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VOL. 42 | NO. 50 | Friday, December 14, 2018

Brother Z has church service, Sunday lunch covered

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Brother Z’s Wang Shack on Dickerson Pike also is home to Allen Zinker’s restaurant and his church, which is housed in a converted carport around back.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Brother Z isn’t bothered that his homeless congregation members gather across Dickerson Pike, generally not even coming near the door into the carport-turned-church snuggled behind his takeout shack specializing in 15 spicy flavors of chicken wings.

Or “Wangs,” as it reads on the front, sides, just about any place you can imagine for signage on “Brother Z’s Wang Shack” at 1407 Dickerson Pike, in a squat main building separated by a few feet of scarred asphalt from the carport church.

“Ain’t no thang like a chicken wang,” says Brother Z, illustrating the origin of the name of this business he started a decade ago, for a while on Douglas Avenue before relocating to this more visible location on Dickerson.

“Got parking here, too,” he says, adding that over on Douglas, wing-seekers had to park in the road and more than one car “got run into,” a blemish on a business’ hopes for success.

He’s also this year started another location a few miles up the pike, at 3825 Dickerson Pike, in the Bellshire area. And, for all my old friends up in the Queen City of the Cumberland, an ex-son-in-law is opening a Brother Z’s Wang Shack soon at 952 Cumberland Heights Road in Clarksville.

“I’m franchising now,” says Allen Zirker, aka “Brother Z” or “Brotha Z,” as it reads on the front of the primary Wang Shack location in the literal shadow of the generic blend of skyscrapers that have defaced the distinctive “Nashville Skyline” that fascinated my old and cryptic pal Bob Dylan five decades ago.

Post-Bob’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and “Lay Lady Lay” years, the distinctive “Batman Building” – finished in August 1994, added a breathtaking superhero flair to the city’s profile. The Joker smiles now, though, as that building’s glory has been diminished by bland towers that dance with the devil in the pale moonlight. Or hazy daylight.

Looking from those anonymous steel, glass and concrete exclamation points across the Cumberland and then back to the Wang Shack, I ask about the discrepancy of the single “Brotha Z” – rather than “Brother Z” – on the big sign that faces Nashville’s most-notorious highway.

“That was so the painter had room for the whole name. He painted that for $50,” he explains of the bright, red lettering set on a field of screaming yellow that catches your eyes as you traverse among the “pay-by-the-hour”-type motels, some functioning as host sites for the regular series of prostitution stings that have helped paint black Dickerson Pike’s image.

Brother Z leads me into the Wang Shack’s narrow, standing-room-only front room, where diners place orders through a sliding-glass window to the kitchen.

A long-time professional welder – this good Brother learned that trade in the Job Corps after dropping out of high school and just before marrying the pregnant love of his life – God and destiny set him on a course to spread his wings and start a business and, eventually, a church.

“The last time I got fired as a welder, I decided to start my own wing place,” he says, pointing to a yellowing newspaper clipping written by my buddy, former (aren’t we all?) Tennessean (Nashville’s daily newspaper) food-and-drink writer Jim Myers. “He says we’re the No. 1 wing place in the city.”

This gray, rain-spitting day is my third stop at the bright-yellow building during a search for a column in a decidedly “unhip” section of East Nashville. First time, the shop wasn’t open yet. Second time, Brother Z was cutting short his day to go home and follow, begrudgingly, his doctor’s orders to rest while recuperating from recent surgery.

“I’m not supposed to be working,” he admits. “But I can’t stand to just stay in the house” in nearby Inglewood. Even as recuperating, he comes in to help his eldest daughter, Monica Hodges, get the day started in zesty, smile-raising style. He even helps unload the daily supplies, likely not a style of physical therapy the docs would endorse.

On the third visit, I arrive at around 9 a.m. and roll up on Brother Z sweeping the parking lot, planting a Coke umbrella in the middle of a café-style dining table … and quickly requesting that I not shoot a photo of his labors. Likely he doesn’t want the docs to see him doing physical tasks.

“I’ll find out how they did with the surgery next month,” he says, asking I not disclose the type of surgery and confident in his recovery.

For the next three or four hours, we talk almost as old friends and confidantes, about God, life, cancer, death, prostitution, street drugs and chicken wings. Oh, yeah, and with the occasional slab of ribs thrown in. That discussion is punctuated by a sampling of a trio of wings coated in his Mystery Spice, one of the 15 flavors.

“It’s not really hot, just spicy enough that you can still taste the meat,” he replies when I ask, “What is the Mystery?”

“If I told you that, it wouldn’t be a secret, a mystery anymore,” he says as he joins me at a table and enjoys an order of “Garlic Pepper” wings.

It takes me a moment to notice he has bowed his head, so I follow suit, also thanking God for chicken wings, something I’ve never done before.

“These are good,” he says, pride flashing in his eyes as he washes his chicken down with a bottle of water, the beverage prescribed by his docs.

“You can’t find wings like these anyplace else,” Brother Z adds. “Before I started doing this, I went to other wing restaurants. I don’t want to mention them all. But at the big boys – Buffalo Wild Wings and Hooters – all you can taste is the sauce.”

Even his “naked wings” have savory flavor, while elsewhere they are tasteless, according to his reckoning. It’s his opinion, of course, so I nod. I’m subconsciously battling with his “big boys” reference to Hooters. It’s not the boys that are big there, I smile to myself, recalling only eyewitness reports of friends.

Oh, and while he offers all varieties of wings, with heat levels traveling up to “XXX Hot,” there are no “Nashville Hot Chicken Wings” on the menu, even though that’s the Music City restaurant trend that tourists and network football announcers buy and bite into.

“I don’t know what a Nashville chicken is” is his explanation. Not long ago, he took a trip to Washington, D.C., and stopped at a restaurant in Virginia that highlighted “Nashville Hot Wings” on the marquee.

Shaking his head, he laughs and adds: “I ordered the pizza. It was all right.”

More on the wings later, perhaps, but he leads me toward the rear of his parking lot, presided over by a converted carport – “We put sides on it, insulated it and added dry wall, electricity, heat and air” – that is the sanctuary of “Turning Point Ministries at Brother Z’s Diner.”

This is where he holds weekly church services, catering to his family, friends and the occasional homeless person, prostitute or others from the “It City’s” hidden rough-and-tumble strata.

While he has a dozen or maybe 15 congregants huddled inside the converted carport/sanctuary each Sunday, he extends his ministry sonically to the neighborhood.

“We have one loudspeaker inside the church and another outside, so anyone can hear it.’’

Just as any neighborhood hidden in the dark shadows of the glisteningly anonymous Nashville skyline, this worn stretch of Dickerson Pike includes homeless citizens, human beings somehow immune to the “truths” of prosperity city boosters use to lure corporate citizens and millennials from the Silicon Valley, Seattle, Santa Monica, St. Louis, Schenectady and many locales not beginning with an “S.”

Brother Z is proud to consider the homeless neighbors as part of his extended congregation.

Before he takes me into his church, he nods to Joice Market next door.

“Sometimes, well, the homeless people won’t come in the church,” he says. “But they’ll go in that store and get some beer, then go across the street and listen to me preach.

“Doesn’t bother me, long as they hear it,” he adds. “They sit in that field, maybe six or eight of them.

“Every once in a while, they’ll come inside and ask for their prayers. We’ll pray for them. Then they’ll leave and go about their business,” he continues. “Maybe one day I’ll have a crowd of homeless people come in. Change some lives.”

Preacher and restaurateur Allen Zirker, also known as Brother Z, began franchising this year with a location farther out Dickerson Road. He’s also planning a location in Clarksville.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

He raises his arm in the direction of the homeless congregation’s grassy field, across Dickerson, a lonesome lot decorated by a “Metro Motel” sign, the last remnant of a former establishment.

Next door is one of easily a score of Dickerson Pike motels where working people and, at least at some of them, hot-sheets clientele and their professional hourly instructors can find affordable shelter. The Wang Shack and its little church provide an antidote to this social gloom, as a brightly colored beacon of hope among the residential motels, vacant buildings, used tire stores and the melancholy purple hopelessness on the face of a flashily dressed, well-chained pedestrian who, if not a pimp in real life, could easily play one on TV.

“People who live in some of the hotels have come to the service once, but they don’t come back,” Brother Z laments. Perhaps, in time, that will change.

He also relishes that he is broadcasting out onto the city’s most-neglected, highly traveled, working-class and working-girl highway.

“Sometimes people are driving down the street and they stop to listen. Sometimes they’ll come in.”

His smile broadens when explaining those wayfarers who pull off the road to hear his version of the Lord’s word. “We make a joyful noise. We really do.”

Inside the converted carport, Sunday church begins at 9 a.m. with a praise-and-worship hour, during which Brother (aka “Pastor”) Z sings while son Allen Jr. “beats on something, I don’t know what it is, but he beats on it like a drum. We have an organ, but nobody knows how to play it.” I should note that, since my visits, someone has donated a drum kit for the younger Allen to beat on.

The main service begins at 10 and lasts 1½ hours. “I’m a half-hour preacher,” Brother Z says, noting that sermon length – on the very long side by Caucasian standards – is considered a very brief time among the churches he has attended and where he has served in a life focused around the Lord. Wife Eleanor is praise-and-worship leader during the service.

“I’ve always loved going to church,” Brother Z explains. “I can remember back when I was 5 years old, I’d go to church on Sundays. Sometimes my Mama would take us, sometimes I’d go by myself. I’ve been doing that all my life.

“When I was a little boy, I didn’t belong to anybody’s church,” he continues. “I was a church-hopper. I would visit churches. Wherever the Lord led me to go, I went.”

That dedication has continued during a church-hopping journey through life. “I have been a lay member, a deacon, an usher, singing in the choir, elder and minister. It’s always been in-braded in me to go work in the church.

“I’m a firm believer in helping people. To help society be better.”

He adds that as an elder in the Church of God in Christ, he was encouraged to start his own congregation behind the Wang Shack.

“This is not a road that everybody can travel, because being a pastor isn’t for everybody. You have to have a love of the people. Give in whatever way you can. It’s not what you can get from them in the offering. It’s what you can give to them, seek whatever God has me do.”

Once the service is done, Brother Z ambles the few asphalt feet to the Wang Shack, which doesn’t open until noon on Sundays. I’m sure a few churchgoers hang around that extra half-hour so they can add the good pastor’s product to the dining room spread.

“We opened on Sunday afternoons this year, because the football fans wanted wings,” he says. “We haven’t made a lot of money on Sunday afternoons, so this may be the last year we are open then.”

He’d really prefer it that way, because instead of cooking wings on the Lord’s day, he’d rather visit another church. Perhaps two. As noted earlier, church-hopping has been his lifestyle ever since he began slipping out of the family apartment in Sam Levy Homes.

“I call this my little Mega Church,” says the 61-year-old welder-turned-wing-master, Psalm-sayer and soul-stirrer as we talk easily in the little carport that offers prayer and hope-filled reality in a city where guitars and Cadillacs and hillbilly music flavor the skin-deep image professed to the world.

Brother Z stands outside his restaurant with his church, a converted carport, in the background.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

When the “Mega Church” is not in session, this little building is the Wang Shack dining room, although it’s not used all that much.

“Ninety-nine percent of our customers just drive up here and come in and take their wings with them,” he says.

And while it’s risky enough to put his savings and his heart into the wing joint and the little church, there are other potential problems, simply because of the part of town where he sells chicken, hot dogs, hamburger and even ribs, if you give him time. “Ribs are mostly sold in the spring and fall. Not in the summer, because people get off work when it’s still light and they grill in their own back yards.”

There is limited space in the dining room – “though I can put up more folding chairs and tables.” The outdoor dining opportunities have been criminally limited.

“I used to have three more sets of tables and chairs out here, but they were stolen,” he points out as we pass the single unoccupied outdoor café table that, when the weather is nice, serves as a place where folks can perch with their bags of wings and a Coke product, purchased inside the Wang Shack, and enjoy the al fresco life while big rigs, rattle-traps, blue-flashing cruisers and regular workaday traffic clatter past on Dickerson.

He has more tables stored away should anyone need one. But he doesn’t put them out for the thieves.

Doesn’t really need to use them much, anyway.

“I don’t get the kind of business the big boys do,” he says, referring again to Buffalo Wild Wings and Hooters.

Those establishments and other mall-area-type bastions for “those people who don’t prefer flavor with their wings,” as Brother Z puts it, sell to hundreds of customers a day. “On a good day, I’ll get maybe 15 or 20 (customers/phone orders).”

But, as Nashville has become the world capital for hot wings – remember he does not call them “Nashville wings” – he has tasted a bit of that success.

“I have customers from all over the country, all over the world. Australia. Germany. Russia. Canada. Japan. Hawaii. Alaska. Clarksville. When people come here to Nashville on vacation, they always come back.

“And people come from Nolensville, Lebanon. The other day a guy drove all the way down here from Gallatin after he ordered a slab of ribs.”

Brother Z laughs. “They come here because I got the best food. And they come to see my pretty face.”

Wings of chicken are his products. Wings of angels are his passion.

“The majority of the time when I preach, I preach that Jesus has been crucified and I preach heaven. I also believe in preaching the blessings here on Earth.

“So, whenever somebody comes back to me and tells me about some of the blessings they’ve received through the ministry’s teachings, that’s my reward.

“I tell my congregation that anything you believe you need, you ask for it. People will say to me ‘I prayed for a brand-new vehicle, and the Lord came along and helped me get it.’”

When people come back to him and talk about the job promotion they received through prayer or the illness that was healed, he preaches about those things.

“I believe there is nothing too hard for God. If you delight yourself in Him, He’ll give you the desires of your heart,” he says, using Psalm 37 as his reinforcement.

Many of his personal blessings center around his family. During our conversation, Eleanor, his wife of almost 43 years (“she was my baby’s mama, and I asked her to marry me”) calls to make sure he’s going to go home and rest soon.

They have four children – all of whom have pitched in lately during his recuperation.

In addition, they have 10 grandkids and eight great-grandchildren. “We have the blessings of Abraham,” he says, bragging about how much fun he has playing with the little children.

Brother Z and I walk back to the yellow restaurant where Monica, the manager – “I really love working for my dad, helping him” – is getting things organized for another day of wing cooking. Since they don’t cook until the food is ordered, the process from stove to plate takes about 15 minutes.

“If you don’t build your dream, someone will hire you to build theirs,” reads one small wall poster, hanging next to another one that says “God Knows Who You Are.”

A third is an earthly warning: “No refunds once your food has begun cooking.”

He scans the neighborhood outside the Wang Shack.

“I have people who come in and tell me they’re hungry and homeless. I’ll tell them ‘I’ll feed you one time, but if you come back over-and-over again and ask for free food, you’re a beggar.’

“This is a business, not a charity.”

He looks around the parking lot of the brightly colored Wang Shack that screams of good food and hope among Nashville’s ignored ruins.

“When I first got here, there was a lot of prostitution and drugs in the area,” he recounts. “Some of them sat around here, and I explained to them ‘I’m starting a business here, you can’t hang out on my property. You can’t do business here, because it will interfere with mine.’

“They respected it.”

Several of those young women came to Brother Z, seeking advice and prayer to help them escape the streets.

“I gave them information on where to go get help,” he says, adding that they have “come back and let me know they had gotten off drugs they had been on. Gotten out of prostitution. Had new places to live. Have jobs and vehicles. Most moved to North Nashville.”

Brother Z turns back to the kitchen of the Dickerson Pike business where he prepares wings and repairs souls.

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