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How Archbishop Tutu saved a small New York town from a blowup over hate crimes

A letter from the archbishop resolved an impasse over who is invited to take a seat at the table of justice.

Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu smiles as he celebrates his 86th birthday in Cape Town, South Africa, on Oct. 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Mark Wessels)

PATCHOGUE, N.Y. (RNS) — In November 2008, the murder of Marcelo Lucero, an undocumented Ecuadorian, at the hands of seven high school boys in this Long Island town suddenly garnered national media attention, as their act was labeled a hate crime.

Immigration was looming as a national issue, but the spectacle of 2014’s child migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border or Trump-era caravans of Central Americans headed north had yet to burst onto the scene. In our peaceful island village, the seven teens seemed unaware that anyone even here would care about their weekly sport of “Mexican beaner hopping.” 

Lucero’s funeral was held at the Congregational Church of Patchogue, where I was then and am still the pastor. A week later, we convened at the church again, offering what we called a “Safe Sanctuary” — an opportunity for the alleged victims of hate crimes to confidentially report their assaults. Many Latino people had for years felt unsafe to report to the police or other government agencies for fear of being deported or prosecuted for being undocumented. 

Many who participated, including a national Hispanic organization and some members of Lucero’s family, demanded that we disinvite the police department and other local government officials, who were strongly suspected of being overtly or covertly complicit in Lucero’s murder.

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I believed that it would be dangerous to exclude those who would most likely ultimately have jurisdiction over the murder case, but those opposed to the official present were grieving and angry. We found ourselves at a percolating standstill that could have resulted in a violent explosion.

There was one person whose advice seemed most pertinent at that moment: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose leadership of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa had won him a Nobel Prize for Peace. We had mutual acquaintances, and as some of those gathered threatened to bar the church door against the police and other law enforcement officials, I was able to send an appeal for help.

He was asleep in a London hotel at the time of my urgent message to him, but within a couple of hours he had written and electronically delivered a letter that resolved the impasse over who is invited to take a seat at the table of justice.

Here is Tutu’s letter:

Dear Dwight,

I have heard of your decision to welcome the victims of crimes that have occurred solely because of the ethnicity of the person, to come into the Congregational Church of Patchogue to tell their story in a safe and supportive environment.  I believe this process will result in a form of healing and justice that may not come solely from a court of law.

I commend the actions of your church and community to seek restorative justice that will focus on truth-telling, healing broken relationships, the restoration of trust, and the re-integration of all sides within your community. I strongly invite all parties, including the police, to the table to hear the stories of the victims.  This is difficult work, but work that must be done.  I am praying for you all, the victims and the perpetrators, and their families and friends.

God bless you all,

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

The stories of alleged unreported or underreported hate crimes against Latinos were recorded (confidentially) and at my request by Charles Lane, a reporter from WSHU, a local NPR affiliate. The testimony involved multiple incidences of violence, housing discrimination, substandard housing conditions, labor violations (underpayment for employment, poor working conditions), threats and many other stories that were very difficult to hear — but not too difficult to record and report.

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The audiotapes of the stories were shortly thereafter subpoenaed by a grand jury and prompted a two-year investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. The county executive, district attorney and police commissioner were all eventually dramatically affected by what subsequently transpired. 

The Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter. Courtesy photo

The Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter. Courtesy photo

As we await the funeral and interment of Archbishop Tutu, I am mindful, once again, that even peace has enemies; that advocates of peace, including Tutu, me and the church I serve, became targets of hate for advocating love; but that, ultimately, justice and love win. 

(The Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter is pastor of the Congregational Church of Patchogue, New York. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)