By Sister Judith Ann Zielinski, OSF
Hakki Akdeniz is a 39-year-old Kurdish immigrant from Turkey. A Sunni Muslim, he arrived in New York City in 2001 with $240 in his pockets, no job, and not knowing a word of English. He did have a promise that he could stay with a friend, but when that hospitality evaporated, Hakki burned through his money at a series of dingy motels and then slept with his bags in Grand Central Station. He finally spent 96 days at the Bowery Mission, a homeless shelter in the heart of Skid Row.
One day Hakki overheard a conversation in Turkish. Desperate and hungry, he ran to the speakers, asking if they knew anyone who would hire him. Amazingly, one man connected Hakki to a friend who ran a pizza place. There he did menial, back-breaking labor in the kitchen, earning $300 a week for 60 hours of work. Over time, he also took on a part-time job as a super in an apartment building so he could live rent-free.
With tenacity and an unrelenting drive, Hakki slowly carved out a better lifestyle for himself. In 2009, he started his own pizza place with one employee. Within five years, his business— renamed “Champion Pizza”– blossomed to seven locations, five in Manhattan. The company logo: Made in New York with Love.
If the story ended there, it would be an impressive-enough “immigrant success story.” But Hakki had not forgotten what it was like to be the outsider, the foreigner, the destitute homeless person with no food, no home, no money and no language. He remembers the small kindnesses that strangers offered him in the days before he succeeded—a smile, a few words, some coins, a handshake, a willingness to look him in the eye and see him as an equal. Those who treated him this way saw him as Hakki-– not as a failure, a terrorist, a beggar, a threat or a bum—but as a fellow human being.
Every Wednesday now, Hakki parks a van on a side street and distributes hot, fresh Champion pizza to New York City’s homeless. Everyone waits for him, knows him and calls him “The Pizza Guy.” He estimates that he has shared more than 200,000 pieces of pizza just because he believes in the power of kindness. “You don’t have to be rich,” he says. “You don’t have to be powerful. You can give to another human being just by being human.”
What is Christmas but that same act of giving freely, reaching out and connecting? Hakki himself found “no room in the inn” when he came to the US. He slept on the floor in a public train station and survived on small gifts of human compassion as he struggled on his journey. But now he gives back, honoring the goodness others showed him in his own darkness.
As Franciscans, we believe that Christmas is the greatest feast of the church year, even surpassing Easter. For God’s decision to become human, to give God’s self to us, to show that Love alone is the way to happiness and fulfilment, makes salvation itself and all other good news possible. Jesus’ coming proclaims our existence on this earth (despite our ongoing collective and individual bumps and ruts and problems) as a hopeful, light-filled journey pointing toward a “they-all-lived-happily-ever-after” ending. We are loved and cherished and saved; we each possess dignity and value and worth. Every one of us is a precious son and daughter of God; everyone belongs (as Franciscan Richard Rohr reminds us)—especially those on the margins, those struggling, depressed, alone, fearful, the outsiders, the despised, the forgotten.
That’s why Hakki’s pizza, a gift given away by a Muslim who remembers kindness in his own darkness, is linked to the Greatest Gift ever given. Champion Pizza and Christmas? Yes. We can connect those dots.