New York peace center doubles as a church plant

Brooklyn Peace Center to reinvigorate Atlantic Coast Conference property

Feb 17, 2020 by and

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The first rule of real estate can also be the first rule of church planting. But what is coming together in New York City under the working name “Brooklyn Peace Church” is built upon more than location.

Brooklyn Peace Center and Brooklyn Peace Church will be housed in what used to be First Mennonite Church in Brooklyn (Primera Iglesia Menonita de Brooklyn), which closed last year. — Jason Storbakken

Brooklyn Peace Center and Brooklyn Peace Church will be housed in what used to be First Mennonite Church in Brooklyn (Primera Iglesia Menonita de Brooklyn), which closed last year. — Jason Storbakken

Individuals in Mennonite Church USA’s Atlantic Coast Conference are envisioning how a new peace center could undergird the simultaneous development of a new church rising from the ashes of what came before.

When First Mennonite Church in Brooklyn (Primera Iglesia Menonita de Brooklyn) decided to close last year, ACC continued to hold the property title. Conference officials and New Yorkers took the opportunity to consider how the closing of a church doesn’t necessarily mean closing ministries.

Nestled in a dynamic and diverse neighborhood, the congregation began in a former synagogue in what was then an area occupied by mostly people of Puerto Rican decent. Jason Storbakken, pastor of Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship, said some ACC and Mennonite Mission Network representatives met with him and his wife, Vonetta, last year to discuss what might happen with the building.

“It was a church from 1958 until recently, and they were thinking of selling it and planting a church,” he said. “My wife knows about New York real estate, and she said you can’t sell a Brooklyn property if you own it” because of rising values.

The Storbakkens also lead Radical Living, a ministry that organizes youth to green urban areas with a focus on farm-to-table food initiatives.

In addition to his Mennonite pastor role, Storbakken works with homeless initiatives for Bowery Mission. The couple live in Brooklyn and wondered why a church plant would abandon the building for another location.

Immigration legal services coordinated with Mennonite Central Committee are already based out of the building, and will continue. Other options could include housing training initiatives with Anabaptist seminaries.

A relationship also comes built in with Believers Mennonite Garifuna Church, an LMC congregation that worships in the building on Sunday afternoons.

“When [ACC and MMN] came to us, we thought this could be bigger than a church — it could hold it all together,” Storbakken said. “They said ‘Brooklyn Peace Church’ and we thought ‘What about a center?’ It could serve as a hub of agencies.”

Planting a peace church

ACC conference minister Merv Stoltzfus said MMN has been working on a nationwide effort to plant peace churches, which is where the conference got the idea. He considers the project a collaborative effort of MMN, ACC and Brooklyn residents.

“It is an emerging initiative, gaining some really good traction already,” he said, noting the conference has not even officially identified workers. “But we have a lot of work to do yet.”

Stoltzfus said ACC and many other conferences were directly involved in church planting in the 1980s and ’90s, but in the last few decades such initiatives more often grew out of congregations.

Holding the property’s title required a different approach.

The Storbakkens are intrigued with seeing how a peace center reaching out to the community can simultaneously give life to a new congregation. Brooklyn Peace Church should launch on Pentecost this spring, with Brooklyn Peace Center starting in the summer.

Things are already happening. The peace center may not be open, but it hosted its first event Jan. 22 — a screening of the Christian Peacemaker Teams documentary Hebron. The arts are a niche the center can occupy.

“[With] artistic expression of peacemaking, it could be music, theater, film production and viewing together,” Stoltzfus said. “And beyond that, I would imagine . . . it will be wide open to venues of peacemaking in the city and globally.”

Jason Storbakken, left, Christian Peacemaker Team Hebron worker Yousef Natsheh and Zachariah Barghouti attend the Jan. 22 screening of a CPT documentary at Brooklyn Peace Center. Barghouti represents Friends of Sabeel North America, A Christian Voice For Palestine. — Jason Storbakken

Jason Storbakken, left, Christian Peacemaker Team Hebron worker Yousef Natsheh and Zachariah Barghouti attend the Jan. 22 screening of a CPT documentary at Brooklyn Peace Center. Barghouti represents Friends of Sabeel North America, A Christian Voice For Palestine. — Jason Storbakken

That focus may also be a way to connect with people in the neighborhood — many of them artists and musicians — who grew up Mennonite but are no longer attending church.

Storbakken knows several people who would be a natural fit for artistic expressions the center could facilitate.

“I’m thinking they’ll be into the peace center, but some people just aren’t into church, and we’re wrestling with that with the peace church,” he said. “Maybe we don’t need a pastor but a teaching group. We are just trying to navigate this culture we find ourselves in to bring people to the Prince of Peace.”

Stoltzfus agreed.

“There are young adults who have a strong faith perspective with peace and justice interest that don’t really have a place to worship in the Brooklyn area,” he said. “There are multiple ways we feel excited and hopeful for what could come out of this.”

While other peace organizations exist in the city, Storbakken said they tend to fall into narrow categories like aging white antiwar activists or institutes that provide mediation for court services.

“Ours is more focused on embodying and sometimes agitating — arts, community-building, a spiritual element. The church is there and all the programming is Anabaptist-based,” he said. “We bring our own distinct identity as Mennonites and leading as a peace center. That opens up to everybody, and that gets everyone to know us. It’s in the name Mennonite.”


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