After news of an unexpected closure sparked letter-writing and phone-banking campaigns that went ignored by Park Church Co-Op’s governing body — the Metropolitan New York Synod — late last year, the church community is reeling over the Synod’s decision to sell the building at 129 Russell St to real estate developers who will likely turn it into condos. In light of these developments, those associated with the church are working to get the word out about the Synod’s problematic practices.
News of the June 2022 closure was first publicized in December, though the Synod — a chapter of the national Evangelical Lutheran Church of America — has threatened to pull funding multiple times as early as 2018, but been met with pushback from community members.
“[The Synod] promised the pastor that they were going to commit to making this like a mission development,” recalled Michael Nowotarski, a Park Church attendee and music series curator who started the petition to buy them more time. “This was the point at which the church really became a central fixture in the community and started to get a lot of press, but about a year or two in, the Synod informed the congregation ‘hey, we don’t feel you’re viable anymore, we’re going to close the building and sell the property’ and the congregation was understandably very upset. There was a big letter-writing campaign and the Synod agrees to extend the funding for a little while; this happened three, four, five, I don’t even know how many more times.”
Park Church Co-Op, which describes itself as a “Lutheran ministry focused on radical love of the neighbor through welcome and invitation,” has been operating out the historic church building that was formerly The Lutheran Church of the Messiah since 2015 after former pastor Amy Kienzle changed the name and received grant funding from the Synod.
During that time, the church grew its programming beyond just worship services, offering concerts, children’s theater programs, a farmers market, arts festivals, and partnering with Breaking Ground to provide overnight shelter for homeless individuals in the neighborhood during winter months.
Roughly a year ago, the funding-cutback cycle started again, shortly after Nowotarski began his own relationship with the Park Church Co-Op, except this time, the Synod didn’t seem to budge beyond extending the closure to June due to lease commitments and school programs.
Despite community efforts to appeal the decision to discontinue funding and flip the building, the church has more or less accepted its fate and is now determined to warn other churches against doing business with the Synod.
“The reality is they’re going to be making an immense profit; while they’ve invested something like $700,000, they claim, they’re flipping the building for $4.5 million,” Nowotarski said. “We’ve done a bit of research about Metro New York Synod and it was pretty clear to us that this is not unusual, this is actually their business model. They go to these churches with smaller congregations on properties worth millions of dollars, take possession of them, say they’re going to invest all of this money, they never invest the money and they flip the building and walk away with their own salaries and pensions.”
According to an article by Brooklyn Paper, the Synod has closed and sold several churches throughout New York in the past decade, which includes shutting down their adjoining food banks and schools.
“They pay lip service to LGBT equality, they have a page about antiracism on their website, et cetera, but what they do is actually prey on these communities, because Park Church is only unusual in the sense that Greenpoint is a wealthier, white community, whereas the majority of these churches being sold are in Black and Latino communities,” Nowotarski reflected. “These are predators, and they should not be trusted.”
Now, one of the biggest concerns is what will come next for the neighborhood now that the church is gone, which is likely to mean years-long construction and displaced renters, for the sake of building condos.
“It will change the fabric and the character of the neighborhood,” Nowotarski said.