Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Eastside series.
Residents of Kalamazoo’s Eastside often say they feel their small neighborhood is forgotten.
Tucked into one-square-mile off East Main and East Michigan, and situated in the hills, the neighborhood has more children under 18 per capita than any other in the city.
In 2006, Jerry and Molly Mechtenberg-Berrigan and Mike and Jen DeWaele, the two couples who run Peace House and who graduated together from Kalamazoo College in the 1990s, were looking for a Kalamazoo neighborhood to start their bold experiment of creating an intentional community inspired by the hospitality houses of the Catholic Worker Movement.
Many people they spoke with, including City Councilman Don Cooney, recommended the Eastside, an area that is often underserved.
So the two couples rented the “blue and purple house” on Phelps, and in 2009, after acquiring the blue house and the next door grey house, with a gift from the Sisters of St. Joseph, they officially opened their doors as Peace House. That was 10 years ago, and in that decade, Peace House has grown to include extra lots and an inviting woods. The couples have grown an orchard of apricot, apple, and peach trees, and a community garden. They've also built an enticing playground with a playground-grade basketball court.
Ask any youth who attends, Peace House is peaceful.
During the school year, the two homes rotate hosting an after-school program, opening their doors for two hours on four weekdays for homework help, snacks, and fellowship. One of those nights, a youth group of fifth grade and older convenes, and Youth Advisory Board of high school students meets once a month.
In the summer, Peace Host hosts an eight-week-long day camp that includes plenty of enrichment and outdoor activities.
The model is simple and based on nurturing relationships, but the spirit with which it’s offered is deeply rooted in the Catholic Worker ideal of helping to “build a society in which it is easier for people to be good.”
“The movement is based on the idea of living in community, working for peace and justice, living where the work is, and being part of the community so that it’s your own community that you’re lifting up,” says Mike Dewaele. “We are experimenting with how we can imagine a better world where justice is real, peace works, people are equal, a world where everyone is loved and has sufficiency in their emotional, physical and spiritual needs.”
In a neighborhood, like many of Kalamazoo’s that experience higher rates of poverty and transience, Peace House has been a stable, positive presence, and is spoken of throughout the community as a model of goodness and generosity of spirit.
“We do it because we believe our world needs more community that crosses out of our comfortable circle,” says Jen DeWaele, also a site coordinator for Communities in Schools in Kalamazoo. “We need to understand each other and support each other. Everyone needs to have the same kind of advantages and access that gets them where they need to be.”
“We really wanted to be part of a work for justice and peace,” says Jerry Mechtenberg-Berrigan, who is also self-employed as a licensed residential builder. “In doing this work, we’ve seen so many times that a different way of being together is possible. That the walls between people are not insurmountable. That there’s possibility.”
Second home for youth, families, volunteers
Peace House is nothing if not welcoming. Ask anyone who has entered its doors or magical grounds.
“I liken it to my old-fashioned memories of the house down the street where all the kids could go to and have a safe place to play,” says Pat Taylor, Director of the Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association. “But they took it to the next level with enrichment activities.”
Taylor mentions the chickens, the orchard, woods, and garden as conservation activities that urban youth often don’t have the opportunity to experience. “They are doing a lot of good things, staying really, really, really busy,” Taylor says. “They are definitely a pleasant, wonderful addition to the neighborhood. We’re very proud to have them as part of the Eastside.”
Gary Luckett, a junior at Kalamazoo Loy Norrix, has been coming to Peace House since he was seven. Now 16, Luckett is a member of the Youth Advisory Board and helps supervise the younger children.
Throughout the original blue house of Peace House, pairs of volunteers and youth are comfortably scattered.
Introduced to Peace House by a friend of his grandmother’s, Luckett was soon spending his summers at the day camp. “I started getting more invested, and thought, 'One day I want to work here,’” says Luckett. “I come here and I’m influenced by a whole bunch of good people. Jerry influenced me to do a bunch of stuff. This is like my second family.”
Jaleen Johnson, a sophomore at Kalamazoo Central High School, says that he likes how everyone gets along at Peace House. As a leader at Peace House, he says he’s often recognized in the neighborhood. “What they gave me rolls off on the kids,” says Johnson. “So once I leave, the younger kids have it now.”
“Our focus is on building relationships in the neighborhood,” says Molly Mechtenberg-Berrigan, a Restorative Justice Coordinator at Gryphon Place. “We don’t want to feel like an institution. We want to build relationships and build community, among everyone--the volunteers, the kids, the teens who help.”
Roshanda Stapleton, who lives on Phelps, has four children, ages 6 to 10, who regularly attend Peace House since she moved to the Eastside in 2017.
Since visiting Peace House, her children have improved their reading level, grades and communication skills, Stapleton says.
“When it comes to the Eastside of Kalamazoo, there’s not a lot in this area for kids to do,” says Stapleton. “The Peace House gives them something positive. It gives kids a place to go where they can have peace of mind and they don’t have to worry about all the other stuff going on in their neighborhood.”
Of the couples who run Peace House, Stapleton says, “They’re amazing. They’re not getting paid for this. There’s not a lot of people willing to take the time out to deal with someone else’s kids. They are truly a blessing for this community.”
The hospitality of Peace House extends to the volunteers. On school nights, it’s common to have around 15 to 20 youth, more when it’s warmer, and 5 to 7 volunteers, two Peace House adults, and two Youth Advisory Board members who supervise the younger kids during indoor and outdoor activities.
“When I heard about the Kalamazoo Promise, I really wanted to work with kids,” says Kathy Dickason, a longtime volunteer. “Working with Jen, Mike, Molly, and Jerry is such an inspiration—it’s love and generosity and caring and empowering. Each child comes with their own gifts and struggles, and here, they bring out the best in them, and they bring out the best in us, too.”
Ziarra Betts, 11, and her twin brother, Ziquan Betts, have been coming to Peace House since kindergarten. “They help us with homework. They encourage us to do good in school,” says Ziarra. “And the house is peaceful. All of the kids are calm. There’s no fighting. If a kid is having a bad day, Peace House will fix it for them.”
Bahiyyah Daniels, 17, a senior at Phoenix High School, also considers Peace House her “second family.” “If you feel like everything is bad at home, you can come here and talk and they find the help you need. It’s a place of safety and comfort. They support every kid with their dreams and help them reach their maximum potential.”
To offer enrichment, Peace House partners with a variety of organizations around the city, including Open Roads, Read and Write Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo Nature Center, Rootead and the Kalamazoo Public Library, among others. They received a grant from Kalamazoo Community Foundation and the Kalamazoo Friends Meeting to build the playground and backyard, and have received many local and national donations from individuals, businesses and faith communities.
“The Peace House spirit is awesome. They show a lot of positivity. They do stuff for the kids that makes them want to keep coming back,” says Luckett. “They spread a model of peace that makes the whole neighborhood feel peaceful.”
Peaceful Activism—becoming the change
The Catholic Worker Movement, led by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, started in 1933 in the middle of the Great Depression and is based on the principles of living simply, serving the poor, and resisting war and social injustice.
Kalamazoo artist Patrick Herschberger created this mural, located near the play structures and gardens, during a Peace House summer program. Photo by Nicholas Zastrow
“We got our start as peace activists, idealistic college students,” says Jerry Mechtenberg-Berrigan. “Those are really the roots for all of us. We really wanted to be a part of work for justice and peace. That undergirds and permeates the decisions we made and what we’re up to here.”
The couples chose the Peace House name in honor of the original Kalamazoo College Peace House where the former K students lived while part of the Nonviolent Student Organization and which gave them a taste for cooperative living.
“Our model of intentional community is that we are a group of people, not related to each other, who decided to create this group to explore interdependence and to accomplish work at Peace House that we wouldn’t be able to do on our own,” says Mike DeWaele.
Ten years since Peace House started, the couples have growing families, including Amos, 15, Jonah, 12, and Leah, 9, Mechtenberg-Berrigan and Clara, 12, and Alice, 9, DeWaele.
They are frequently called out of the neighborhood to soccer games, school activities, and recitals for which they often tag team, and they juggle jobs with their Peace House commitment.
“I think the more challenging part has been navigating our own families and kids with all this while they’re growing up,” says Molly Mechtenberg-Berrigan. “The challenge has been learning how to do it all and learning we have our limitations.”
Despite its challenges, the communal life is one for which both couples feel deeply called. Friends now for nearly half their lives, they have a deep bond with stores of memories, and the shared satisfaction of meaningful work.
“There really isn’t anything else that we want to do,” says Mike DeWaele. “And we get to do it because a lot of people let us do it. We’re really the lucky ones because we get to sit here in this big circle of love and support with kids that we love. And it’s a special kind of life because of them.”
To learn more about Peace House, visit their website peacehousekzoo.org
or Facebook Page
Photos by Eric Hennig, VAGUE photography unless otherwise indicated.