Magazine Features

Senior moments in Bensonhurst

A unique Salvation Army corps seems hidden in plain sight along busy 18th Avenue in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn.

The former corps in Chinatown.

The former corps in Chinatown.

The attractive storefront entrance, complete with music wafting into the street, beckons passersby to stop and look inside. The Bensonhurst Corps Community Center is a hub where Chinese seniors sing karaoke, dance, exercise, sit, play Ping–Pong and badminton, read, or just relax and watch television.

Many seniors in the neighborhood see the community center as the place to go. About 200 people show up every day for lunch and to mingle with friends.

“They come from all over Brooklyn,” says Major Maureen Ki. “Many Chinese people are on these streets.”

Starting the work

Three years ago, Majors Maureen and Ricky Ki opened the community center in a 3–story, 39,000–square–foot former catering hall.

It’s not the first time these officers, who both hail from Christian families in Hong Kong, have been pioneers. In 1995, the Kis opened the Salvation Army’s first corps in Chinatown.

Seniors line up for a Chinese New Year dinner with The Salvation Army.

Seniors line up for a Chinese New Year dinner with The Salvation Army.

“The first year we were in Chinatown, we worked on the street corner,” Major Ricky said. “We had no office. It was not an easy job.”

The Kis, who have been officers for more than 38 years, heard community members say a senior center was among the biggest needs in Chinatown.

“There were a lot of seniors in Chinatown,” Ricky said. “They were retired, they didn’t have anywhere to go, and they didn’t have anybody to help them.”

The Kis rented a small basement until The Salvation Army repurposed a 10–story brick tenement on the Bowery in lower Manhattan. In 1999, the Kis opened a community center and church similar to the one they now operate in Bensonhurst.

Fond memories of Chinatown

“We built our church piece by piece,” Ricky said. “The move was supposed to be temporary, but ‘temporary’ turned into 15 years.”

At first, The Kis survived with two floors, but after five years, they needed the third floor for program space. The edifice became a tower of compassion and a symbol of hope for people in need.

Some popular activities at the center are dancing, exercising with swords, and Ping–Pong.

Some popular activities at the center are dancing, exercising with swords, and Ping–Pong.

For many years, things were good in Chinatown, the Kis said. For the Chinese New Year, The Salvation Army held an annual party, which drew 1,000 people from the community.

In 2005, the Kis returned to Hong Kong to assume a new appointment. Their two sons stayed in New York. In 2011, the Kis returned to New York and soon learned the Army wanted to sell the building and move operations to Brooklyn.

The move in 2014 was a mixed blessing for the Kis. While they had to leave some people behind in Chinatown, many others had already moved out of lower Manhattan to find cheaper housing in Brooklyn.

It takes faith

“We were upset we lost so many people,” said Major Ricky. “I just prayed to God and asked for faith to open the door. When we opened the doors on 18th Avenue, many people came in.”

seniormoments_4The Kis noticed large numbers of Chinese seniors and decided to start a community center, which is now open each day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“We saw there were more seniors and people who needed help,” Major Ricky said “so we started the senior center.

“It’s been good, praise the Lord. We came here on faith and started the work.”

The corps and community center include social services, a chapel, and a computer lab. Seniors dance on the second floor and some play badminton.

Addressing a need

The outreach to seniors fits the agenda of Commissioners William A. and G. Lorraine Bamford, territorial leaders, who said ministry to seniors would be important.

“The population of seniors is growing, especially among the Chinese people,” Major Ricky said. “They’ve worked many years and now they are retired. They are old and need help.”

Ki said the seniors sometimes don’t speak English and some are depressed because they have no family or support from friends.

“Every day, they hide in their house or take care of their grandchildren,” Major Ricky said. “Now they can come to the center. They see friends, play Ping–Pong, exercise, sing, and most of all—get help.”

It’s about fellowship

Kelly Kong, community center administrator and a senior soldier at the corps, said the center helps seniors connect and find friendship.

For seniors who take care of their grandchildren during the day, the center is a welcomed respite during the school year.

seniormoments_5“The center provides activities to help set their minds on something else,” Kong said. “It encourages them to be outgoing.”

Senior Aiming Liu, who lives in the neighborhood, comes to the center every day to play Ping–Pong. Once a week, she also joins a group to sing Christian hymns.

“Coming here makes me happy,” she said. “There are other people around and it’s a happy setting.”

Senior Hua Chang Zhu and her husband, Pei Juan Yu, are neighborhood regulars. She enjoys Tai chi, while Yu prefers the exercise equipment.

A joyous place

“This provides a place to be happy and when you’re happy you have a longer life,” Yu said.

Senior Chung Tsang plays Ping–Pong and chess, sings karaoke, and takes English classes.

“The people and staff here are nice,” he said. “I feel welcomed.”

Seniors enjoy a lunch each day.

Seniors enjoy a lunch each day.

Among the staff is 92–year–old Tunyee So, a volunteer from the former Chinatown Corps. Every day, he travels from Manhattan to help serve lunch and fill in wherever he is needed.

“I am retired and don’t have a lot to do. So, I come and help out,” he said.

Another volunteer, George Ham, said his faith is a driving force.

“I’m a Christian and I try to see where I can help,” he said.

Jesus is peace

Every Sunday morning for worship, about 100 people, including many seniors, fill the building’s chapel.

Maureen said, once the people in the neighborhood learned The Salvation Army was a church, they walked or took a local bus to the Sunday meetings.

“When we first arrived, we distributed Gospel tracts. They took them and really looked at them,”

Maureen said. “We want more people to believe in Christ. The people are getting to know Jesus Christ. I believe that.”

Maureen said most Chinese people have no religious tradition or are technically Buddhist.

“They don’t worship Buddha,” Maureen explained. “They do it just to obtain peace.”

One true God

“When they said they found peace and happiness here, I said, ‘That’s because God is looking for you.’ We teach Christ in their own language.”

Tunyee So helps to distribute meals.

Tunyee So helps to distribute meals.

Major Ricky said Chinese people recognize Jesus Christ as the “western God” who evokes respect.

“They respect any god,” said Major Ricky. “They don’t understand. We do our best to tell them about Jesus Christ as the one true God.”

Youth ministry takes place on Saturday and Sunday.

Major Ricky said the future of the community center is unsure. The Salvation Army plans to renovate one floor of the building at a time or move to another site.

Bright future

For now, the corps enjoys steady growth. A recent Sunday meeting saw six senior soldiers and three adherents enrolled.

Kong said the Sunday morning meeting is “family oriented” and many people bring their children and grandchildren, who attend children’s church.

“The young and the old are here,” Major Ricky said. “They see us as a family. They respect us.”

by Robert Mitchell
photography by Ryan Love

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