NEW YORK — A New York City pastor who leads a congregation in a notoriously seedy neighborhood is determined to transform a shuttered strip club into their new church, and believes a recent witnessing opportunity outside the facility was a sign that God would be bringing "revival" to the city.
"I had an extraordinary conversation with this man who used to be a patron there. He said his life is just a wreck," Pastor Reggie Stutzman of Real Life Church told The Christian Post, relating a chance encounter he had recently with a driver outside of the Platinum Pleasures strip club in Hunts Point, located in NYC's Bronx borough.
The pastor and his congregation, which numbers 50-70 people, have been meeting for prayer every Tuesday evening on the club's sidewalk ever since Stutzman laid eyes on the "For Sale" banner strung across the building last month.
Just this past Tuesday, God sent a sign, Stutzman believes, that He has heard their prayer and that it was only a matter of time before Platinum Pleasures becomes a sacred space.
The sign came in the form of a man named Michael who was behind the wheel of a BMW and took notice of the prayer meeting.
"I saw him make a U-turn in the street and honk his horn and roll his window down. He asked if the club was still open, and I said, 'No, I'm putting my church in here.'"
When invited to sit in Michael's car, Pastor Stutzman, who worked previously as director of chapel and compassionate care at NYC's Bowery Mission for 10 years, complied.
"I got in the car with a stranger and just began to just talk to him about the Lord, and all of a sudden he just begins to weep," shared Stutzman, adding that the man accepted Jesus into his life right then and there.
Stutzman added that "he was coming to go to the club but when he saw me there, God just opened his heart. It was an incredible night, you [could] just feel the presence of God in his car."
Not only was it "an incredible moment" for the Assemblies of God pastor, but, as far as he is concerned, it was "a confirmation" that God, too has His sights set on Platinum Pleasures.
"God is bringing the prodigals home and He's going to use this club and Real Life Church to be a part of the big picture, that revival is coming to NYC. It's exciting," said Stutzman.
Hunts Point, located in the southern part of the Bronx, is not only one of New York City's' oldest neighborhoods, but also one of its most dangerous. A 2012 report ranking NYC's most dangerous areas notes that despite efforts to cut down on violence and crime, it has remained a challenge for Hunts Point to kick its "pretty horrible reputation for prostitution in particular and crime in general."
According to Rafael Salamanca, the Hunts Point Community Board's district manager, the main force driving criminal activity were the strip clubs in the mostly-industrial area.
But where there used to be four strip clubs, now there are none, with Platinum Pleasures being the last to go after having failed to keep patrons interested as a topless juice bar upon losing its liquor license last year.
"We were able to get rid of all strip clubs that had liquor licenses in the Hunts Point area in the last two years," Salamanca told CP. He credited partnerships with elected officials who helped convince the state liquor authority to revoke and cancel the topless entertainment bars' licenses. The hard work has paid off, he added, as Hunts Points has become a safer place.
"Having these clubs in Hunts Point, they were creating the atmosphere of violence, prostitution and crime," he added. "In getting rid of these establishments, definitely crime has decreased. The fighting, shootings, the stabbings that were coming out of these clubs, has decreased."
"The police resources that were being put there to avoid this violence, now these resources have been put throughout the district to address other quality-of-life issues that the district has. That should be the case with the police department, they should be addressing our quality of life, not playing security guards for these clubs because they cannot control their customers after-hours," said Salamanca.
Based on the community's efforts over the years, it appears likely that Mr. Wedge, the lone remaining bikini bar in town, has its days numbered.
Stutzman, who launched Real Life Church with this wife in Hunts Point in 2010 and has lived in New York City for the last 17 years, said that although the area was "slowly coming up," "getting better" and becoming gentrified, the heavily low-income neighborhood was still known as "the armpit of the Bronx."
Despite grassroots movements, the creation of jobs, and the renovation of parks, Stutzman admitted that Hunts Points still has a ways to go in shedding the "negative overtones that it's had for generations."
As for Real Life Church, Stutzman said he believes that finally having a church home after four years will empower members to do even more for the community, such as provide an after-school program. Members have been holding Sunday services at the Hunts Point Recreational Center and doing outreach work, like feeding thousands annually with a Thanksgiving meal and hosting vacation Bible school every summer, which last year saw 60 kids out of 500 get baptized.
While noting the ethnic, social and economic diversity of his modest congregation, Stutzman said he hoped to raise the $300,000 needed to take over the lease for Platinum Pleasures from various sources. So far, he has raised about $20,000, half of that figure donated by a family friend, and with the help of a Go Fund Me crowdfunding campaign.
But until Felix Cuesta, who is reportedly behind on his rent payments for the shuttered strip club, produces a copy of the lease, Stutzman's fundraising efforts might continue to drag.
"We have major donors outside of New York that are bought into the vision and want to see this happen, but you can't just hand over that kind of money unless they see that this is a viable transaction," the pastor explained, noting the difficulty he has been having with Cuesta of late.
When CP called Cuesta and inquired about the sale of the strip club and Pastor Stutzman's interest in making the purchase, he declined to comment.
Behind on his rent, his liquor license gone, and failing to keep business with a topless juice bar means, for Stutzman, that it is only a matter of time before the "Platinum Pleasures" sign comes down, and another rises, reading "Real Life Church."
But in addition to the money he needs to actually make the purchase, Stutzman needs a favorable vote from his fellow Community Board 2 members.
"Our community board hasn't taken a position as to what they would like on that piece of property," said Salamanca, the board's district manager. "There's been conversations on a church, there's been conversations on a recreation center, a restaurant. So I cannot officially comment as to what the Community Board would like there."
Salamanca, who has been living in Hunts Point for all of his 33 years, commended Stutzman and Real Life Church's work in the community.
"He has a great church, they do great work, that you have to give him credit for," said Salamanca, adding that he and Pastor Stutzman have talked about the strip club possibly becoming a church. He repeated, however, "I work on behalf of the community board so since they haven't voted on it or taken a position, I can't officially say what we'd like at that location."
Stutzman and his Real Life Church members, meanwhile, in addition to their monthly street outreaches, have been strategizing with the local precinct to target the top five "hot" buildings in the community that attract a lot of crime.
He said the church plans to "kind of adopt these buildings, and love these people, win these people over to the Lord." While mentioning that there were other churches in Hunts Point, Stutzman said most of these houses of worship were "very quiet, very to themselves."
"One church has a chain-linked fence with barbed wire around it, that's kind of been the body language of church in the community for a long time."
Stutzman, who said he does not mind the potential stigma of worshiping God in a former place of debauchery, said he was thankful to have gone without a building for so long, as it "kind of forced us to be out" in the community.
But "in order to further the Gospel and do more for the community, it's time that we take this building," he added.