Blake Comer walks down Manhattan Avenue in New York City and seems perfectly at home. He points out the Polish baker, the Polish grocery and the signs with Polish names. He steps into his favorite doughnut shop where the staff welcome him as a regular.
BSC photo by Mike Creswell
The plan is to have no exit strategy, Blake Comer said of planting a church in Brooklyn.
“You can hear Polish spoken about anytime you’re in here,” he says as he perches on a stool at a counter fronting racks filled with thick, serious doughnuts.
“This place was named as one of the nation’s best doughnut shops,” he brags before the waitress takes his order.
Now, this neighborhood that is Comer’s new home is not in Manhattan.
Manhattan Avenue is one of the main streets running through Greenpoint, Brooklyn, across the East River from Manhattan’s skyscrapers. Here, few Greenpoint buildings soar taller than three or four floors; incomes and rents are also lower this side of the river. Neighborhoods here are famously made up of many immigrants from Poland.
But this is New York, and there are many ethnic groups.
The tallest building nearby is St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church, a few blocks down. Poles tend to be Catholic, at least in background.
Despite his understanding and positive thoughts about Greenpoint, Comer and his wife, Laura Beth, only moved here last December. Their roots are in the Carolinas.
Ask Comer where he is from, and, like many people do these days, he hesitates in answering. His parents live in Winston-Salem, so his Tar Heel connection is ongoing.
Born in South Carolina, he also lived in Burlington and Goldsboro in North Carolina. During the Burlington years, he completed grades one through six and was a member of Holly Hill Baptist Church, led by then-pastor Steve Hardy, who recently served with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina’s Great Commission Partnership office. Moving to New York seems like a big move for a Carolinas resident. But the move was for a huge purpose: They have come to start a new church.
Asked why, Comer answers in a couple of ways. First, he has been moving on an eight-year faith journey that led here. God called him to start a church before he completed Anderson University in Anderson, S.C., in 2007. He served as a pastoral intern and youth pastor with a congregation in Columbia, S.C., to gain experience, all along preparing to plant a church.
After a visit to New York, talking to many people, mentors and peers and doing lots of research, he felt led here to Brooklyn’s northernmost neighborhood of Greenpoint.
“We have prayed through this and talked a lot,” Comer said. “We have tried hard to pursue what the Lord was calling us to do.”
Getting endorsed by the North American Mission Board (NAMB) was a big help. At this point, Comer is called a church-planting intern. He and his family were able to live in New York in NAMB’s David Dean House almost rent-free for several months as they settled in and adjusted.
The Comers were fortunate to find a small apartment for them and their two children; there’s even a small backyard, a rare luxury in New York. Comer waits tables at an upscale Manhattan restaurant to help cover the achingly high expenses that go with living here. A pastor friend helped him find the job, which leaves his weekends and evenings free. He’s also doing an internship at a church in Manhattan, and the family is attending an area church until they get a new one started.
Comer walks from Manhattan Avenue toward the East River, passing brownstone houses with steps down to the sidewalk just like in countless movies and TV shows.
He points to an abandoned church building that once was an independent Baptist church; it’s now just a place for rent. There is an urgent need for new churches in Greenpoint, Comer said, where some 40,000 people live.
He lists five Catholic churches and a few others in town, but “only one or two healthy evangelical churches.”
Further, the area is growing. Over the next five years, new housing high-rises are projected to be built in the former industrial/warehouse area alongside the East River. The new housing is expected to draw another 10,000 to 20,000 people.
“Once again, the workers are few, and the harvest is plentiful,” Comer said quietly.
He and his family are settling in for the long haul, figuring that’s what it will take to start a church. He likens their commitment to early New World settlers who burned their ships to make sure they stayed put in their new home.
“We don’t have an exit strategy,” Comer said. “Here, if you have an exit strategy, you’ll use it.
“Our goal this year is to start a weekly Bible study in our home. At this point, we’re inviting people to dinner or brunch, serving pancakes and grits. We’re being intentional and trying to move slowly. We have no illusions of putting up a steeple and people immediately coming in.”
As Comer heads back off toward home, one gets the idea that he’s not just seeing the Greenpoint streets. He’s already seeing a new church, welcoming people not just to a new community, but to a new church – and ultimately, into the Kingdom of God.