|Marcelo Lucero, photo link: NY Daily News|
In what Long Island, N.Y., police are calling a hate crime, 37-year-old Marcelo Lucero was stabbed to death by a group of seven youth on Nov. 8, 2008. Police say Lucero was targeted by the youth who "wanted to beat up someone who looked Hispanic." Lucero, a native of Ecuador, moved to the Long Island village of Patchogue 15 years ago.
The attack drew swift reaction from Suffolk County (N.Y.) executive Steve Levy. "This heinous crime that led to the death of an individual because of his race will not be tolerated in Suffolk County," Levy said in a police news release.
The Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter of Congregational UCC of Patchogue on Long Island heard about the crime on CNN the morning after it occurred, even though it took place only blocks from his home.
Shocked that such a crime would happen in his neighborhood, Wolter diverted from his breakfast and went into action. "I got my clothes on and went to the site of the murder," he said. "I literally put my pants on to do something – to go see what had happened and to track down the brother of the victim to see what I could do."
Wolter learned where Lucero's brother, Joselo, lived and went to the home. A crowd had already gathered and there was guarded access to Joselo Lucero. Wolter had brought a Spanish speaking congregant, David Ochoa, with him but they were unable to talk to the victim's brother.
Based on his initial interactions, Wolter felt the family had both financial and spiritual needs. He solicited the New York Conference for assistance which contributed $500 to be split between funeral expenses and fostering a dialog on race.
A Wed. morning (Nov. 12) rally and press conference was held to protest the racially motivated crime. Several civic leaders spoke before Wolter approached the crowd. "My speech was just to start chanting, 'How can I help?' " he said. Wolter then responded, "I thought you'd never ask." He explained to those gathered that he wanted to take up a collection to help Lucero's family.
"People contributed a few hundred dollars on the spot," said Wolter. "One person even came into the church later and handed us a check for $50."
As the rally came to a close Wolter moved toward the group where Joselo Lucero was standing. Making his way through those shielding Lucero from the crowd, Wolter approached and said, "I want to offer my church to help bury your brother. I don't care who you invite, who's in the pulpit, what you sing – it's yours if you want it."
The following day, Joselo Lucero came alone to Wolter's office at the church - without the group that had been protecting him from the public. "We sat in the church for a couple of hours and it turned out very good," said Wolter.
Lucero asked to have the funeral at Congregational UCC of Patchogue and left details of the service up to Wolter. Six clergy from various traditions and two choirs agreed to participate in the bi-lingual, Spanish and English, service.
The church also worked with a local funeral director who agreed to donate his services, including clothing and transportation, in addition to the Ecuadorian consulate who arranged to transport Lucero's body to Ecuador.
Wolter is pleased that the church has been so supportive. "Joselo may say 'The only religious body who has reached out to me has been the UCC.' " he said. "We are going to live into this new reality and we can hopefully turn the corner and move forward, instead of falling apart, in light of the spiritual and physical blight that is happening in so many communities."
Wolter sees what happened on Long Island as a microcosm of what is happening around the country. "Ethnicity is a big issue," he said. "I just had a feeling. Six white teenagers went around looking for someone who was Mexican. It is a metaphor for so many similar things happening around our communities."
The Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC general minister and president, offered encouragement to Wolter and his congregation in the days following the murder and Lucero's funeral.
"I write to thank you, on behalf of the whole United Church of Christ, for your powerful witness to the Gospel in recent days as you have been a symbol of hospitality and hope in your community," Thomas said in a Nov. 18 letter.
"Marcelo Lucero's murder shocked all of us, revealing how racism and xenophobia can afflict our communities," he said. "Your response offered a strong counter testimony to the call to welcome the stranger in our midst as a citizen. Your ministry represented the best of who we are in the United Church of Christ as a people of extravagant welcome and evangelical courage."
The church plans to continue engaging racism in their community and offer cultural events where people can explore and celebrate cultural diversity.
Despite the pain and tension Lucero's murder raises in his community, Wolter is hopeful that their church can continue to be a witness to the community. "There is an Army recruiter, a bodega and a dry cleaner – right outside as we look through our original Tiffany windows," he said.
"Maybe others can look out those windows, and then begin to look in to see what we are doing," said Wolter. "We can invite others to join us in continuing to do great work, but also to break bread and tell stories."