This year’s mayoral race has attracted more pastoral interest than normal. Reverend Erick Salgado, founder of the 22-church network Iglesia Jovenes Cristianos (Church of the Young Christians), is running for the city’s highest office in the Democrat primary. Former pastor Adolfo Carrion, Jr. (he briefly worked as an associate pastor in the Bronx) is running on the Independence Party line, and earlier this year mega-church pastor A.R. Bernard briefly considered contesting for the Republican nomination.
Salgado is the first minister to run for New York City mayor since Rev. Al Sharpton, a Baptist, joined the race in 1997 and lost.
One thing that the hopefuls have in common is a desire to improve upon the government’s response to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in late October of last year. The city incurred over $18 billion of damages.
Hurricane Sandy desecrated four of Salgado's churches and left many of his congregants, who lived in basements in Brighton Beach, scrambling for their lives and basic necessities. For more than ten sleepless days, Salgado clothed, fed, and sheltered them. Almost all were unregistered Latino immigrants without many extra resources and wary of government help.
Salgado’s heart broke when he saw people rummaging through the garbage looking for food in Coney Island during the post hurricane havoc. Salgado began the food distribution center after Hurricane Sandy devastated the city in late October of last year, obliterating the homes of thousands of New Yorkers with waves that reached 35.2 feet high in New York harbor.
Approximately twenty feet away from the campaign office, an obscure warehouse is tucked away behind a row of vans. Sun light reflects off the tinted blue, glossy plastic panels of the single-story building. Three words in script, “Iglesia Jovenes Cristianos,” appear on a modest sign above the entrance. They seem to imply that there is church inside.
However, the warehouse does not contain a raised pulpit for preaching, but towers of canned corn, peanut butter jars, boxed milk and the like. It is a large food pantry with a modest presence that feeds approximately 1,000 families per week.
The pastor says that he felt a political urgency come over him. “I thought to myself, 'I could do more by running for mayor,'” Salgado said during an interview at his campaign office in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
The pastor’s emergency response was the culmination of twenty-four years pastoring and helping the poor Latinos of the city.
Salgado was born in the Bronx, grew up in Puerto Rico and returned to New York City when he was seventeen. He worked as a small businessman and started a bookstore chain with his wife Sonia.
In the late 1980s he founded his first church Iglesia Jovenes Cristianos in Red Hook. Since then, Salgado has added about a church per year to make-up the “Iglesia Jovenes Cristianos” network. Today, the pastor oversees a 22-church network with 10,000 congregants in the tri-state area, mostly in Brooklyn.
Salgado personally pastors a church in Bensonhurst that he founded in December 2001 and expanded a few years later by adding another congregation at a different worship site. “There are two congregations in Bensonhurst, but we consider ourselves one church,” the pastor explains. The congregation predominately serves Guatemalans and some Mexicans and has a total of 1,100 members.
The neighborhood is informally known as “Little Guatemala," an enclave that includes many modern day Mayans who speak Q'iche and are from the mountainous area of Totonicapan. Auto shops, mom and pop diners, and working class two family homes line the blocks leading up to the church. The church building is a gaudy former banquet hall with tinted windows that sits on the corner of two intersecting avenues.
Salgado’s politics grew out of long-time pastoral concerns for his congregants.
His congregants deal with the fear and hardships of being unregistered immigrants. Not surprisingly, Salgado's mayoral campaign largely focuses on immigration reform. The pastor’s immigration politics is representative of a nationwide shift of evangelical Christians in favor of helping immigrants. In an interview with Uptown Radio, Samuel Cruz, a sociologist at Union Theological Seminary, observed that “the Latino Evangelical influence is the biggest reason Evangelicals are now embracing immigration.”
“There are about 900,000 undocumented immigrants in NYC,” Salgado says. “We cannot continue ignoring them.” He cites problems like inability to obtain legal jobs, ineligibility for welfare, and trouble renting apartments because they do not have proper identification cards. They are treated like “second class citizens.” Consequently, unregistered immigrants are unlikely to report when they have been abused at work or incur criminal attacks. The pastor argues that undocumentation is “the modern substitute for slavery.” People want their services but are unwilling to protect the unregistered immigrants from harm.
If he becomes mayor, the first step he would take regarding the issue of unregistered immigrants would be to provide them with identification cards. “If you do not have ID cards, how can you come forward?” he observes. The problem is urgent. Criminals and abusers aren’t waiting for the politicians to make up their minds. An ID card would provide better protection for the immigrants. “While we wait for Congress, they can live with dignity here.”
The politics of feeling
Almost every mayoral candidate is hustling to show that they empathize with the common people, a facility that current Mayor Michael Bloomberg is said to lack. Salgado criticizes the mayor for his unsentimental drive to make the city a destination for free spending tourists while ignoring the pain and suffering of the city residents. He brought up the time Bloomberg announced the closing of the Verrazano Bridge for the marathon a few days after Hurricane Sandy hit NYC. Water-damaged subway stations awaited repair and millions of people lived without electricity while Bloomberg fretted over holding the marathon. “I thought to myself that we need a leader who has sensitivity and can feel the pain people are feeling,” Salgado says. Bloomberg eventually cancelled the marathon.
Salgado believes his credibility as a sensitive guy can be seen through his record of service. “Among the Hispanic, they know me as a radio broadcaster, civil rights defender and advocate,” he said, referring to his radio program Radio Cantico Nuevo started in 2003.
Can a rock star in compassion become mayor?
Salgasdo carries a rock star status to those living in the Bensonhurst community.
Inside Iglesia Jovenes Cristianos' food pantry, Latinos, Asians, and African Americans picking up their share of sustenance enthusiastically approach to shake Salgado’s hand. Senior-aged Chinese ladies pushing shopping carts shyly smile at him. Donnie McLeod, pastor of Inspiration New Church of God in Christ, pours out his gratitude to Salgado, “You've been such a help to my church and community. A lot of people are dependent on the food pantry." McLeod says the food feeds about 120 people each week in the Brownsville area.
The coordinator of the pantry, Miguel Chan, a soft spoken Guatemalan can show pages of signatures of people who have signed in for the food pantry. He says he counted 165 names on yesterday's sheets. These are 165 families Salgado is feeding--maybe not voters but surely potential cheerleaders for his campaign.
Although a seat in the mayor's chair for Salgado is seen as unlikely in the current merry-go round of city politics, Salgado sees an opportunity to promote to a large audience on behalf immigration reform and religious freedom, hot issues within the city’s faith communities. His strategy is also to assemble support from the fast-growing Latino immigrant population. Records from the 2010 U.S. Census show that Latinos make up 28.6% of the city's population. New York State Democratic Senator Rubin Diaz Sr. is supporting Salgado’s candidacy as are other more conservative immigrant leaders.
Latino evangelicals tend to vote more conservatively than their non-evangelical counterparts. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, a national survey indicated that only 50% of Latino evangelicals supported President Obama, although he received 72% of the Latino vote in the 2012 Presidential election. Sixty-one percent of Latinos in the U.S. consider religion to be very important in their lives. Salgado opposes abortion on demand and gay marriage.
Interestingly, some Orthodox Jewish leaders have signed a declaration that voting for Salgado is a “mitzvah chiyuvis,” meaning a religious obligation. Two well-known Brooklyn yeshiva leaders, Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov Nelkenbaum of Rosh Yeshiva of Mir and Rabbi Haim Benoliel of Yeshiva Mikdash Melech signed such a statement of support according to the website United to Save America. The religious values have overcome tensions between Latinos and Orthodox Jews who compete for housing and government attention because of their close proximity to each other.