Jan. 16 2013 12:00 AM

Petition signatures are piling up against merging Cristo Rey Community Center and St. Vincent Catholic Charities

Opponents of a proposal to merge Cristo Rey Community Center with St. Vincent Catholic Charities say they’ve collected about 300 petition signatures against the idea in the past month.

“I think we can have a lot more,” said Al Salas, who is helping to lead the opposition group, Concerned Citizens for Greater Lansing. “We want to let them know we’re serious.”

The group plans to deliver the signatures to the Cristo Rey Board of Directors and the Catholic Diocese of Lansing. Lansing Bishop Earl Boyea is seeking to merge St. Vincent Catholic Charities with the financially troubled Cristo Rey Community Center. Cristo Rey is a diocesan charitable organization. The bishop of the diocese appoints its board members.

But members of the city’s Hispanic community rose up in opposition several months ago. The group fears that Cristo Rey is being allowed to deteriorate without a plan to save the center, which has been a staple support center for Lansing’s Hispanic community since the 1960s

The petition calls for Cristo Rey to continue as a “free-standing Latino agency, maintaining its original concept of Latino control and self-determination” with “appropriate Latino leadership” and “a safe work environment for employees, clients and volunteers.” The center’s interim director, Robert Vogel, is not Hispanic and does not speak Spanish.

The diocese has brushed aside these concerns, saying a “strong Hispanic ministry” would continue.

Salas said the group has continued to press the Cristo Rey board, through letters and at board meetings, for financial information about the community center, to no avail. “All we’re asking from them is to show us the books, where it went wrong and how much it is in debt to the diocese.”

Lorenzo Lopez, who is also part of the merger opposition, said the group hopes to meet with the St. Vincent board next. But he and Salas question whether that board is even interested in taking on Cristo Rey.

“I don’t think that particular board is interested in taking on a stepchild,” Lopez said.

St. Vincent board vice chairwoman Patricia Hepp and secretary Michael Maddox referred questions to St. Vincent spokeswoman Tamra Johnson.

Johnson said representatives from both boards have met and that details of a consolidation are still being explored. 

“During the most recent meeting, St. Vincent Catholic Charities requested to conduct a due diligence process in order to obtain sufficient information that will allow us to make an educated recommendation on how to move forward. … Until that process is completed we do not have any other information to share,” she said in a statement.