Leslie Ademuyiwa arrived in the United States on Oct. 10, an asylum seeker from Nigeria. Now here he was, just 48 days later, sitting down in Hunts Point for what he sees as the ultimate American holiday.
“This is the first time I am able to experience American spirit — big hearts, thanksgiving sharing, caring for the community no matter what their race is or where they come from,” said Ademuyiwa, who learned English in primary school in Nigeria. He sat by himself, tall but slightly hunched over his food with a stern look that belied what he was feeling. “I’m so happy.”
Ademuyiwa walked from the Father Smith Shelter on Hoe Street to the sixth annual Thanksgiving celebration hosted by Real Life Church at The Point on Thanksgiving Day. With 180 registered volunteers from all parts of the tri-state area, food provided by the The Bowery Mission served over 800 people in just five hours. The few pans of leftovers were taken to a shelter at the former Capri Whitestone Motel.
Residents of Morris Park for 18 years, Pastor Reggie Stutzman and his wife, Ibelsa Stutzman, started Real Life Church in 2009, and started a not-for-profit organization, The Prodigal Center, just a few months ago. Their goal is to bring more resources to Hunts Point and West Farms, such as a mobile food pantry and monthly breakfast club, for those in need. The couple’s Thanksgiving event is a reminder to them and their volunteers that there’s a reason to keep doing what they do.
“You don’t even realize the needs that people have until you have an experience like this,” Stutzman said.
Songs of praise and celebration could be heard down the block from The Point during the feast. Children ran around gathering soda to bring home; juice was spilled and quickly cleaned up; one child scooted around on his tricycle, bumping into chairs and tables; groups of friends, families and acquaintances gathered in large groups sharing stories over their meals. Volunteers in plastic aprons stood in line to fill plates with turkey, stuffing, mash potatoes, gravy, peas and carrots, cranberry sauce and provide table service to all the diners; pumpkin pie was saved for the finale.
In a separate room, volunteers organized a clothing pantry available to all to prepare for the looming winter. Next door, bags of toiletries and bundles of new socks were stacked on a table for all.
In Nigeria, Ademuyiwa was a Lagos State University graduate and worked for 10 years in customer service at Skye Bank. He left to avoid persecution for being homosexual. It took one year between Nigeria, Dubai and back to Nigeria to receive his visa to the United States.
Ademuyiwa hopes he won’t have to stay in the shelter system for too long, but has not yet secured a job.
“I only have $6,” he said. “When the immigration lawyers call me, it’s a very important appointment. That’s what I save my $6 for — a Metrocard. If I am looking for a job online and they ask me to come, I don’t have money. It’s a setback.”
Deborah Luke, a single mother of five, recalled her Thanksgiving of just one year ago. She had left her one-bedroom space at a shelter to buy mac and cheese for her children. When she returned, she discovered that police had taken all five children to foster care for leaving them unsupervised.
This year, Luke was thankful to be working at a daycare facility and living in an apartment in Hunts Point with all of her children. At The Point last Thursday, Luke was seated with her friend who invited her to the Thanksgiving feast, her youngest and only daughter, 4, along with her twins, 6, and eldest son, 7. The boys finished their meals and ran around searching for nutcracker ornaments and more pie to bring home. Her daughter remained by her side the entire time with a smile.
The New York City Department of Homeless Services estimates that about 3,000 people sleep on the streets each night. There are almost 60,000 people in homeless shelters in the city; about 14,500 of those are families. In Hunts Point, according to the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, the rate of families entering homeless shelters is the second highest in the city.
Community Board 2 has invited The Prodigal Center to work alongside Baldor to give away 500 boxes food that feed a family of four on Dec. 19. “There are so many people in our community who are still hurt and still lost and I want to be a part of that solution in helping,” Stutzman said. “The community is the greatest weapon to combat injustices — things that are awry in our communities whether its homelessness, crime, or hunger.”
Ademuyiwa knows there will be a day when he will have more than $6 in his pocket. “Once I’m able to get what I want — get everything in shape, get a job, move out,” he says, “all this will be a story.”