When asked how he is doing, Chief Master Thomas Sabu Lewis often replies, “I’m blessed.” He keeps the positive attitude in spite of his current struggle: A 200 percent increase to his more than $3,000 monthly rent is forcing him to close his Clinton Hill studio, The Humble School of Martial Arts, and find a new location.
The closing of The Humble School, on Fulton Street between Washington Avenue and Saint James Place, is the latest in a wave of small business closures and relocations in the nabe, mostly on Fulton Street and Myrtle Avenue.
“I don’t think of it as a bad thing,” said Master Sabu, 63, who has taught martial arts classes for children and adults for about 45 years. “I knew it was going to come; I just didn’t know when. I just accept it.” He said he does not know exactly when his business will close, adding that his landlord is allowing him to stay until he finds a new location.
Master Sabu, 63, operated the Humble School for about 7 years; before that, he taught at another location about five blocks away on Fulton Street for 10 years. He said he decided to move from the 10-year location when he learned that he would have to pay for sidewalk cleanings in front of his business, a procedure that he thought was covered by taxes. Previously, he operated a school on Flatbush Avenue for about 4 years. He has also held classes at The Jackie Robinson Center, the Vanguard Youth Council’s Summer Camp, the Winthrop Beacon III Community Center and Family Dynamics, affiliated with SCO Family of Services.
Since the beginning, his classes have focussed on building his students’ confidence and helping them to overcome insecurity, anger and hopelessness.
“It’s not about money,” Master Sabu said. “It’s about shaping people, giving them a good level of self-esteem.”
At the beginning and end of Master Sabu’s martial arts classes, he tells his students to say, “I love myself, and because I love myself, and because I love myself, I won’t do anything to hurt myself.”
But Clinton Hill residents who know Master Sabu said he does more than build confidence, describing him as a humble man who goes out of his way to help his neighbors, sometimes at the expense of his own needs.
“I’ve always fed people on Christmas and Thanksgiving,” Master Sabu said, referencing the dinners he holds in his studio on holidays for anyone in need of a warm meal. “It’s something they’ve always looked forward to.”
Tess Gill, the owner of the Brooklyn Victory Garden across from the Humble School, said her business has helped Sabu serve the dinners. She said she was devastated to hear that Master Sabu would have to close his business.
“It’s very sad,” Gill said. “I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 8 years. He’s been a friendly, wonderful neighbor.”
Master Sabu spends as much time in his school as possible. He said he even sleeps there sometimes, making his studio a safe haven for homeless locals who have nowhere to go and those who need refuge from abuse. About 4 years ago, he said, a man walked into the school at night and asked for water. Suddenly, a gun-wielding man entered the studio, shot the same man and then shot Master Sabu, lodging a 9-millimeter bullet in his thigh, he said. Doctors told Master Sabu that he would not be able to stand and walk properly again, but he was able to recover with therapy, he said.
“I wouldn’t allow [my injury] to stop me from what I had to do,” he said.
Master Sabu typically charged about $15 to $17 per class as a trial rate, offering free and discounted classes for those who couldn’t afford it, he said. But to meet the increase in rent, he said he would have to raise his prices – a move he considers unfair to his clients.
“The very thing that he teaches of being humble – not being boastful – prevents him from begging people for money and getting the help that he needs,” said Dr. Gary Cameron-Xavier, who attended Master Sabu’s classes since he was 10 years old. “He is a very great person, and it brings tears to my eyes.”
It is uncertain where Master Sabu’s new school will be, but there a few possibilities on Fulton Street – one at Franklin Avenue, Sabu said. You can donate here to help Master Sabu accumulate at least $7,000, which he says he will need to pay the first few months of rent at his new school.
“He’s very resilient,” said Lamont Doloney, one of Master Sabu’s students whose 8-year-old daughter is also enrolled in his classes. “With any adversity there is a hidden benefit.”