Mennonite Church USA is helping to fuel growth and diversity with its 2023 Thrive Church Planting Grants. This year’s repeat award recipients, Brooklyn (New York) Peace Church and Community of Hope Mennonite Church, Bellingham, Washington, are building circles of community in creative, Jesus-centered ways.
“It’s wonderful to witness how church planters and those in these worshipping 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
“It feels like a house church in a big sanctuary,” Jason Storbakken said about Brooklyn Peace Church, which opened for worship in 2022, and averages 15-18 people during its monthly worship service. He notes that congregants call him “pastor” because he “kind of fills that role,” but he adds that “Everything is volunteer led. We’re not hierarchical. We’re a priesthood of all believers. Even when we gather, we gather in a circle.”
The small congregation is bilingual. “The complexity that we find ourselves in is that we have some people who only speak Spanish, some people who only speak English,” said Storbakken, so they use interpreters and extend a lot of grace to each other.
The congregation also shares their space with two other churches, an LMC Garifuna English church 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.”
The 2022 Thrive grant helped to cover the Brooklyn Peace Church’s basic operating costs, including the renovation of the physical space and the purchase of additional chairs, worship items, a projector and more. The grant also provided resources for a website. The congregation gathered for several special worship services in 2022, including one memorable service in which pastors and leaders from other Atlantic Coast Conference churches gathered to provide prayers and blessings for the new congregation.
Storbakken said he hopes that the new Thrive grant will continue the momentum, helping the church to expand its reach, increase accessibility for all people and build operating support. The goal is a full launch, with the congregation meeting weekly for worship by the end of 2023.
Storbakken is excited about the future. “We’re a small congregation, but we’re nimble, robust and have a big vision to hold a lot of perspectives, voices and identities. Through partnerships, we can reimagine what traditional church looks like,” he said.
Community of Hope Mennonite Church
“There are some advantages of meeting outdoors that I didn’t anticipate,” said Rachael Weasley, pastor and church planter of Community of Hope Mennonite Church, Bellingham, Washington, describing the church’s growing Wild Church ministry. “It makes us accessible to immunocompromised folks, and those who have religious trauma and aren’t comfortable in a church building. We stand in a circle, kind of naturally. 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,” she explained.
Not everyone at Community of Hope identifies as queer, but they seek to do church in a Queer way, according to Weasley. She explains that 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. There is overlap between the online and in-person gatherings, but they also attract different crowds.
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 Voices Together. Many of those folks also attend Mennonite churches in person in their local areas, said Weasley.
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 individuals and those seeking a less patriarchal church. According to Weasley, 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.
Community of Hope also hosts Queer Theology Sunday School, a quarterly educational event on Zoom open to folks across MC USA and Mennonite Church Canada. Guest speakers share on different topics, such as biblical hermeneutics and trauma and healing. In addition, Community of Hope hosts two online support groups – one for parents of LGBTQ+ children, and one for queer folks in ministry.
Previous Thrive grants helped Community of Hope kick off its Wild Church and provided honorariums for guest speakers for Queer Theology Sunday School, which Weasley credits with helping to grow their online congregation.
With the help of Thrive Church Planting Grants and a grant from Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference, Weasley has been able to increase her hours from 8 to 15 hours per week. “I plan to use these extra hours exclusively on publicity and outreach, to grow the church!” she said.
“We anticipate this [fiscal] year to be, potentially, our last grant-funded year,” Weasley said. “Self-sustainability for Community of Hope means that … 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. 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, with liturgy sensitive to their experience of past church trauma.”
About the Thrive Church Planting Grant
MC USA established the Thrive Church Planting Grant in 2020. The program offered a $5,000 renewable grant to nurture and support the ministry needs of new, missional peace churches in the United States. Mennonite Church USA Executive Board staff and Mennonite Mission Network staff are in conversations to discuss strategies for ongoing church planting.
Mennonite Church USA is an Anabaptist Christian denomination, founded in 2002, and a recognized peace church. Members seek to follow Jesus by rejecting violence and resisting injustice. MC USA’s Renewed Commitments state the following shared commitments among its diverse body of believers: to follow Jesus, witness to God’s peace and experience the transformation of the Holy Spirit. MC USA is comprised of 15 area conferences and more than 470 congregations across the United States. MC USA is part of Mennonite World Conference, a global faith family that includes churches in 60 countries. Mennoniteusa.org