Nov. 14 2012 12:00 AM

The future is murky for Cristo Rey Community Center


Eustacio Lozano’s workload has gotten lighter in the last few years, but he doesn’t sound happy about it. “Tacho,” the custodian since 1989 at Lansing’s Cristo Rey Community Center, at 1717 N. High St., loves his work.

But he thinks that Cristo Rey, a focal point for North Lansing’s Hispanic and Latino community for 45 years, is sliding downhill.

“Before, I had to put chairs in the hall for people to sit down,” Lozano said. “Now it’s dead here. Sometimes nobody uses the rest rooms. I don’t have to clean it.”

Isn’t that better for him?

“Si,” he said with a laugh. “But I do it the same way every day anyway.”

Lansing’s Roman Catholic Diocese is exploring a consolidation of Cristo Rey with St. Vincent Catholic Charities into an umbrella organization, most likely with one director. The plan hasn’t allayed fears of more decline.

On the contrary, community members are worried that the center will lose its identity as a Hispanic center. This year, the diocese recommended to the board that it appoint as interim director Robert Vogel, who is not Hispanic, nor does he speak Spanish.

“There’s no communication,” Lozano said. “We’re not united like we were before.”

Board member Tony Baltimore said the board approved Vogel “because he was capable” and did not need training. Vogel had been workforce development director for four years.

(But Baltimore expressed shock when he was informed last week that Vogel is a convicted embezzler and a disbarred attorney. See related story on P. 9.)

John Roy Castillo, director of Cristo Rey from 2003 to May of this year, is “concerned that the Hispanic identity and Cristo Rey doesn’t get lost with the merger.”

“I really hope it continues, because there is no advocacy for the Hispanic community other than Cristo Rey,” Castillo said.

From Lozano’s perspective, the center’s decline started when Tony Benavides stepped down after 33 years as director of Cristo Rey to become mayor of Lansing in 2003. 

“When Mr. Benavides was here, oh my God, it was beautiful.” Lozano said. “We had dances, we had everything. Now we have nothing.”

Lozano paused to consider whether Cristo Rey would last two more years.

“The way I see it, no.”

However, diocese spokesman Michael Diebold and Vogel promise that the Hispanic heritage of Cristo Rey will not get lost in a potential shuffle.

“I have been assured one thing by the bishop through his director of Catholic Charities: The Hispanic aspects of the center will never change,” Vogel said. “My goal is to make sure (the center) runs efficiently day to day; that the Hispanic nature of the center continues to go on as it has in the past; and that all of the Hispanic community is welcome and comfortable here.”

‘We’re stuck’

“I’m waiting for the diocese to call me,” Tony Benavides said.

Benavides is retired, with time on his hands and a big book of phone numbers he accumulated while serving as Cristo Rey’s 33-year director, Lansing mayor and 22-year Lansing City Councilman.

The Catholic Diocese founded Cristo Rey Parish in Lansing in October 1961 to serve the Spanish-speaking people of the city and its environs. The community center was added in 1968, with Benavides as its first director. The community center is a diocesan charitable organization and its board members are appointed by the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Lansing. The diocese also helps fund the community center, which in 2010 totaled just over $100,000 of a $2.5 million budget.

Since 2005, Benavides has helped the center with three improvement projects, including fixing a leaky roof, but he said he has “stayed out” of Cristo Rey’s affairs.

In recent months, mounting reports of service cutbacks and bad morale at Cristo Rey got his attention.

“I offered my services, free, two or three months ago, to the diocese to go in and bring [Cristo Rey] back up to par,” Benavides said in a phone interview Monday. “I’ve gotten quite a few contacts in 25 years of public service.” Some, he said, are former supporters of Cristo Rey who left the fold “for whatever reason.”

“I feel we can bring back Cristo Rey to its fullest and be a community center like it was before,” he said.

He isn’t the only one waiting for the diocese to answer a call.

Alfonso Salas is a Hispanic community leader, member of the Lansing for César Chávez Committee and the owner of Lansing Athletics on the southwest corner of town. In recent months, Salas heard from Cristo Rey staffers and community members who were worried about problems there.

In September, a group of four senior citizens went to Salas with complaints about cutbacks in services. Up to 2003, Cristo Rey’s senior program offered daily breakfasts and lunches for seniors and offered transportation to and from their homes. Now the meals are confined to Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Salas also heard from Cristo Rey staffers about worsening morale.

Vogel said he is unaware of any declining morale at the center. “No one has come and complained to me,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I have strong personal relationships with every one of my employees.” He is also unaware of anyone complaining to the board.

Lozano is the only Cristo Rey staff member who would go on record for this story. Two other staffers told City Pulse there were “issues” but didn’t want to talk for fear of retaliation.

“You can see that services have declined when you walk in,” one longtime staffer said. “That’s no secret.”

Allen Johnson of Okemos stops at Cristo Rey most days, sometimes to use a public phone with a directory of low-income services. He also goes to the free breakfast program Tuesday and Thursday.

“Frequently, there’s disagreements among staff,” Johnson said. “The life isn’t here like it used to be. A lot of clients haven’t come back.”

“People are going for help and they’re being rudely treated,” Salas said. “It’s not a friendly environment, the way it used to be.”

On Sept. 18, Salas wrote to Vogel and Christopher Root, chairman of the Department of Catholic Charities, requesting a meeting. Salas wrote that Cristo Rey needed “rejuvenation, a new direction and increased community support” and offered to help.

He got no answer. Vogel said he never received the letter.

On Oct. 5, Salas wrote again, this time to Bishop Earl Boyea of the Catholic Diocese of Lansing. He asked for details about the center’s bylaws, personnel policies, legal ties between the city of Lansing and Cristo Rey, the “chain of command,” and contractual services at the center.

Salas cited intimidation and hostility of employees at the center and “a lack of desperately needed programs.” Again, he requested a meeting.

Deacon Michael Murray, the legal counsel and chief of staff of the diocese, answered the letter, after a fashion, on Oct. 30. The diocese, Murray wrote, was “working on an organizational consolidation of Cristo Rey Community Center and Saint Vincent Catholic Charities” that would help the center “consolidate structures” and “flourish.”

This was news to Salas. He hadn’t heard of the proposed merger. He was frustrated that the diocese ignored the issues he raised in his letters.

Lorenzo Lopez, a Hispanic community leader and member of the Lansing for César Chávez Committee, was director of education at Cristo Rey for 13 years, until he left the center with Benavides in 2003. 

“It was the hub of our community, and it no longer is,” Lopez said. “Nothing’s functioning at the center today. It’s in disarray.”

Lopez and Salas don’t understand the diocese’s response.

“We feel the diocese has slighted us, and we don’t know why,” Lopez said. “The questions we’ve asked are not so difficult to answer.”

“The community is crying out to us, and we’re stuck,” Salas said.

‘They’ll run away’

Benavides got a surprise when he visited Cristo Rey earlier this summer. After running the place for 33 years, he said he had to sign in.

“They have changed Cristo Rey around quite a bit, and one of those things is signing in and out, like you do in a government building,” he said.

Lozano said there are surveillance cameras in the building. The kitchen, pantry and some rooms have been padlocked, even to him.

When Benavides was director, employees clocked in and out of the building to track their work hours, but the public moved in and out freely. Castillo said that the sign-in policy did not start while he was director.

Lopez, Salas and Benavides fear that many people who need Cristo Rey’s services, including people with unsettled immigration status, are likely to skip a visit to the center as a result of the sign-in policy.

“Ask them to sign in and they’ll run away,” Lopez said.

Vogel said the sign-in policy came about shortly after he was appointed interim director. “It’s a matter of greeting people, making sure they’re welcome and comfortable when they walk in,” Vogel said, adding that the sign-in table is “always voluntary” and that visitors do not need to sign in in order to enter the building.

If the sign-in policy shows insensitivity to the needs of the Hispanic community, the appointment of the non-Spanish speaking Vogel as interim director in May did nothing to reassure Salas that Cristo Rey would survive as an independent Hispanic entity.

“They’re trying to say that we don’t have a Hispanic leader that’s smart enough to run this center,” Salas said. He said he is hearing the same complaint from the Hispanic community. “They used to have one of their own as leader, a Hispanic, a Mexican-American. Now that they don’t have one, we feel like it’s going a different way.”

Benavides, whom Vogel said he met “briefly” once, is opposed to a potential consolidation of Cristo Rey and St. Vincent.

“I’m against merging with anybody,” Benavides said. “I think Cristo Rey can stand for itself.”

Castillo said the Catholic Diocese has let other Hispanic centers in the state wither on the vine, including the Spanish Speaking Information Center in Flint.

“At one time it was a big agency, and it slowly dwindled until it became virtually nonexistent,” Castillo said.

It may be an accident or plain neglect, but if you look under “Great Hispanic Links” at the bottom of the Cristo Rey Church website and click on the Cristo Rey Community Center link, you are routed to a bathroom lighting shop.

St. Vincent Catholic Charities issued a statement about the proposed merger last week.

“Bishop [Earl] Boyea wishes for Cristo Rey Community Center to consolidate their services with St. Vincent Catholic Charities,” it reads, but the boards of the two organizations have not yet met to vote on the merger.

“There is nothing yet official in place,” the statement cautions. The aim of the proposed merger is to “review duplications in the community, maintain a strong emphasis on Hispanic ministry.”

Christopher Root, chairman of the Department of Catholic Charities, said the two groups have “have been talking for a few months” on the merger, and there is no timetable for action.

Root described the relationship between the diocese to both St. Vincent and Cristo Rey as “sponsorship.”

“They’re both Catholic organizations working in collaboration with the diocese to serve people,” Root said.

The diocese’s Diebold said consolidation is “part of a long-range plan,” which includes consolidations of Catholic charity programs elsewhere. “If we can streamline the mechanics of running these agencies, we are able to direct more funds to folks who need those direct services,” Diebold said, adding that Boyea is looking for “a workable solution.”

MaryLou Mason, chairwoman of the Cristo Rey Board of Directors and director of the Michigan Commission on Spanish Speaking Affairs, said the exploratory committee is made up of two people from each organization: herself, Father Fred Thelen, Christopher Conner, chairman of St. Vincent Catholic Charities Board of Directors, and Patricia Hepp, retired vice chairwoman of the St. Vincent board. Mason said they have met two times over the past three months to discuss the merger.

“There’s just a lot — too many programs from each agency,” Mason said. “We’re all under the diocese; we’re a diocesan agency.”

Cristo Rey board member Norm Shinkle said the merger “makes sense.”

“Obviously, we work hand in hand with the diocese,” Shinkle said. “We are a division of them. If they want to make a change they have the ability to do it.”

Shinkle said consolidating Cristo Rey and St. Vincent under an “umbrella organization” was “a matter of time.”

“Eventually, the agencies are going to have one director,” he said.

But Cristo Rey board member Rick Olivarez isn’t pleased with some of the deus ex machina decisions handed down by the diocese.

Olivarez said John Roy Castillo’s dismissal as Cristo Rey director in May grew from a “work situation” that was “a molehill that turned into a mountain.”

Olivarez said the board did an internal investigation of Castillo, but did not say what it was about. Olivarez said no wrongdoing was found, but the diocese still removed Castillo a few days after coming back to work. Olivarez suggested that the diocese is “pulling the strings” at the community center.

“It’s very frustrating,” Olivarez said. “My concern, as a board member, of the merger, is that it may eliminate the Hispanic variable out of the question.”

Former Cristo Rey board member Victor Diaz said the consolidation is understandable from the fiscal point of view.

“This is just part of the church cutting back,” he said. “They’ve got their own issues. They’re not going to get donations they used to.”

His biggest concern is the “wish to have Hispanics lead Hispanics.”

“That’s the real goal here,” Diaz said. “Ethnic cultures move together and congregate. This is really what this is about.”

This is not the first time a group of Cristo Rey supporters have felt too strongly crushed to the bosom of Mother Church. Against the backdrop of 1960s civil rights turmoil, a split formed at Cristo Rey between conservative members and activists. In 1970, labor activist Gilberto Martinez split from Cristo Rey to start Quinto Sol, an alternative cultural and political center for Latinos in Lansing, in 1970, on East Grand River Avenue in North Town.

Along with educational and cultural programs, Martinez went into prisons to educate inmates and drug addicts (“the people Jesus helped,” Martinez said).

The rhetoric then was hotter than it is now. Angered that Lansing’s Bishop Joseph Albers bought two marble angels for his lavish west Lansing home, Martinez declared in a press conference that the bishop “cared more about stone idols” than the well being of the migrant workers the center served.

But Cristo Rey is impossible to imagine outside the church. Benavides pointed out that in the 1970s, three community centers served Lansing’s Spanish-speaking population, but only one has survived.

“Everybody else is gone except Cristo Rey,” Benavides said. “Quinto Sol is gone, Razas is gone. Cristo Rey has remained. We have God. The diocese has always been a part of us.”

Since retiring from public service, Benavides has kept busy doing pro bono work helping immigrants find legal help and health care. He said he’s willing to go back to work for Cristo Rey until the slide is stabilized and a permanent director can be found.

“Cristo Rey needs to get back into business again,” he said. “They can do that. I don’t need their money, I’m OK. I can volunteer until they hire someone to do the job.”

If that call comes, Eustacio Lozano may change his retirement plans. He turns 62 next year and said he would leave if things stay as they are at Cristo Rey.

“If Mr. Benavides came back, I’m not retiring,” he said.

Director’s past

The interim director of the Cristo Rey Community Center has a criminal record for embezzlement that at least three members of the center’s board say they were unaware of when they appointed him.

Robert Vogel, who has served as the financially struggling center’s interim director for about six months, pleaded guilty in 1989 to seven felony counts of taking money from clients he represented as an attorney. Vogel, who was 42 at the time, pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $250,000 from estates pending in probate court, as a trustee of a living trust and as the custodian of his law firm’s trust account, according to the Attorney Discipline Board of Michigan, which revoked Vogel’s law license. He also pleaded guilty to forging a $10,300 check without the consent of the payee and forged a settlement amount for $19,500 from a personal injury action. Vogel was later sentenced to three to 14 years in prison.

When contacted, Vogel declined to comment on the charges, saying, “Those are personnel matters.” Prior to being appointed interim director, Vogel managed workforce development at Cristo Rey for four years.

An attorney who had worked with Vogel said Vogel joined a private law firm, Scodeller, DeLuca and Schober, where he was put in charge of the business end of the firm, which included investing in pension and trust funds. Before that, he was an assistant prosecutor for Ingham County, where other members of the firm had also been on staff.  A bad investment led Vogel to keep “borrowing” money to cover it, the attorney said.

Because of the recidivism rate among embezzlers, the attorney who worked with Vogel added: “I would never put him in a position of handling money.”

John Dama, who was the executor to one of the estates from which Vogel took money for his own use, said Vogel served about two-and-a-half years in prison.

When contacted about this story last week, board members Tony Baltimore, Frank Ferro and Rick Olivarez said they were unaware of Vogel’s history.  Baltimore, who runs U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers’ Lansing office, said he was “shocked” when told about Vogel’s background.

The 10-member board appointed him as interim director about six months ago on the recommendation of the Catholic Diocese of Lansing. At least one board member, Norm Shinkle, was aware of Vogel’s past and said in an interview that he had “paid his dues” to society.

Dama, who retired from the Lansing Police Department as a lieutenant in 2000, said he knew Vogel since high school. As a private attorney, Vogel was the “first person I turned to for legal advice,” Dama said after being asked to be the executor of an estate. Dama’s wife and Vogel’s wife were “best friends,” he said.

While Dama does not have a “very high opinion” of Vogel, the Catholic diocese believes Vogel is qualified for the Cristo Rey position in which he oversees a $1.6 million budget.

“For the Catholic church, one of the four main tenets is forgiveness,” diocese spokesman Michael Diebold said. “We look at people as a whole.”

While he declined to comment further on Vogel’s past and how his appointment came before the board without all directors being told, Diebold said the diocese is “confident in the internal controls in place” that would prevent such crimes from happening in the future. He said all schools and churches affiliated with the diocese, which spread across 10 counties in Michigan, are “all audited on an annual basis” by outside accounting firms.

Al Salas, the owner of Lansing Athletics, who has expressed concerns about a possible merger between Cristo Rey and St. Vincent Catholic Charities, said it is a “big concern” that Vogel was appointed to head the community center, even though he was charged 23 years ago, because of fears that it could happen again.