By Melanie Ave
Rough. Tough. Drug-infested. Low-income. High-crime.
That’s how many people describe the location of the new Kenneth and Karen Ko Hope and a Prayer Center by the Sea, which recently opened in Far Rockaway, N.Y. — two years to the day after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the community and parts of the East Coast.
“According to the police precinct commander, it’s the worst block in the neighborhood,” said LCMS Vicar Tom Cusanelli from St. Luke Lutheran Church in Dix Hills, N.Y. “Even people in the neighborhood come over and say, ‘26th Street is crazy.’ It’s the land that time forgot.”
And that’s exactly why the center is located on a corner in Queens, in three converted storefronts, across from a laundromat and next door to a bodega, said LCMS Atlantic District President Rev. Dr. David H. Benke. Drug deals were once commonplace. The day before the center’s Oct. 29 dedication, the store next door was robbed.
“Where we are going is where the hurt is the greatest,” Benke said. “We want to bring health, encouragement and the Gospel to this part of the world.”
“No Loitering” and “No Trespassing” signs on the building have now been replaced with a blue LCMS cross.
The center’s dedication was a joyous ceremony. About 75 community, school, district, LCMS, and state and city officials crowded the 1,700-square-foot building to celebrate the culmination of the two-year effort that began in Sandy’s aftermath.
The Rev. John Fale, associate executive director of LCMS Mercy Operations, said the center gives the LCMS a needed presence in a community where it had none.
“We became aware of that right after we started our relief work from Hurricane Sandy with the Atlantic District,” he said. “The Far Rockaways was one of the hardest hit communities but had the fewest resources.”
‘Those little acts’
The Hope and a Prayer Center by the Sea is a mission outreach of the LCMS Atlantic District, in partnership with LCMS Disaster Response.
Benke said the center will provide services such as pastoral care, counseling, rental assistance, after-school programs, literacy training and food programs to a hurting community in the name of Christ.
The goal is for the center to eventually become a church plant, the first LCMS Lutheran presence within a 5-mile radius.
“We’re trying to take it one step at a time,” Benke said. “We’re not saying this is a church plant with a community center. It’s a community center that may lead to a church plant.”
During the center’s dedication, as prayers were said, thanks given and congratulatory remarks uttered inside, the sound of jackhammers from a work crew on a sewer project outside reverberated throughout the building.
It was a sign of a community still recovering from Sandy, which devastated parts of the coastline and caused catastrophic flooding in New York and New Jersey. The storm was blamed for at least 182 deaths and $65 billion in damage in the United States. Church leaders said the storm’s impact in Far Rockaway was compounded by poverty and crime.
Cusanelli, a former N.Y.C. police captain, was in the neighborhood after Sandy, serving as the Atlantic District’s recovery coordinator. He will remain there as the coordinator of the new center.
He is optimistic about the future and the impact the center will have on the community.
“One woman came up to me this morning and asked, ‘What are you going to do here?’” Cusanelli said. “She said, ‘Can I come and pray?’ I said, ‘Of course, you can come and pray.’ She started to turn and walk away and I said, ‘Excuse me, do you need prayer?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’
“I prayed right in front of the storefront today. It’s just those little acts.”
Taking care of needs
The center was the result of what Benke calls the “coalition of the willing” that came together after Sandy.
One of the willing was Kenneth Ko, a member of Glory Lutheran Church in Flushing, N.Y., who contributed $150,000 to the center, which is named in honor of his late wife, Karen.
“Ken was someone who would not be deterred,” Benke said. “He said, ‘You need the help. I’m going to give you the help.’ Thank God for Ken.”
During the center’s dedication, Director of LCMS Disaster Response Rev. Ross Johnson presented a check to the Atlantic District for $187,500 — the latest installment of the Synod’s $750,000 commitment to help start the facility. In all, LCMS Disaster Response has distributed more than $3 million as part of the Sandy short- and long-term response and recovery.
“What you are seeing is the collaboration of your brothers and sisters from across the United States,” Johnson said, after presenting an oversized check to Benke. “We know the greatest disaster that could ever befall somebody would be to die outside the Christian faith. That’s the great thing about the work being done here. It’s being done in the name of Christ.”
The Atlantic District, from donations received, committed $250,000 for the center.
After the dedication service’s benediction, Benke grabbed a branch from a plant outside, dipped it in water and prayed, “We bless this great room to the glory of God and the good of God’s people, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
He walked throughout the building, sprinkling the rooms and offices in water and praying.
Soon thereafter, those who had helped make the Hope and a Prayer Center by the Sea a reality, headed outside, inviting neighbors inside, introducing themselves and giving them food.
The center was officially in business.
“The work,” Benke said, “is not going to happen inside a building.”
Melanie Ave is a staff writer with LCMS Communications.
Posted Nov. 6, 2014