Cristo Rey merger on hold

By Lawrence Cosentino

Diocese meets with citizens' group; spokesman says 'all options are on table’'

After meeting with a group of citizens worried about the fate of North Lansing’s Cristo Rey Community Center, the Catholic Diocese of Lansing has backed off its plan to merge the center with St. Vincent Catholic Charities.

“Any option is still on the table,” Diocese spokesman Michael Diebold said in a phone interview Tuesday. “If that ends up being a consolidation, if it ends up with a stronger and more renewed Cristo Rey Community Center standing on its own, without consolidation, it’s going to be whatever is best for the community and the center.”

Four members of a citizens’ group opposing the merger met with Deacon Michael Murray, legal counsel of the Diocese of Lansing, on Feb. 21.

The meeting was long sought by the group, Coalition for Community Empowerment. Complaints that the center’s services are dwindling and concerns that it might lose its Hispanic identity under a merger were compounded by the group’s frustration at waiting five months for an answer from the Diocese.

“It was a very forthcoming, very cordial meeting,” said Lorenzo Lopez, who participated in the meeting. “We have certainly reached a new dynamic, no question about it.” Murray met with Lopez, Al Salas, Gina Salas and Carmen Benavides.

Diebold said the diocese and the coalition share the same goal.

“We’re both on the same side of understanding and appreciating the value of the center, both from the standpoint of the Hispanic community in the area and the entire North Side community,” Diebold said.

Over 50 people, including several Latino community leaders, braved ice and sleet to pack a cramped room at Foster Community Center Feb. 26 to hear about the coalition’s meeting with Murray and discuss the center’s future.

Lopez told the group they had finally “gotten the diocese’s attention.”

“We want a big hold placed on this merger,” he said.

The group’s next step, Lopez said, is to put together a two-year funding and organizational plan to get the struggling center back on its feet, without merging with St. Vincent Catholic Charities.

Diebold said such a plan would “definitely be something the diocese would be open to.”

To that end, the coalition filed a Freedom of Information Act request two weeks ago, asking for the center’s financial and organizational information. Lopez said Murray agreed to supply “as much information as he could,” and Diebold confirmed that.

Concern over Cristo Rey’s decline and the pending merger energized the Feb. 26 public meeting. There were ironic laughs when coalition member Elva Reyes taped two poster-sized sheets to a wall and asked people to list programs that had been cut at Cristo Rey.

“You need more, two is not enough,” a man called out.

Cindi Benavides, an employee at Cristo Rey for 28 years, said programs cut over the years included weekend youth programs, adult education, clothing and furniture exchanges, and daily lunches at a community kitchen.

Many cultural events at the center, including Our Lady of Guadalupe Day on Dec. 12, Cinco de Mayo celebrations and a Mothers’ Day cookout, have also been cut.

Benavides said the only services remaining at the Center are a clinic, prescription assistance and reduced food pantry and senior programs.

“Employees are taking money out of their own pockets to continue programs, and that shouldn’t be happening,” Reyes said.

Coalition members said they hope to round up enough grants and donors, including former supporters of Cristo Rey, to support a freestanding center along the lines of the nonprofit Hispanic Center of West Michigan in Kent County.

Rafael Marinez, former director of development of St. Vincent’s Children’s Home and now an assistant dean at Michigan State University, said the staff at St. Vincent Catholic Charities is “great” but already overstretched, even before taking on Cristo Rey.

“My worry is that they have one person in there that raises money for 18 programs,” he said. “If that person doesn’t know the Hispanic community, it’s going to fall.”

Cristo Rey’s marketing and development director, George Alvarado, told the group he agrees with the coalition “on a lot of points.”

“When it comes to a merger, I don’t think anybody here wants it,” Alvarado said, adding that he has already discussed fundraising with former Cristo Rey director Tony Benavides and Marinez. Benavides left in 2003 to become mayor of Lansing.

“We need more energy, we need more events,” Alvarado said. “Trust me. I see it.”

Another flashpoint of concern for the coalition is Cristo Rey’s interim director, Robert Vogel, who is not Hispanic and doesn’t speak Spanish.

“We want more leadership that has a Latino face, so my grandfather or somebody else can go there and talk to somebody,” Marinez said.

Former Mayor Benavides, who helped found Cristo Rey in 1968, kept a low profile at the meeting, but made his position clear in a brief comment from the audience. Benavides told the group that as director, he served under three bishops, but the center’s mission stayed the same.

“Bishop [Mieceslaus] Zaleski said, ‘As long as there is a social mission of the Church, there is always a Cristo Rey,’” Benavides said. “And Bishop [Kenneth] Povish reaffirmed that. Cristo Rey was needed 45 years ago, when we started it, and it’s needed today. Now this deal with Catholic Social Services is different from what we had.”

Anselmo “Chemo” Rodriguez, another longtime Latino community leader, reminded the group of the center’s core mission.

“People have to remember where we came from, how this got started,” Rodriguez said. “I remember celebrating Mass out in the migrant fields. Nothing, not even a tent.” Rodriguez said the need for St. Vincent is “different” from the need for Cristo Rey. “The outreach is different,” he said. “People feel comfortable there. They don’t go to other places.”

Lopez said the coalition is starting a Facebook page and will shortly announce more public meetings as it develops its two-year plan.