Peace of the City: Living the Gospel

Pictured: (above) Mark and Diane Cerbone along with two students from their after school program.
Picture 2: Homework club Picture 3: Megan McClain Kwacz shares with high school students in after school training.

Article and Photos by Kyle Patterson   

The term “incarnational ministry” has become a buzz word in many Christian circles but for Mark and Diane Cerbone it’s something they’ve been living out for over 30 years, before it became a trend word in Christian ministry. The couple, along with their three daughters have spent the majority of their lives serving the under resourced of Buffalo’s West Side, a community known for its incredible diversity, a melting pot of cultures in Buffalo, but for those familiar with the area, also an area of incredible need and deeply under resourced.

     The ministry they founded in 1992, Peace of the City combines a biblical vision for social justice-- Jesus’s call to love your neighbor and the call to discipleship, explained Mark Cerbone on a recent visit to their ministry base within Our Lady of Loretta Ministry Center on 14th Street in Buffalo’s West Side. “Discipleship for me means all of you for all of your life. It’s not a young phase that you step out of when you get married or when kids come along. We believe in the notion of lifetime discipleship,” explained Mark. 

     The Cerbones, along with 12 year program director Megan McClain Kwacz have purposely made serving the West Side of Buffalo their life’s calling. “We understand clearly the limitations on folks however well intentioned who come in from the suburbs to paint some walls, operate a bounce house or paint faces. Those aren’t bad things, they’re inherently good things but where you sleep at night makes all the difference,” explained Mark. This approach has earned the Cerbones respect, ministry credibility and a voice that the West side community responds to and the results are showing. With over 100 youth going through their many programs offered Monday-Thursday, it’s their presence in and around Buffalo that helps their voice be heard. For Peace of the City though, it’s not about how many people they can get in their doors. Rather the approach they have purposely taken is one of depth and impact in an individual’s life. From literacy training to homework club to Shakespeare drama,  the ministry has had numerous success stories of lives changed and impacted through the work of their staff and dozens of volunteers. On my recent visit I met a woman who had been through the program as a young girl and now was back leading Homework Club, a division of the ministry’s outreach, a true testament to the program's effectiveness.
     Mark explained that all change starts with literacy which is why Peace of the City has focused on it for as long as the ministry has been around. Once literate, education can begin to take place, leading to employment, leading to renting an affordable apartment and finally leading to home ownership. It’s this vision for systemic change and breaking the  cycle of poverty and family patterns that have plagued Buffalo’s West Side for years that keeps the Cerbones and their team doing what they do. The ministry offers just about every program free of charge to the community. The bulk of their support comes from local churches who see the value of utilizing the arts and relational ministry that the team at Peace of the City engages in, to reach into the lives of these young people and change the course of their future. Their programs like Shakespeare Comes to 716, led by Megan McClain Kwacz  (who is also the daughter of Hamburg Wesleyan Pastor Greg McLain) has become incredibly successful with their annual community performances.
     Inspired in part by their own personal relationship with Ron Seider and Tony Campolo, the Cerbone’s have taken the road less traveled and it has made all the difference in their lives. From sending their kids to Buffalo Public Schools when their daughter was the only white girl in a class of 40 students, to co-parenting their children together, to making sure they didn’t sacrifice their family on what they call an “altar of ministry,” its these small steps and focus on the vision that has made the ministry successful for over 20 years. Incarnational ministry it turns out means much more than lip service or the occasional visit to the other side of the tracks, it means living out the gospel, every day.
     Now for the Cerbones, it’s mentoring and discipling the next generation of leaders. Those leaders include Megan who would never have dreamed that after her Wheaton College education she would be giving her life to urban ministry, but teaching theater and the arts is truly her passion and in the context of connecting people with their Creator, there is nothing better. She said, “There is nothing else that I would rather be doing than teaching theater to these kids, to whoever shows up tomorrow, there is nothing I would rather be doing.”
     For Diane, she keeps going because, ‘The need is still there. That which is good is never finished,” she explained. “We’ve built our lives around it, it’s where our kids go to school, it’s where we live, it’s what’s normal for us.”