Several decades ago in the Bronx, a borough of New York City, says Hyacinth (Banks) Stevens, God was shaping her heart. She was becoming a youngster who shared Jesus in the inner-city streets near her congregation, the former Burnside Mennonite Church.
At the same time in the neighboring borough of Manhattan, says Benjamin Stevens, God was shaping his heart as well. He was developing into a youngster who grew in his walk with God and was baptized at the former Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church.
Their hearts for God intersected when they became adolescent campers at Camp Deerpark, a ministry of the New York City Council of Mennonite Churches in upstate New York. After meeting as campers when they were 12, they later served together as teenagers and young adults for a decade.
In 1998, their friendship blossomed into courtship, and they married in 1999. Today Benjamin and Hyacinth Stevens are co-pastors of King of Glory Tabernacle (formerly Burnside) and parents of four children, ages 4 through 13.
The 40-year-olds have transitioned from being children of the city’s leaders to leaders of the city’s children. Today they are helping lead the next generations of urban Mennonites as they apply in adulthood what formed them earlier, they said during an April telephone interview.
Hyacinth was influenced by an intentional Christian community led by her parents, Michael and Addie Banks, longtime Mennonite leaders in the city. “There was lots of crime and negativity in our neighborhood, and I was perplexed with questions about this,” she said. “But my Christian community taught me to not look through eyes of desperation and hopelessness but through eyes of hope for peace, reconciliation and change.”
She grew up in a Christ-centered, process-oriented community. “If something was going on socially, politically and spiritually, we sat around the dinner table to talk and pray about it,” she said. “We had Bible studies, community building sessions and worship that focused on the empowerment of God for positive renewal. My father was instrumental in helping us take our peace witness to the streets.”
As a result of those prayer walks, the sections of heavy drug activity in the nearby city blocks began to shrink some. “It did not change overnight, but it did change,” she said. “These blocks had heavy gang violence and drug activity. We bathed this area in an invisible circle of prayer and created outreaches for youth, such as a baseball team.”
At this same time, Benjamin was growing up at Seventh Avenue, now Infinity Mennonite Church. It’s where as a young child he attended Head Start, a program sponsored for small children in the church. His strong values today regarding the importance of family, church family and positive nurturance were shaped by the close proximity of the church family with his family, he said.
For example, a couple of his teachers were friends with his mother and grandmother, who lived across the street from the church.
“Everyone who knew my grandmother knew my brothers and sisters and me,” he said. “I was surrounded on all sides by my church family and my biological family, and there was always someone watching out for me and giving me some type of guidance. There was a huge circle of connection of love that helped ground me and shaped my development. That plays a big a part in my having something to pass on to others today.”
Growing together at Camp Deerpark
This circle of security gave Benjamin the confidence to branch out to Camp Deerpark, an important stepping stone into pastoral leadership, he said. Camp is where he and Hyacinth were mentored by Ken Bontrager, the camp’s longtime executive director. For a couple of decades, he’s shaped the camp into a conduit for developing new leaders in the city. That required taking risks, he said during a February interview.
“I was questioned about the amount of responsibility I gave these young people,” Bontrager said. “But I felt strongly that unless we allowed them to sink or swim, they would never discover what they could really do. If we wanted to have strong leaders, we needed to let them practice here. It was amazing how when we gave more than they could handle, they stepped up to the plate.”
Benjamin and Hyacinth stepped up to the plate. They began as assistant cabin counselors and later became head counselors. Benjamin later led Bible studies and activities and painted a mural on a 12-foot wall for the challenge trail. At 17, Hyacinth was summer drama instructor—a job normally given to young adults in their mid-20s. She also served as a discipleship leader, summer program director and year-round program director. Today she is on the camp’s board, and she and Benjamin serve as camp pastors and do staff training.
“Camp is where God called me into leadership long before I knew what the word really meant,” Hyacinth said. “The many opportunities molded me, gave me experience in and exposure to ministry and freedom for trial and error. If I didn’t get it right the first time, it became a teachable moment. Ken created a guided space where he and others could speak into our journeys and influence us in learning to respond to God’s grace and to desire and practice deeper discipleship.”
Benjamin said he was constantly pushed at camp to do things he felt beyond him. “The first time I was asked to do Bible classes, I hesitated,” he said. “But I was told there was not a perfect formula for doing things. God simply asked that I be who he created me to be and that he would do the rest.”
Camp’s formation helps couple form others
Today they continue to value and practice leadership development in their co-pastorate—begun in 2008—at King of Glory, a congregation with 80 members, many of them African-American. The co-pastors encourage camp participation and sponsor mentoring programs for children, young people and young adults that include life-skills development, spiritual formation and service opportunities.
“It’s important to us to give back all we’ve been given,” Hyacinth said. “Having so many opportunities to develop new leaders keeps us committed to serving as pastors in the city despite the challenges. Part of that is encouraging camp attendance with our families—even with families who are not regular attenders at church.”
When kids come home from camp, they flounder in connecting their positive spiritual experience in the mountainous pastoral setting with the day-to-day urban grind. “We emphasize the importance of being missionaries right in their own back yard—either going back to camp to work or serving in the city,” she said. “We help them see that serving at camp and church is just as much a part of doing missions as is going overseas.”
Benjamin and Hyacinth also strive to help campers move on to become camp counselors. That helps supply camp with qualified staff members who are members of the urban churches.
“These counselors come back to continue the relationship with the campers through social media and in one-on-one relationships,” Hyacinth said. “They become ongoing ambassadors, bridges and role models.”
Benjamin believes young people are more likely to remain in the church when they engage in ministry, such as helping out with Sunday school or the worship team and have one-on-one mentors.
“None of this is instant,” he said. “It depends on building the relationship over time.”
The couple is challenged in juggling the mentoring of young people with parenting their growing family, they said. “Our commitment to leadership development begins at home,” Benjamin said. “It’s a balancing act, giving as much attention to our own children as we give the church. We try not just to bring them to church because we are here but to help them find their own joy in coming, serving and building relationships.”
Hyacinth said, “I am really grateful for the modeling of my own parents. They taught me about the Bible and about Jesus and their own convictions, but then they let me do my own faith journey. They introduced me to Christianity but emphasized that it was my personal relationship to Christ. It was not about rules but about relationship. I want to convey this to our children.”
Mentors seek mentoring
To replenish their energies after mentoring their congregation and their family, Benjamin and Hyacinth seek ongoing support from fellow leaders in the New York City Council of Mennonite Churches. It consists of 18 congregations (African-American, Latino, Anglo, Garifuna or a mixture) that belong to Lancaster Mennonite Conference (LMC) or Atlantic Coast Conference.
Two of those leaders are Sylvia Shirk, who has served as pastor of Manhattan (N.Y.) Mennonite Fellowship for eight years, and Monroe Yoder, who is bishop emeritus for LMC and in 2015 will have provided 50 years of leadership in the city.
“Benjamin and Hyacinth are no longer the youngsters they once were,” said Shirk in an April telephone interview. “Longstanding leaders in the city remember them when they were kids at camp. But now they are fully functioning adults who are raising four children while serving in an important ministry. They are grownups doing some really good work.”
As one of Hyacinth’s mentors, Shirk has a front-row seat to the flowering of her leadership. For example, Shirk served as a reference for Hyacinth in the interviewing process with Mennonite Central Committee. MCC recently hired her as the part-time NYC program coordinator.
“Hyacinth has built up a lot of credibility with her work with Camp Deerpark and with mentoring young people at King of Glory,” Shirk said. “Some of those young people have gone to do some amazing things. She is also serving on the boards of Camp Deerpark and Mennonite Women USA. She is branching out from the city into a wider sphere of ministry.”
Yoder has served as a longtime mentor for Benjamin. The retired bishop knew him as a little boy and became part of his faith development as a teenager and young adult.
Yoder serves with Benjamin on the New York City Council of Mennonite Churches, for which Benjamin became moderator in June.
“He was very active with the youth group and sang with the youth choir and was very faithful and dedicated,” says Yoder, who at one time was Seventh Avenue’s pastor.
“I remember how when Benjamin said he’d be there at a certain time, he was there. He was always zealous to learn, and he developed his own opinions and convictions rather readily and easily and was always ready to defend them.”
Those same qualities are operating today. “Benjamin does his own thinking and calls us to task sometimes when we need it,” Yoder says. “When he wants to make a point, he does it graciously. I see him as a real budding church statesman. I once knew him as a little kid, and now he is a mature, brother gentleman. He is also a good, sensitive father who knows his children.”
When Yoder preached at Benjamin and Hyacinth’s installation service a couple of years ago at King of Glory, he felt like he was passing the baton of spiritual leadership to the next generation.
“I am so confident we are handing leadership into capable hands that will carry and protect it well,” he said. “Because I see the dedication and capability of these younger leaders, and their desire to allow the grace of God to work within them and to mold and shape them, I can sleep peacefully at night.”
The dance of God
It is this “dance” of cooperating with God’s grace that continually renews the couple’s love for God, for each other and for their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, they said. Hand in hand, they are facing the urban challenges along with others in their generation, including Moises Angustia, youth pastor at United Revival Mennonite Church, a Spanish congregation in neighboring Brooklyn. He and the couple have mentored some young adults who are becoming the latest crop of new leaders.
“In the last four years, leadership in some pockets of New York City has been undergoing a shift, as new leaders emerge,” Hyacinth said. “All that focus on leadership training by Ken and my father has cycled back around. The seedlings that were planted are now maturing.”
When God planted the tender seedlings of faith in Benjamin and Hyacinth, they did not yet know that they would eventually partner together with God in the tough call of urban mission. This partnership of grace is the glue that holds them together and keeps them moving together.
“It’s like a dance” Hyacinth said. “At times we step differently, but we try to step together. It has taken time to learn the different approaches we’ve brought to ministry. But we’re finding our balance, as we respect and value each other and our different gifts and strengths. We are allowing ourselves to submit to each other.”
Benjamin said, “I have learned it is a dance in which sometimes I take the lead and Hyacinth follows, and then other times, she takes the lead and I follow. What keeps me serving in the city is being able to do all this with Hyacinth. It can be very tiring, and there are times I just want to lay down. But I get up and keep going, because I have a wonderful wife to do all this with.”
Laurie Oswald Robinson is a free-lance writer in Newton, Kan., and the author of Forever Family.