Issue: Fall/Winter 2012

To Love, Equip and Empower

Danielle Brenon '12 and Jeff Babbitt '96

“We never thought we’d be here this long,” reflects Mark Cerbone ’78.

In 1992, Mark and his wife, Diann, had moved to a farmhouse in Western New York for what they thought would be a one-year stay before returning to ministry in the Philadelphia area, the place where they met and where Mark had lived and served for several years.  “During the year,” Mark recalls, “every possible door to return closed quite unexpectedly.  We felt this was direction from above, and it became increasingly clear that we were called to stay. We located an apartment on a tough block in the West Side and have been there ever since, raising our children and in time buying a neglected house and bringing it back to life.”

Twenty years later, Mark and Diann are fully invested in their community and in Peace of the City Ministries, a faith-based non-profit in Buffalo’s struggling West Side.  Diann is founder and executive director, while Mark serves as development director for this multifaceted ministry with a mission of seeking to love, equip, and empower at-risk urban children and teenagers in the name of Christ.

For Mark, working with youth stems from a lifelong passion for relational ministry, a priority whose roots reach back to his college experience.  Houghton provided the ideal context for Mark to prepare for his future calling; his years at Houghton were fully lived and filled with servant-leadership, diverse involvement and transformative activism.

“As I drove away from Houghton, I wept over my very meaningful years in college,” he said. “They were mixed tears of joy and sadness. I knew that I was leaving behind a chapter of life that could never be repeated, yet there was a deep sense that my time at Houghton had been well-spent.”

One of Mark’s key contributions at Houghton was helping to form a student-led ministry called Body Life. This ministry was a fundamental precursor to a tradition known as Celebration, today called Koinonia, Houghton’s Sunday evening student-led worship gathering. Mark was also a vital member of a student group that replaced the traditional freshman “initiation” with a very different freshman “orientation.” Mark and fellow advocates designed and led an orientation that created a positive and welcoming atmosphere for incoming freshmen and transfers.

Mark’s active leadership at Houghton only hinted at what was to come. Two days after leaving Houghton, Mark’s parents dropped him off in inner-city Philadelphia to begin a two-year voluntary service term with the Mennonite Central Committee. He initially worked as personal assistant to rising Christian leader, speaker, author, and theologian Ron Sider.

During his time in Philadelphia, Mark was introduced to fellow Houghton grad Harry Thomas ’65, director of the then brand-new Creation outdoor festival. Mark volunteered his services, soon becoming Creation’s first-ever staff supervisor and worked closely with Thomas and festival producer Tim Landis to help plan 10 subsequent Creation festivals.

Amid his long journey of service and activism, Mark learned early on that authentic relationships and sustained effort are required to effect change; he has applied these principles to endeavors small and large, from co-parenting three daughters in an urban multicultural neighborhood to challenging the ruthless cycle of poverty on Buffalo’s West Side.

Motivated by Jesus’ call to “love your neighbor,” staff and volunteers at Peace of the City provide programs designed to equip young people in Buffalo with the skills, tools, values and motivation needed to succeed educationally, break the cycle of poverty and lead meaningful, productive lives, in time becoming positive role models in their schools and communities.

“We are trying to communicate to children and teenagers (and their families) that there’s a God who hasn’t forsaken them. God cares about the details and circumstances of their lives.”  This investment in individuals is exemplified by Tieza Jonas, 26, who currently directs the Homework Club, the very same program she attended as a six-year-old, one of the first students Mark and Diann befriended. “Perhaps the key factor in seeing Tieza reach this point in life has been God’s grace mediated to her through strong, long-term relationships,” said Mark. “Twenty years of faithful relationship through many ups and downs have provided abundant opportunities for God's love, forgiveness, acceptance and hope to be demonstrated to Tieza in word and action.”

Peace of the City emphasizes the transformative power of fully investing in individuals for the long haul.  “Simply having weekly Bible studies with kids, though laudable, isn’t enough.  Fruitful Christian ministry has to be holistic and in context.”  And the context for many on the West Side includes patterns ingrained in the generational poor: abuse, neglect, poverty, single parenthood and violence. “We’re very consciously a relationally based ministry,” reminds Mark. “We could double the numbers of kids in our programs, but then we run the real risk of losing touch with the realities of their lives. With that in mind, we limit our numbers to the degree we feel we can handle responsibly.”

In his role as development director, Mark sees himself as a “bridge” between Peace of the City, the West Side, greater Buffalo and Erie County. Building trust and durable relationships with volunteers, donors, political officials, ministry leaders and agency representatives is necessary in keeping the ministry vibrant and viable. 

Reflecting on two decades of ministry in the West Side, Mark doesn’t dwell on programs or fundraising events – he radiates love for his three daughters; his wife, faithful ministry partner for twenty years; the staff of Peace of the City, individuals who have committed their lives to service in Jesus’ name; donors and friends who support the ministry with finances and prayer; and especially for the hundreds – if not thousands – of young people, those seemingly cast off and forgotten, whose lives have been transformed for good, in the name of Christ.

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