, missional peace churches in the United States.

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