Lieutenant Drigo represents

Passionate voices filled the air in Bushwick, Brooklyn, N.Y., and people came from far and wide to listen. They stood or sat on benches or knelt on the expansive Maria Hernandez Park lawn. Love for civility and their fellow citizens restrained them from rioting, even though in their hearts they felt and, in their words, expressed deep feelings of anguish over the recent death of George Floyd.

Lieutenant Shakai Drigo, corps officer of the Salvation Army’s Bushwick Corps, was among the speakers that Wednesday, June 3rd when a clergy committee assembled in a collaborative street ministry. “They were different pastors and ministers from the community who came together to pray,” says Drigo. “We were given a short time to speak outside the park where the protesting was going on.”

They occupied the corner of Knickerbocker Avenue and Suydam Street, which is at an entrance of a park known as the “Coney Island of Bushwick.” Having been born and raised in Brooklyn, Drigo knew the area well. “Many events happen there. They have rallies, barbecues, and stuff like that,” he says. “It’s the largest community park in Bushwick.”

Originally named Bushwick Park, it was renamed in 1989 to honor Maria Hernandez and her husband Carlos who helped take the park back from drug dealers and restore it to a flourishing recreational destination for the community. Today, the park’s vibrancy, diversity, and safety stand as a testament to the Hernandez’s legacy.

“I went there on my own. My wife stayed home with the children and my 2 employees were at the corps building,” Drigo says. “Everything went great. Our meeting started around 5:00 P.M., after city council members spoke in the park to local residents. “There was music playing, worship, and songs. People cheered us on. Speakers encouraged the crowd with scriptures like:

‘For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil and the heavenly realms. Therefore, put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand,’ (Ephesians 6:12–13).


Speaking the name of Jesus

“Three other pastors and I had time, about 10 to 15 minutes, to say a word; to speak about whatever was on our hearts. Some pastors shared personal testimonies; another offered a spoken word poem.

“I talked about one of the beatitudes,” says Drigo. ‘Blessed are those who hunger after righteousness,” for they will be filled,’ (Matthew 5:6). “I spoke on how Jesus said that you are the ones who hunger for righteousness and so you are blessed. Then I said a prayer. 

“It was a sight to see. The cops were all around. They were involved; not just surveying and keeping the peace, but actually engaged. People were hanging ‘Black Lives Matter’ banners from the buildings. Motorists stopped their cars to honk their horns. They yelled out, ‘no justice, no peace!’

“People clapped whenever they heard the name of Jesus spoken. It was definitely an experience for me. It was my first time ever doing anything like this. I was grateful for the opportunity just to speak, to represent The Salvation Army, and to just say, ‘Hey, we are part of Bushwick. We are here. We are Bushwick.’ We need to get that message out because a lot of people in this community know The Salvation Army as just a place to get food or maybe to donate.

“I showed up wearing my uniform. The people were truly appreciative. However, I could tell from the look on some faces, they thought I was some other kind of officer. But when I introduced myself as being from The Salvation Army and said who we are, I could see the expressions change. That was encouraging to me.

“The people clapped. Some even hugged me! In this time of social distancing, that made me a little nervous, but I did appreciate the love. Most of them gave me an elbow–to–elbow greeting. I assume that those who were moved by the message and God’s spirit could not help themselves. I could feel that. I just gave them a hug back and we laughed—with our masks on!

“The organizer said, ‘thank you for coming, thank you for coming!’ That was encouraging to see. It was quite an experience.”


Fulfilling the mission

Lieutenants Shakai and Michelle Drigo have been at the Bushwick Corps for three years. He says, from day one, his personal mission has been to expose The Salvation Army as a church that serves the community socially in order that people might know the gospel spiritually.

In the summer of 2008, young Shakai was in pursuit of a summer job. To that end, he submitted many employment applications. “At that time, I lived in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and The Salvation Army was located right across the street. I always went there when I was a kid to play basketball, but I never knew it was really a church until that summer.”

That fateful day, Shakai again went across the street to play basketball. “I saw one of my friends who I grew up with and found out he actually worked and attended church there. He asked me if I needed a job. I said, ‘yeah!’ Then he said, ‘Well, I’m about to leave here, and you can have my position.’ I was like, ‘what?’

He took me to see the corps officer, and then the program coordinator. My friend said, ‘Hey, this is Shakai. We grew up together. I want him to have my position as a summer camp counselor and assistant group supervisor.’

The program coordinator, Travis Barton, gave Shakai the application. “I filled it out, and—I had a job!” Barton also invited Shakai to church that Sunday. “I was inspired,” he remembers. “I was fascinated by the uniform. I also became fascinated by the theology and the purpose of it—and I just never left.”

Shakai later brought along Shakirah Brown, his younger sister and then they brought Dedra Brown, their mother. “Today, my whole family are soldiers,” he says.

by Warren L. Maye