Cristo Rey merger is off

By Lawrence Cosentino

Community center's future will reach 'resolution' soon, diocese says

This story was corrected on May 16 to say the name of the citizens group is Coalition for Community Empowerment.

A proposed merger between Cristo Rey Community Center and St. Vincent Catholic Charities that has been under attack by a citizens group has been called off, Michael Murray, legal counsel for the Diocese of Lansing, said Monday.

Michael Diebold, spokesman for the diocese, said “discussions” about the future structure of Cristo Rey are in progress, but there was nothing to report yet. “The diocese expects a resolution, possibly within two weeks,” Diebold said.

Murray, or another representative from the diocese, will announce the decision to call off the merger at a community forum on the future of Cristo Rey Thursday night.

Stopping the merger was a goal sought for months by the Coalition for Community Empowerment, a group formed last fall amid reports of declining services at Cristo Rey, anger over the appointment of a non-Spanish-speaking interim manager, Robert Vogel, and concern that the center would lose its Hispanic identity under a merger.

Relations between the diocese and the coalition have changed a lot since the frosty fall of 2012, when the diocese left the coalition’s letters unanswered for months.

“We have come to an agreement that we need each other,” coalition member Alfonso Salas said. “We realized we both want the same thing.”

Beginning in January, a series of meetings between Murray and members of the coalition led to the late February announcement that the merger was on hold, but Diebold said “any option,” including a consolidation, was still on the table.

That option evaporated as the talks continued in March and April. At the most recent meeting Monday morning, Murray met with Lansing City Councilwoman Carol Wood and four members of the group — Salas, Lorenzo Lopez, Guillermo Lopez and Williamston attorney Tonatzin Alfaro Maiz.

“I’m pleased with the interaction (the coalition) has been getting from the diocese,” Wood said.

Maiz has been a member of the Cristo Rey community for over 50 years as a parish member and as a volunteer at the center. “They agree that the level of services and charitable works being provided has declined,” Maiz said.

As an attorney, Maiz often referred people to programs there, but in recent years, she heard negative reports from clients.

“The doors were locked, the programs weren’t unavailable, they didn’t feel they were being treated very respectfully,” she said.

Maiz said that in Monday’s meeting, Murray invoked the priorities of the new Pope, Francis I, who has urged the church to commit itself anew to charitable works.

“They’re committed, under the new p ope, that works of charity are the primary goal of the church, and they need to be a little more up front with that,” Maiz said.

Wood said that by proposing the merger, the church acted “internally,” after looking at mergers in other communities, “not understanding the unique difference Cristo Rey has in the community and why a number of us don’t want to see that identity lost.”

After stopping the merger, the coalition’s second priority, Lopez said, is to replace Cristo Rey’s board of directors. The citizen’s group also wants Cristo Rey’s interim director, Robert Vogel, replaced with someone from the Hispanic/Latino community.

Murray and Diebold declined to comment on those two matters.

In recent talks, the coalition and the diocese used different words to describe what will happen to Cristo Rey’s board of directors, according to Lopez and Salas.

“He (Murray) used the word ‘refresh,’ and we used the word ‘dismantle,’” Lopez said.

No matter which verb is applied to the process, Salas expects the coalition to have a role.

Murray “made it very clear they would like for us to partner with them in the selection of the board as well as the direction of the center,” Salas said. “That’s a good sign. My hat’s off to them.”

Maiz said a citizens’ advisory board might be formed to recommend “diverse” candidates for Cristo Rey leadership “with experience in business and who knows what the community needs.”

The citizens’ board might be made permanent, to assure “this diminishing of services doesn’t occur again,” Maiz said.

Whether the pope is behind the sea change or not, the Franciscan touch will be evident at the forum Thursday. No one from the diocese came to the first forum, held at Foster Community Center on Feb. 26, when over 50 people — including several Latino community leaders — braved ice and sleet to pack the room. Murray, or another representative from the diocese, will attend Thursday’s follow-up. Wood said she will also attend.

“This is a grass-roots situation where it helps to bring in a multitude of people to look at this,” Wood said.

At the first forum, Latino community leaders pondered a range of options, including taking over Cristo Rey as an independent entity, separating from the church and seeking alternative funding sources.

Now that the merger is called off and relations with the diocese are warming, Salas and other coalition members are talking more about a “partnership” with the church.

“We want cooperation,” Salas said.

Wood said that in view of “the fact that the church is willing to work with us, I’m not sure we’re looking at taking on the responsibility of the Center, as long as the church is willing to come with solutions to some of the things that were bubbling to the surface.”

Community Forum on Cristo Rey Community Center
6 p.m. Thursday
Gier Community Center, Room 100
2400 Hall St., Lansing