Rev. David Behnke

Back in the day at Concordia College, you could easily catch David Benke on the basketball court. Today, David—who now goes by Rev. Dr.—can be found inside of or around St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Brooklyn, NY, where he has served as its pastor on and off for 42 years.

David, a 1966 alumnus, returned to campus earlier this year to be inducted into Concordia’s Athletic Hall of Fame. “I was a gym rat,” David said about his college years. “I played every night. I perfected my shot. I had a shot with no arch.

“I was the 16th guy on a 15-guy team,” David continued. “Coach said I was so close (after tryouts) that I should just stay.”

“Then, about six guys were out. All of a sudden I was on the team. I went from 16 to five in three weeks. One of my favorite games was against Milwaukee Lutheran. We were rivals and we beat them on their court. My wife now was at the game. She went to the same church as me. We were thinking about dating. So she came so see me play.”

While David made quite an impact on the courts during his youth, he also has made an immeasurable difference to urban families in the Brooklyn, NY, area—through his ministry at St. Peter’s; his leadership in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS); and his revitalization work in the neighborhood.

St. Peter’s congregation was and still is quite diverse, with many African American and Latino members, as well as immigrants from Caribbean nations, South America, Yemen, and Bangladesh, to name a few.  So David, who “took 40 Berlitz lessons” to learn Spanish, examined ways he could better minister to the people in his parish.

One of the first changes he made was to bring a Spanish service to the church. “That changed the whole game plan,” he said. In addition, “we sing the Lord’s Prayer in a big sanctuary circle holding hands, so they understand it’s a prayer of unity.”

David also did something not many pastors do. He made a rap video with the theme of ending homelessness. Watch the video here:

In 1991, David was elected as the president of the Atlantic District of the LCMS, which represents the eastern half of New York State. During his tenure, 9/11 happened and David found himself ministering to a community whose spirit had been crushed. He prayed during the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance in Yankee Stadium. “Today, this Field of Dreams has become God’s House of Prayer,” he said that day. “Take the hand of someone next to you.”

In 2001, following the events of September 11, David co-founded the Lutheran Disaster Response of New York, which provided $20 million to immigrants and others victimized by the terrorist attacks.

Be who you are where you are and see what happens. The rest is a God thing.

Prior to his service as the president of the Atlantic District, David and other area ministers gathered in a church basement in the 1980s to discuss the revitalization of the neighborhood, which had suffered in the 1960s and ’70s to abandoned and burned homes. These early discussions eventually led to more than 4,000 single family homes being built on formerly ravaged inner-city acreage through the Nehemiah Plan, which provided affordable housing to community members.

“It has changed the whole culture of those neighborhoods,” David said. “I used to say if east New York gentrifies, Jesus will return. So now I say, Jesus must own a condo over there.”

David, who started as a young, student-athlete at Concordia College, lives out our university mission; he has sought out a life of service to Christ in the Church and the world. From the basketball courts, to post 9/11 New York, to the neighborhoods surrounding his parish, David has changed lives.

His advice to current Concordia students results from his life’s journey: “Push the envelope. Find an edge and go to it. Don’t stay in the middle. You will find the depth of your commitment through struggle. You will find inner peace is invaluable. That will be what determines who you are. For me, that’s the grace of God. Don’t take the easy road. Play up. Play to the next level. I was taught that at Concordia. Stand on your principles. Be who you are where you are and see what happens. The rest is a God thing.”

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