In the battle for the right of religious groups to rent space in public schools just as other community groups do, City Councilman Fernando Cabrera was the lion from the Bronx. Against the determined opposition of the city’s grand poobahs Mayor Mike Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, he introduced a Right to Worship resolution and pushed it continuously. However, Quinn used her powers as speaker to block the resolution from city council consideration. She feared that a growing consensus in the council was that the religious groups were being unfairly singled out.
Then, her nerve broke as election time came up. Her intransigence to let democracy work for religious groups made her seem more bigot-like than mayor-like. Public support was on the side of the religious groups. A Journey Poll, which was cited in the council debates, found that over two-thirds (69%) of the people surveyed near the public schools that host worship services think that it is okay for the religious groups to rent the space.
Quinn reluctantly allowed the council to debate and vote on the resolution. It passed with an overwhelming vote of 38 to 11 with Quinn voting with the “No’s.” The fight gained Cabrera near celebrity status in the faith community and respect among city leaders.
The Right to Worship resolution means that the city is officially on record favoring the right of religious groups to rent space from public schools during the off-hours. It undermines the city government’s argument in a case pending in the federal courts that reasonable people of New York City would interpret a worship service in the public schools during the off hours as a government endorsement of that church’s religion.
In the beginning
Cabrera didn’t start out to become a politician. Rather, it grew out of a long pastoral career in which he dealt with problems that afflicted his parishioners.
The story really starts in Los Angeles, not New York City, and in the 20th Century, not the 21st Century.
Hoping to alleviate the acute asthma of his twin brother Angelo, the Cabrera family moved from Puerto Rico to southern California for its dry, warm climate. The young Cabrera may have been relieved that the family wasn’t returning to the Bronx. He was still traumatized by its violence. At age seven or eight his intervention to stop some kids from beating up his cousin in the Edenwald Projects lead to a group of big kids showing up at Cabrera’s grandmother’s house to beat him up. Southern California with its nice weather and palm trees would be better for him.
Indeed, the weather was friendly, but Cabrera experienced a culture shock. He later recalled in a talk to a youth group that as a young kid, he hadn’t experienced the racism and prejudice like that he started to receive in southern California.
“I was called all sorts of names. Wetback…Burrito Head…Beaner.”
The young Cabrera developed a serious identity crisis. He became obsessed with making a name for himself by winning recognition in sports. However, the recognition didn’t fill up his heart. “I felt empty, like something was missing.” He felt he was like a human being with something broken inside. His family went to church, but the young Cabrera coasted through the experience.
“I would go clubbing Saturday night and get up Sunday morning for church,” Cabrera recalls. “I would listen to the sermon but would just sit there.”
In the meantime his twin was becoming transformed through a spiritual conversion. Cabrera noticed and was curious. He told himself, “I have to see what changed my brother.”
So, in 1981 the seventeen year old went on a church retreat on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The kid was tough and aggressive on the outside but inside was a mix of fear, anger and self-doubt.
Then at a worship service, something like an emotional storm came over him. A preacher asked if the kids were prepared to give their lives to Christ. This meant a heart seized by the Spirit, a washing out of feelings of rejection, anger and insecurities. All of a sudden, Cabrera felt that his life was being swept into God’s presence. He walked out.
The young man couldn’t understand what was happening to him. On his way out the door he noticed that other kids were walking up to the altar one by one. But Cabrera felt that this was a moment between him and God. He took a moment of solitude with God. The kid’s inner emotional ferocity was being replaced with a God-given self-control, which became a life-long habit.
Alone, all his fears and angers just started welling up as a spring of unhappiness. “When I was outside, I began to break,” Cabrera said.
With tears streaming down his face, the boy had that ineffable feeling of God's direct presence. “His presence came on me with power,” Cabrera says. He had never ever felt that kind of presence before. A jagged feeling of brokenness just dissolved away. Cabrera realized that he could repent and follow God wholly like his brother.
“I spoke to God,” Cabrera recalls. “It was a real as this conversation [in our interview] that we’re having right now.”
He told God, “How have I sinned! What a sinner I am!”
The moment remains a mountain top in Cabrera’s memory.
“I have never had anything remotely close to that experience.”
That palpable sense of God’s presence rocked Cabrera's world so powerfully that night that he felt a calling to become a pastor as a sort of maximum commitment to God. But he still a had way to go before he was prepared for the job.
One reservation that Cabrera had was that he didn’t want to go back to the Bronx. He still was haunted by a fear of the violence in the housing projects. A few months later Cabrera told God that he would even go back to the Bronx.
First, he enrolled in Southern California College (now called Vanguard University), a Christian university affiliated with the Assemblies of God denomination. He later got a masters in counseling from Liberty University. After graduation, he gained experience in helping other people restart their lives too by working for New Life for Youth. The rehab center itself was founded by another New Yorker Victor Torres, once a heroin addict, dealer and warlord of a Brownsville, Brooklyn gang, the Roman Lords. Torres’ life-turnaround encouraged Cabrera to plan his return to the Bronx.
In 1988, he returned home to his roots (his father’s background is Dominican and his mother’s Puerto Rican). Soon after arriving back in the Bronx, Cabrera took a day to worship God by himself. He had the same impulse at an important moment to move to solitude with God as he had had at his conversion in Los Angeles.
Alone with God in the Bronx, Cabrera again had a sense of the overpowering presence of God.
Like the California experience, Cabrera felt weak before his challenges. He wanted to start an outreach in a Bronx that was much rougher than it is now. Overwhelmed with the burden and his fears, he surrendered to God. And that made him strong and ready for action.
These paradoxical acts of faith—surrender then a sense of impending victory—are very common among evangelical Christians. Sometimes, the process is capsulated as “let go and let God.” Cabrera uses the language of defeat in battle as the beginning of a new life of victory.
“From the very beginning, you surrender your guilt, fear and rejection,” he says. The life of a Christian replicates Jesus dying on the cross before being resurrected by his Father. “That’s the life of surrendering. In our weakness, God wants to show himself strong.” Cabrera admitted to God his fears on coming back to the Bronx, then he felt God’s power.
This time he felt an outpouring of God’s love. “I felt a supernatural love for the city,” Cabrera recalls. “I began to weep for the city.”
With his Mexican-American wife Elvia he started a Bible study with a small, eclectic group of alcoholics, people living together and others. After the study grew, Cabrera and his wife founded a new storefront church. It reflected his own spiritual life and dreams of making a bigger impact and was called New Life Outreach International.
The little church then went on a constant journey of finding rental space. Cabrera recalls the church’s history as periods defined by the spaces which they rented: “the car garage church” and “the Bodega church.” However, each move brought the church into contact with new ministry opportunities.
At one point the church was located in-between two corners controlled by drug-dealing gangbangers. The church grew as it reached out to the neighborhood kids and prayed against the gang life.
While building up the congregation at New Life, he needed to have a day job. He built a career as a substance abuse counselor for various high schools and Mercy College, where he also taught. Thirteen years ago, the church purchased a former synagogue, starting the phase of “the synagogue church,” and now serves about 400 congregants.
Life took an interesting turn for him when he ran for the council seat of Bronx District 14 in 2009.
Cabrera was discontented with the lack of leadership by politicians. He was a vocal critic of the disastrous Croton Water Filtration project in Van Cortlandt Park which had billions of dollars of cost-overruns while failing to deliver on promises of new park facilities.
“Before I got elected, I saw my neighborhood go down and down and down,” Cabrera said. “I didn't see representation. I never even saw my council member.” The incumbent was often a no-show from her official duties, not a very good example to the youth in the area.
He thought that the youth had no direction and leadership. One year, he attempted to organize a park event but was given a difficult time by the park's commissioner. The event never materialized.
Out of growing frustration, the pastor decided that rather than only registering complaints, which were ignored, he should run for the city council. “I needed another platform [to help the community] and really what this job provides is another platform to do greater good,” he says.
The election against the incumbent in the Democratic primary was very close, but observers say that Cabrera was a very energetic, fiery campaigner. Cabrera remembers, “The odds were against us.” But he had the support of a highly dedicated core of youthful supporters from his church hitting the streets to campaign for him. The effort nudged out a very narrow win by seventy-five votes.
“That was one of the greatest moments in my life,” Cabrera recalls.
In office Cabrera has also been very energetic in representing his district. When he speaks at official functions, the councilman can seem very deliberate and tension free. But behind his disciplined presentation, you sense a fire inside. This striking combination of qualities comes out in one of his sermons, “If you are going to be a spiritually intensive person, you need to follow a schedule.” In an interview Cabrera commented, “I like things to be organized and am big on details. I think greatness is found in details.”
Now that he is up for re-election, Cabrera has the benefit of reflections on his experiences as a city council member. A Journey tapped into his accumulated wisdom with a chat in his West Bronx campaign headquarters. Right away, we noticed that the setting says something about the man.
His clutter-free campaign office has the bare necessities: a dark wooden desk and black computer chair, a professional work phone within arm's reach, a round table for meetings and extra seating for visitors. It exemplifies a no-fuss individual who needs merely the basic essentials to work.
From God’s servant to civil servant
“It's a vocation for me. A vocation is more than a job,” Cabrera says about his role in politics. “My calling is to serve others, and I think as long as we make a decision based on serving others… this is how we protect the integrity of the office.” In church Cabrera’s service is by pastoring according to the Bible and one’s experience with God.
When it comes to being a politician, the sense of calling Cabrera refers to means that the servant of Christ becomes a public servant, a civil servant serving the democratic good, not just those specific concerns of the church.
Two civil flags stand tall behind him, seemingly embracing a shelf with books, plaques, and framed photos, including one of President Barack Obama. Photos of Cabrera standing side by side with neighborhood members in smiles sparsely decorate the room, representing a reminder of his civil servanthood to the community.
Cabrera says that the two professions of pastor and politician complement one another. He believes that he has to be a good steward in how he invests money into the tasks for his church and the public’s money through votes on the city council. “I answer to a higher authority,” Cabrera says about the role of his Christian beliefs. “I have to live a life of integrity. This job is about making sound judgments. Whoever is elected is elected to make good judgments.”
Sitting in his black swivel office chair, Cabrera has an air of determination and self-sufficiency.
He sees his Christian faith as a strength for his candidacy. “It takes a certain type of faith in believing that your community can be better,” Cabrera says. “I think my (Christian) faith has given me that, to see a better future.”
He evokes the very practical “Book of Proverbs” in the Bible to characterize himself. Quoting from chapter twenty-three, verse seven, Cabrera recited, “As a man thinks in his heart, so he is” to emphasize the connection between his beliefs, vision, and action. The implication is that any action begins in your heart by trusting a certain vision. It is that trust in a vision for New York City that is similar to trusting God.
Indeed, Cabrera's office runs like a evangelical church with emphasis on assistance and accessibility. His grassroots operation knocks on apartment doors asking tenants, “What is it that you need?” He also prefers the help of volunteers rather than paid employees, reasoning that “volunteers do it with love.” The campaign has a traveling mobile office, along with a telephone number citizens can text to reach Cabrera's office (347-541-5768). Cabrera's campaign website even encourages the community to stop by the campaign office and say hello.
One of Cabrera's top four issues is the completion of the Kingsbridge Armory, which is a 5-acre complex with unsuccessful redevelopment plans dating back over a decade. He observes that the armory is practically “in his backyard” to his apartment three blocks away and his church one block away. The redevelopment would benefit the neighborhood and the parishioners of church. The long-term community benefits of a successful repurposing of the Kingsbridge Armory are tremendous. The armory has potential to accommodate nine regulation-size ice rinks and create 267 permanent jobs.
“We're not just going to provide jobs, but living wage jobs so people could have a wage they could live on and not affect the local business people,” Cabrera explains. “This way it's going to be able to really enhance the local community.”
The city council member says that his economics comes out of his Christian mindset. He says, “Generosity is important to me, a giving type of mentality.”
Another civil service that Cabrera relishes is exemplified by his office's efforts to help a single mother with five children to avoid eviction from her apartment. Her next stop would have been an uncertain transit to a homeless shelter. To avoid that, Cabrera's office assembled a “one shot deal” for her landlord involving a combination of welfare money and funds from “different nonprofit organizations.” During our interview Cabrera mentions that the woman is still living in the apartment.
What about separation of church and state?
As a leader in the national spotlight on a big church-state debate, Rivera has been thinking about how to balance out these two crucial institutions of the city. In the Right to Worship movement, the councilman says he is fighting for the original meaning of a separation of church and state that was followed by the founding fathers and most American leaders.
Cabrera says that President Thomas Jefferson's usage of the term “separation of church and state” in his 1802 address to Baptists’ concerns about the government's control of their religion.
In an 1802 letter Jefferson addressed their fears that the federal government would discriminate against their church. Cabrera believes that the context shows that Jefferson’s reply was meant to protect churches, not to strip people of their religious faith when they enter government office. Some people have “reframed the statement,” the councilman says, “trying to take away the rights of the people of faith to have an influence on the government.”
Cabrera says the current city government with Speaker Quinn's support is using the government to frustrate the religious freedom of its citizens. Some fellow politicians have even expressed anti-religious sentiments, Cabrera notes. However, the councilman declined to mention any specific names.
What's unusual about Cabrera is that he personally straddles the two worlds of church and government and sees commonalities between them. For him religions that respect democratic values and the state that is organized according to democratic principles are necessary allies in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness for everyone regardless of their beliefs, wealth or power. “You cannot sociologically remove faith from a society,” he concludes--with fervor.