The Mind-Blowing Love of God
Reggie and Ibelsa Stutzman minister to people in Hunts Point, an neighborhood in the Bronx mired in poverty and sin, but God is making His presence felt.“When we first came to Hunts Point in 2010, the first pimp we met was a missionary’s kid, and the prostitute working with him was a pastor’s kid,” says Reggie Stutzman, U.S. missionary with Intercultural Ministries, and his wife, Ibelsa. “Clearly there is a problem here.”
Hunts Point, a neighborhood within the Bronx of New York City, was a haven for New York’s elite prior to World War I. But after the war, this privileged status came to an abrupt halt, and in present day almost half the population lives below the poverty line, wracked by drugs, prostitution, and every other vice.
It has one of New York City’s fastest growing migrant populations and one of the largest Hispanic populations, with Reggie estimating that 90 percent of Hunts Point residents hail from across the Spanish-speaking world.
Reggie says, “In these urban contexts, everyone thinks of guns, gangs, drugs. Yet there are also many who are hardworking, love their families, and want to have a good community. Hunts Point is known as an armpit of the city. People want out, but poverty mentality keeps them in. People want the latest and greatest iPhones but are not meeting their own basic needs. It’s a mess.”
Reggie goes on to state the key question for their work: How can the realities of the strong, restoring love of Jesus be shown to people? This can be a nuanced concept for believers, he says, but must be carried out in reality.
THE “CRUSTY PLACES’’
In 2017, Reggie and Ibelsa founded The Prodigal Center, a nonprofit feeding and clothing agency that serves Hunts Point based out of an old mechanic shop. For five years they have been able to use the facility rent free, which is a miracle, particularly in New York City. While the warehouse they work in has no power, water, or climate control, Refugio, the mechanic next door, shares those resources from his facility when needed, helps unload food deliveries, and more, consistently refusing any compensation.
Every Tuesday, the center comes alive, serving its neighbors with methodically organized groceries and clothing.
As the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged New York City in 2020, The Prodigal Center never once closed, serving over 30,000 people that year. In 2023, the number of people served has averaged about 3,000 per month. The NYC Food Bank, United Way, and World Vision have all partnered with Reggie and Ibelsa on one occasion or another, and the industrial shelving lining their facility was donated by a man Reggie knew in Manhattan, whom he helped break free from alcoholism.
“What happens at The Prodigal Center proves to me more and more that God doesn’t need a cathedral,” Reggie says. “Give Him an abandoned mechanic shop and He will do wonderful things. We don’t like to go to the crusty places, but God is already there.”
Serving in Hunts Point, the Stutzmans know that things can get intense at a moment’s notice. They remember one day when a transgender prostitute in need of women’s clothing visited the center. “As we helped him and then prayed for him, he suddenly fell to the floor and began slithering around, clearly manifesting demonic influence,” Reggie says. He and Ibelsa continued to pray. Eventually their visitor came to his right mind, began crying, and left the center.
Ibelsa says, “From the trans prostitute to the immigrant, the love of God supersedes all. Most people know who God is but have never seen Him. At the center we work to build trust with whoever attends and show them the Lord in action.”
“We must feel the love of God for people flowing through us,” Reggie agrees. “I feel that very strongly when working at the center.”
THE QUAD AND BEYOND
Buried deep in Hunts Point is the Quad, a small rectangular plaza amid apartment buildings that is a well-known area hub for drug activity. Reggie and Ibelsa have made a point to become known in the Quad and to the surrounding residents, even hosting children’s outreaches there, letting kids hear good music, feel the love of Christ, and even receive Christmas toys. In these contexts, many Hunts Point children have accepted the Lord.
One summer afternoon, a resident of the Quad remarks about Reggie, “He does a lot of good things here. He brings joy to the kids. We can’t wait to see him again.”
The Stutzmans have held many other such outreaches around Hunts Point, both for adults and for children, including a skateboard outreach, outreaches to strip clubs (at one such event a dancer left the pole upon hearing she could go get a free Bible), night outreaches, and more. They are such recognized figures in the community that even drug dealers will announce their presence at certain locations, calling out, “The reverend is here!”
For about five years before the pandemic, Reggie and Ibelsa hosted regular events called No Stage, No Mic, Just Him. Each event attracted between 300 and 400 people who gathered on a main neighborhood thoroughfare, which was shut down to allow attendees to gather and pray.
“The inspiration came from Muslims at Ramadan,” Reggie says. “We thought, ‘why not us?’ We earned favor with the police to do the events, and even ended up going viral in the Middle East.”
Though No Stage, No Mic, Just Him has not continued, Reggie’s favor with the NYPD has. He serves as an NYPD clergy liaison, participating in and leading roll call prayers and the annual 911 prayer. He is often called upon to do prayer vigils after killings and more.
Around Hunts Point, people call on Reggie and Ibelsa at every point of need, with many referring to Reggie as “Pastor,” though they have never attended Real Life Church, his online congregation (which met in person prior to the pandemic but lost its building during the crisis). The Stutzmans recall being particularly moved when Tasha, who began working on the street after being molested by her pastor, developed such trust in them that she suddenly joined the number of those addressing “Pastor Reggie.”
Tasha is far from being the only woman in the Stutzmans’ acquaintance who, driven by a sense of desperation following catastrophic life events, turned to sex work. They share of one woman whose 13-year-old son died in her arms, so overwhelming her with despair that she turned to the industry.
Reggie and Ibelsa dream of opening a house where sex workers can come for meals, showers, and more. This is no small need in Hunts Point.
Prostitute Sheila is high on fentanyl and washing her hair in an uncapped fire hydrant as she offers her opinion on Reggie and Ibelsa: “They have been wonderfully consistent the whole time.”
For years, Reggie and Ibelsa have ministered to Sheila. When The Prodigal Center first opened, they developed rapport with her immediately, and share that, when she is sober, Sheila is extremely intelligent and gifted. Years ago, Sheila was a church girl and to this day remembers various church songs.
Sheila states that she must perform sex acts simply to get something to eat, and that she is often visited by husbands following fights with their wives. She says, “They are mad and want to beat me up. I tell them, ‘Don’t take your wife out on me.’”
“She needs to be delivered,” Reggie says with tears in his eyes. “One day we could find her dead on the street. Why are more believers not doing urban work when people like Sheila across the country are dying? Do we need LED screens and such things when people are dying on the street? It takes money and people and donations to do this. Ministry isn’t free, but we need to do what God is calling us to do. He sent His only Son to die for Sheila. It just is mind blowing, the love of God.”