Residents Launch Last Minute Effort to Save Park Church

By Oona Milliken |

An abandoned notice board in front of Park Church. Photo credit: Oona Milliken

The fight to keep Park Church on 129 Russell Street in Greenpoint alive has been ongoing for years ever since the Metropolitan New York Synod, a chapter of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, announced Dec. 2021 that it would pull funding for the church due to declining membership. Currently, MNYS is in the process of selling the building, originally built in 1907, to GW Equities LLC, led by developers Avraham Garbo and Berish Wagschal. On Thursday Aug. 31, activists and community members gathered in a Zoom public hearing in front of Judge Richard Latin to halt the sale and attempt to repurpose the building for community use. In a statement from MNYS, Robert Lara, Assistant to the Bishop and Officer of Communications for the synod, said that the decision came after considerate deliberation.

“The Metropolitan New York Synod Council approved the sale of the former Messiah Lutheran Church building, where Park Church Co-op operated, following careful evaluation,” Lara said in an email. “This decision was made due to declining worship attendance and safety concerns with the building’s structure. The sale proceeds will support the growth of viable congregations, particularly those serving marginalized communities, in alignment with the synod’s commitment to anti-racism. ”

Other community members disagree. Jeremy Hook, a long-time Greenpoint resident working to keep the church in place, said that the sale of the church would be incredibly detrimental to the community, and that the synod is behaving like a developer rather than a religious organization.

“It’s ironic that they identify as Lutherans when you recall where Lutherans come from, what the 101 Lutheran theses actually were about, which was Martin Luther saying, ‘Hey, the Catholic Church is just kind of acting a whole lot like a business here and just about making money,’” Hook said. “And I would say that there’s a bit of a similar thing going on with the ELCA.”

According to Hook, the Church was not just a spot for religious worship, but a place for Greenpoint residents to gather, organize events and create a community space. Community members at the hearing gathered and shared their favorite stories and events over the years, including dance parties, Drag Queen Reading Hour, drives to give out free food and shelter as well as birthday parties for children.

Kaki King, a Greenpoint resident and the creator of a silent disco event at McGolrick Park, said at the hearing that there were many spaces for adults to hangout in the area, such as bars and restaurants, but almost none for children. According to King, the church was a place for her family to hangout in.

“Some of my happiest memories of raising my children are definitely from the inside of the park church and I truly hope that our words are heard and that something can be done to help the sale or in future events, you know, preserve the community spirit that is very strong in this in this community,” King said.

As the sale moves forward, this is a last-ditch effort to halt the process, according to Hook. Community members submitted a request for a hearing to the Attorney General’s office, and were approved by Assistant Attorney General Colleen McGrath, who wrote in a letter that Attorney General Letitia James had no objections to the sale but was open to hearing the dissenting voices of the community. According to McGrath, the sale is valid according to New York state law, so there could be no objection to the transaction on that front, but still wanted to raise the concerns of Greenpoint residents.

However, the Attorney General’s Charities Bureau has received a number of complaints objecting to the proposed sale of the Property due to its perceived negative impact on the Greenpoint, Brooklyn community, where the Property is located,” McGrath wrote.

GW Equities have not announced their plans for the church, but have several large-scale projects under their belts, including 13-story residential and commercial development in Downtown Brooklyn. Greenpoint Assemblymember Emily Gallagher said at the hearing that the church was affordable and accessible for all types of community members, and that Greenpoint had enough large developmental projects.

“We have quite a lot of luxury and high end housing that is being developed in this community that is not providing for the same number and diversity of people. So I’m here to ask you to think about justice, rather than nearly law, and see if we can preserve something that is such a vital space for our wonderful community,” Gallagher said. “We really do not have many free spaces in this community where people can meet and gather and have important discussions, especially in the long winter months.”

Other community members do not see the church sale as a loss. Stefan Rysek, a longtime Polish resident of Greenpoint, said that churches were valuable to the community, but did not oppose the residential project.

“People need some kind of mental help from the churches, for example, the Polish churches,” Rysek said. “You know what? I’m not against the apartments being built.”

Park Church had a declining congregation for years, a national trend as Gallup reported that church membership in the United States dipped below majority for the first time in 2021. Churches across the country are closing their doors because there are not enough people to create a significant congregation. Hook, who describes himself as allergic to religion, said that he understood the difficulties MNYS must have faced in keeping their parish open, but advocated for keeping the church as a secular community space.

“In fact, the problem that I will address tomorrow is that, you know, I acknowledge that the congregation itself was shrinking, at the end of the day they probably only had about 15-20 tiding congregations,” Hook said. “So I understand that it must have been a lot of trouble from that end. But the building simultaneously was thriving as a community center.”


Jeremy Hook speaking at the Park Church Hearing

Katie Denny Horowitz, Executive Director of North Brooklyn Park Alliance, speaking at the hearing.

Council member Lincoln Restler.

Fifth generation Greenpoint resident and community activist Kevin LaCherra.

Small Haitian Restaurant in Park Slope Continues to Beat the Odds

By Oona Milliken |

Edgina Desormeau, owner of Bonbon Lakay, a Haitian restaurant in Park Slope, said her business started as a side hustle in 2018 that she ran out of her apartment. Since then, Bonbon Lakay, which means “Homemade Treats,” in Haitian Creole opened in Park Slope in 2021 and has survived the COVID Omicron wave of 2022, two rounds of flooding, as well as the usual hurdles that small-business owners face.

Currently, Bonbon Lakay runs a Pay It Forward program to raise money for people who need free meals and to fundraise for other business expenses. Despite the difficulties of owning a small business, Desormeau said that her customers, as well as sharing Haitian food with New York City, means the world to her.

“Our customers continue to be so excited about our business, no matter what our menu looks like, no matter what our product offering looks like,” Desormeau said. “They really truly energize us. I’ll have a bad day, and then a customer will walk in and remind us why we started.”

Desormeau said she originally started selling wholesale Haitian goods like peanut butter, cookies, fudge, soda and crackers because she missed the foods she grew up eating. She was born and raised in Haiti, but moved to the United States when she was 11, and said she always knew that her work would be connected to the place she grew up in. After a trip to Cap-Haitien, often referred to as Okap, she said she was having difficulty finding the treats she loved as a child, and decided that she needed to do something about it. According to Desormeau, she started selling wholesale Haitian goods on top of her advertisement job until it became unfeasible.

“This business was taken over my apartment, like I would be blocking my neighbor’s doors with like 40 cases of peanut butter,” Desormeau said. “We really outgrew the space and it became this thing where it was like, ‘Okay, if I can’t get into a physical brick and mortar to do this right, to do this the way it’s supposed to be done, I don’t want to keep doing it.’”

Desormeau said the Pay It Forward program grew out of people coming in after the Omicron wave and asking for free food. According to Desormeau, Bonbon Lakay did what it could, but the restaurant was already low on resources from paying for the damages caused by floods and the losses incurred by the pandemic and did not always have the bandwidth to give food or goods away.

“As we’re coming out of Omicron, we’re getting this stream of people coming in asking for free food, and we did what we could give them free food, but at the end of the day, we’re a business, you know, we’re not a soup kitchen,” Desormeau said. “I was grabbing lunch with a friend in Manhattan, and this restaurant had a Pay It Forward board where any meal that you purchase, they would match and they would give a meal for free. I see this board, and I’m like, ‘This is an aha moment. Why not create our own Pay It Forward board?’”

Despite launching the board in May of 2020, Desormeau said that Bonbon Lakay did not promote the initiative until the end of 2022 into the beginning of 2023 when a customer suggested that Desormeau put the board online. From then on, Desormeau said the board became about simultaneously helping our neighbors who might need a free meal, but also about helping Bonbon Lakay stay in business.

“In looking at how 2022 unfolded for us and thinking about the year forward, there was a moment at the end of 2022 where I genuinely did not know if we would make it to 2023,” Desormeau said. “I’m like, ‘Okay, we’re finally going to put this on the website, we’re going to encourage people to pay it forward.’ And we’re going to be candid and say, ‘Hey, our pay forward board was initially born out of folks asking us for free food, and now it’s not only now a way for you to sponsor us to pay it forward, but it’s also pumping that much needed cash flow into the business.’”

Desormeau also launched Operation Soup Joumou at the end of 2022 to raise funds. Soup Joumou, a soup associated with Haitian Independence Day on January 1st, is symbolic to Haitian people as it was solely reserved for French slave masters in Haiti, off-limits for enslaved people. When Haitians gained independence in 1804, the soup became a way to celebrate a free Haiti, and the tradition continues to this day. Desormeau said the goal of Operation Soup Joumou and Pay It Forward was to raise $100,000, which Bonbon Lakay has still not managed to do. Still, Desormeau said the two initiatives managed to bring in new business and money, and Bonbon Lakay continues to survive. According to Desormeau, her customers make the struggles of keeping Bonbon Lakay open worth the effort.

“It’s always sweet and motivating to hear [customer’s] stories. We sell a cookie here called Bonbon Amidon. This older gentleman was telling me how he ordered Bonbon Amidon from us, and, this is an older man probably in his 40s 50s, he was telling me how he cried eating Bonbon Amidon,” Desormeau said. “To be completely honest with you, I have moments where I’m absolutely not hopeful and I’m ready to quit. Then a customer walks in and it makes me feel like it’s day one of the business all over again.”

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