Church that fed Longwood’s poor evicted

Word of Life International

Parishioners and supporters of Word of Life International rally to keep the church and pantry from being evicted from their Westchester Ave. building on August 5.

Popular pantry locked out by nonprofit owner of building

A popular Longwood church with a history of feeding Hunts Point’s poorest has been evicted from its storefront location, touching off a heated dispute between the pastor and the prominent non-profit organization that owns the building.

On July 8th Reverend John Odu-Okon arrived to conduct a service at Word of Life International Ministries at 813 Westchester Ave., only to discover that he couldn’t get in. The U.S. Marshal’s office had seized the church’s ground floor space. Odu-Okon says the Osborne Association, a citywide program to help formerly incarcerated adults, that both owns the building and has an office in it, did not give him his early July mail containing the eviction notice that had been addressed to the church until after the court’s imposed deadline to fight the eviction.

Reverend Odu-Okon argued that claims to discredit the church are part of the landlord’s cynical ploy to taint Word of Life’s reputation and get him out so it can raise the rent.

“Should we be evicted when we had no opportunity to go to court?” said the reverend.

The Osborne Association declined to comment for this story, siting the ongoing civil court case.

When it was open, the church’s pantry fed more than 12,000 people a month, the pastor says. Hungry people regularly lined up all the way to a nearby McDonald’s for a hot meal. The church also provided clothing and helped residents with job searches and AIDS screening and support.

But last spring, the health department began conducting regular inspections of Word of Life, in response to complaints by the Osborne Association that the church had a rat infestation and was serving tainted food, some of which it stored in a faulty refrigerator. As a result of the inspections, the church’s two biggest donors, City Harvest and Food Bank, cut off funding.

Odu-Okon contends he replaced the refrigerator as soon as he found out it wasn’t working properly and sealed holes where the rats might get in.

“Restaurants get violations all of the time. They don’t get shut down,” he said.

City Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo, a longtime advocate of the church’s mission to feed the poor, recently stopped providing funding.

“I’ve been a supporter for a long time,” said Arroyo. “It’s amazing the number of people they’re serving. But the concern surrounding the program forced me to not continue funding.”

The health department violations made it impossible for her to persuade her colleagues on the council to continue backing her in that support, she said.

Odu-Okon said he began extensively renovating the space as soon as he moved in from the church’s previous Prospect Ave location in 2013. But as soon as he was finished and ready to begin welcoming parishioners, there were signs of trouble. First, he contends, The Osborne Association began sending him monthly gas bills of more than $10,000, a huge jump from the $3,000 monthly bills he’d been paying until then, for reasons he couldn’t understand.

Then in June 2014, he received the first eviction notice for non-payment of rent. A court ruled in the church’s favor. Then in April of this year, he was served with a second eviction notice. Again, a civil court judge let the church stay.

That’s when the landlord changed strategy, said Odu-Okun, by withholding his mail with the eviction notice so the church wouldn’t have time to fight it. He added that Osborne has also tried intimidation methods to get the church out, citing an incident last Easter when Osborne’s director of facilities used a sledgehammer to break down the church’s door during a service after his knocks went unanswered.

Word of Life International

Residents congregate to look for hand-me-downs.

The food pantry is a key contributor to stability in the neighborhood, its supporters contend, in part because free meals help deter hungry young kids from shoplifting and sliding into the juvenile justice system.

“It discredits all of the good work they do,” said District Manager Rafael Salamanca of Community Board 2. “As landlords, they’re greedy.”

“They want anything they can charge more for,” said parishioner Joyce Sun. “People depended on this place to survive,” she added, her voice quavering with emotion.

“I don’t have a way to feed my family now,” said Guillermo Brathwaite, who is unemployed and spends his days volunteering at the church. “Isn’t the Osborne mission statement to help the underserved?”

Brathwaite wryly quipped that The Osborne Association may want poor people like him to commit crimes and go to jail so they can qualify for its services.

Udo-Okon has filed a motion with the court to try to have the most recent eviction order reversed.

Supporters continue to show up to support their church. On a Friday in August, a group rallied outside the church’s shuttered doors. The following Tuesday, they barbecued in the rain. As the pastor handed out hotdogs on Styrofoam plates, he said, “They can try to kick us out, but they can’t crush our spirits.” He says the Osborne Association told the court that the church owes $50,000 in back rent and other unpaid bills—-a claim he and his wife deny.

“It’s a lie from the pit of hell,” said Felicia Odu-Okon.

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