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Protest movement grows, Bronx Pastor willing to die to oppose city policy against churches meeting in public schools

  Pastor Dimas Salaberrios is on his 19th day of a hunger strike against a city policy that will kick out over 60 churches and other religious groups from worshipping in public schools during the off-hours. His effort is one of many protests, prayer gatherings, and pastoral sit-ins organized during the last three weeks by […]

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City Comptroller John C. Liu, other city leaders & pastors protest on Wednesday the treatment of churches by city government

Pastor Dimas Salaberrios is on his 19th day of a hunger strike against a city policy that will kick out over 60 churches and other religious groups from worshipping in public schools during the off-hours.

His effort is one of many protests, prayer gatherings, and pastoral sit-ins organized during the last three weeks by religious leaders, council members, and lay members. Last Thursday, during mayor Bloomberg's State of the City address at Morris high school, 43 protestors against the policy were arrested.

Daughter in hand, Pastor Dimas rallies the city with his hunger strike.

The religious leaders believe that the poor in their neighborhood will suffer by the closure of their churches. “Their [Department of Education] decision is very short sighted for the city. If you add up the volunteer force of the church, their services for the poor and the needy, it comes to over a billion dollars a year. When you uproot churches in these communities, it will be devastating,” said Pastor Dimas, whose Infinity Church meets at the Bronx River Houses in the Soundview area.

The pastor knows the challenges of growing up in a rough and tumble neighborhood. He spent his teenage years in Queens surrounded by the crack epidemic. His mother protected her son by taking him to church services that were held in public schools.  Pastor Dimas’ appreciation for those days now propel him to fight for the churches that are protecting a new generation of poor children in the city’s housing projects.

Neighbors unaffiliated with the church support Pastor Dimas’ observation that crime, gang activity, and violence has decreased significantly since his church started meeting in the Bronx River Houses since 2003. Even as his energy weakens from his hunger strike, the pastor remains at the center of neighborhood peacemaking. Three days ago, a caller from the projects asked to turn in a gun to the police through the church. Pastor Dimas went to the projects, picked up the 9 shot, 25 caliber silver-plated gun and dropped it off at the local precinct. As part of the effort to get guns off the street, the NYPD is working with local pastors to encourage people to anonymously turn in their weapons. Pastors across the city participate in this effort.


Protest movement is growing

The protests against the kicking out of churches from meeting at public schools in the off-hours has created a growing sense of unity among Christian groups in the city. Protest leaders are expanding their network and building a unified front.

Yesterday, the movement gained public support from city politicians. They took their protest to the steps of the Tweed Building, home of the Department of Education. The churches were supported by the presence of Councilmembers Fernando Cabrera of The Bronx, Vincent Gentile and Letitia James of Brooklyn, Ydanis Rodriguez of Manhattan, and Mark Weprin and Peter Vallone from Queens.

At the press conference, City Comptroller John C Liu said the change in policy was of concern to the Korean congregations in New York City. Clergy of churches who will lose their space to worship also spoke out about the city’s new policy.

Robert Hall of Bronx Household of Faith said that the policy requires the Department of Education to distinguish worship from other religious activities like prayer and Bible studies that are allowable. It means the state determines the meaning of religious practice. Rick Del Rio of Abounding Grace Ministries in the Lower East Side and Salvador Sabino of Heavenly Christian Center in the Bronx and Washington Heights expressed frustration that they city would evict the church from their place of worship after partnering with city for years to reach out to gang members in their neighborhoods. Del Rio’s ministry works to bring donations to the public schools. Sabino is a former gang leader in Washington Heights and The Bronx who left a life of crime after his conversion.

Movement leaders point out that as the movement grows, unity will be harder to achieve. Pastor Dimas says that this is their next challenge. “Help will really be for the church to stand up as one for against this thing,” he said during a telephone conversation with A Journey. The Christian groups are planning a day of solidarity on Thursday, February 2nd. Pastor Dimas said that the protest leaders are asking supporters to stay home from work and abstain from meat while praying that the city government will stop its persecution of the churches.

The pastor is leading the way with his hunger strike, which is entering the third week, the beginning of a period of danger for hunger strikers.

Dr. Frank Maselli did a medical check-up on Pastor Dimas last Sunday. The pastor's blood pressure was normal, and he is waiting to hear back on the results of a blood test. To get a better idea of what happens to the human body during a hunger strike, A Journey spoke to Dr. Meredith Hawkins, professor of Endocrinology in Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Dr. Hawkins says that the body will start to destroy the muscles and fat for energy after more than a day with no food. The rate in which the body ails is relative to the body size and how active the person is. “Busyness would be a factor. If you are not eating and are active, the main disabling symptom is feeling dizzy and weak. The more you keep up your energy needs, the weaker you'll get,” said Dr. Hawkins.

A Journey asked Pastor Dimas what his family thought about his decision. “My wife is supportive, she doesn't want me to die,” he said chuckling a laugh. “And my kids know how important the church is.” However, his daughters, ages one and four, do not understand what is happening to their father as he gets weaker and weaker.

“If the Department of Education wants a martyr on their hands to open their eyes,” he said, “I rest in God's grace and hope.”


With additional reporting by Christopher Smith.

Video: Pastor Dimas tries to unify NYC Christians while reminding Michael  Bloomberg that his constituency supported the mayor's re-election. Video provided by Infinity NY Church, Bronx

  • Hi there Again I Hope and pray that the Last entry I put on here as Steve ray will stay on here as it will Help my self and others as God Knows I Need HELP. ... Amen

  • Hi I have just Read your Situation I am a Christian Myself and I am going through a Real Extream Situation Myself and I Belive the only way For word is to go on as know one seems to be Listening to what I am saying as I live and Work in a Homeless Charity.

  • Steve, Thank you for your prayers! We recently starting looking at faith-based programs for the homeless in London. We look forward to hearing about your experiences. Very best!

  • Hi there I am a Christian in England were I was Born I have to say that I know what your up against as I am also Looking to go on Hunger Strike, for the TRUTH in the situation I have been put in by the Charity Managers and Trustees in a Homeless Charity I would like to say more yet Cant at this point. Yet my Prayers are for you to get what is right as GOD Stands for Truth amen.

  • Blessings Pastor Dimas, It makes me so sad to keep seeing these types of challenges in our neighborhood
    And again our churches. We must create options for our community, our Pastors like yourself and
    Countless others like you who will stand and make a difference. BUT... We must get the lack
    Of money out of the way.... Pastor Dimas I left a website above for a powerful fundraising program that
    Allows any CAUSE or FAITH- BASED organization to generate upfront and residual. LINX2f
    FUNDS is the solution to our community's tough economic challenges.
    Click on "what is Linx2funds...
    We have a Pastorial Luncheon on this Thursday, October 11, 2012 @ 12:30pm.. I know your not eating
    However, if your able to attend it would be worth the time to hear other Pastors, Bishops and Miniters share
    How the program has changed their options as a church, as a Pastor and extended to the congregation.

    Call for ADDTIONAL information and/or to confirm your VIP invitation to the Luncheon
    ROBIN BULLOCK 917-721-1576
    Please share this information with all the NYC CHRISTIANS so we can Empower and Unify across the state and
    City...God Bless You.

  • Good questions! A holistic concern for our people is needed.

  • I googled this but I could not find the justification for this. What does Bloomberg say about this? Who in City Council supports this? Will there be a vote on this? Was there a vote on this? Whose decision was this? Why are people on other sites discussing this getting Obama involved in this?
    As Luis above said, these are times for more services to the poor, not less.

  • Great reporting. These are times for more services to the poor not less. Thanks

  • Please share/send this to your Korean Christian friends -우리가 종교 자유에 대한 브루클린 다리 건너기도로 오후 3시 반시 일요일 2012년 1월 29일에 뉴욕시 전체에서 목사에 가입하시기 바랍니다.시장은 일요일에 공립학교에서 만나고 예배의 모든 집을 퇴거 싶어. 우리가기도로 우리가 예배로 우리 교제로, 우리와 함께하시기 바랍니다. 질문 : 전화 목사님 빌 데블린 646.233.7279 또는 이메일

  • I shared this with my church community and I asked them to pray on this issues, as well as, to ask the Lord to keep Tiffany Salaberrios and the kids encouraged and protected.

  • Here in Virginia praying for Dimas and the churches in New York City! Freedom of assembly is apart of the 1st Amendment of our Constitution, there is no reason why congregations should not legally be allowed to meet in public schools. But moreover, I pray that the members of these churches would not lose heart, and would trust in God's will for their worship and community.

  • Hi Duane,

    As you know, some people estimate that there may be around 10,000 other community groups that meet regularly and irregularly in the schools on the off-hours. These groups range from stick-ball clubs to political gatherings. It seems unreasonable to label all these groups as meeting only for the money. Usually, they give money to the schools for the expense of their meetings, donate money to the community and donate countless hours of labor. In sum schools act as incubators for community groups, including churches, to get born and bring billions of dollars of resources into the city.

    The churches think that singling them out for exclusion is discrimination against religion, not freedom of religion. They think that the city government narrowly targeted their rules so that the churches are excluded for "worship" while all other types of activities are okay.

    The NYC public school system is the largest is the United States and, maybe, in the world. It is one of the backbones of our neighborhoods. Most school leaders that we talk to want to be good neighbors and not discriminate against religious people who make up the large majority of their constituency.

    Thanks for your comments.

  • Friends of New York this is not a True Christian Movement, in fact this movement is not Biblical. According to the Bible neither Jehovah God or Jesus Christ will endorse this against the Government. Mr. Dimas says it's God's Will to do this. (This is not true) This is not Christianity at all, and many are fooled into believing it is.

    I'm a Christian and asking for you to stop using the name Christian, God of the Bible or Jesus Christ in your demonstrations. I'm not saying what your doing is right or wrong in this world. What is wrong is your label of Christian, God's Will, etc.. It's not God's Will to do what you are doing.

    Be careful those who want to be a True Follower of Jesus Christ and be called Christian. This is a perfect "wolf in sheep's clothing".

    It's all about getting "Government Sponsored Programs", Benefits in the name of religion and the poor are the pawns in this scam. They don't promote True Bible Learning, it's all for the "donations" and "government checks" with "social programs" paid by the government. Donations, donations, donations, we need your money to feed the poor.

    These are "secular schools" not "biblical learning schools". Christians should ask: why so many Independent church groups? There is no "unity" with these so-called church groups, each has his own way. why? It's a hustle for your money, that's why. This is not good friends.

  • Wake Up people of Bronx! Don't let these guys steal your places of worship! Support Dimas and your right to assembly.

  • I like the article's approach.

  • New York City Dept of Education is preventing religious groups to meet on public school grounds after hours. This marginalizes those who have limited or no means to share and discuss their faith with like-minded believers (read the article for one such story). It's a tough issue since many cite the separation of church and state as the main issue but this concept can be interpreted to allow religious groups to meet. For those with limited economic means and time, a public school has often been a good solution.

  • More about how freedom seems to be out of style.

  • God have mercy on our Nation. I can't believe that ideologues can reverse history while we stand by debating trivial points and re-arranging the deck chairs on the "Titanic".

  • IMO, there's nothing wrong with civic groups, including religious organiations, from renting space in public school buildings. Indeed, many schools benefit financially by such arrangements. Apparently the Bronx School District is financially set and doesn't need this source of income. There isn't a violation of church and state.

  • Luis,
    I very much hope there's a light at the end of the tunnel, too.

    A protestor I had spoken to during last Thursday's 43 arrests made the same argument of voting booths in public schools. City policy stands under a certain understanding of separation of church and state, which is the current logic in disallowing religious groups to meet during off-school hours.

    John M,
    I heard of an online petition being started up. Not sure if this is true until I see it, but there's word of more action.

    Thank you for your comments, all! We are following this closely.

  • Like the article.

  • Also like this in Pennsylvania.

  • Like this article also in Pennsylvania!

  • Like this article n Kansas!

  • Like article

  • Here in Oklahoma I am praying keep the faith!!

  • Praying for this situation to be resoved soon!

  • I don't live in NYC, but my polling place is in a church building. If we can vote in church buildings, what's the problem with churches renting space in schools on Sunday?

  • Very interesting developments !! I will be following this closely !! I hope that this group is finding some lawyers who can help develop a case, which will help develop a long term policy, satisfactory to all parties.

  • Christianity Today covers protest, hunger strike.

  • Thanks for posting this!

  • Like this!

  • I like this article.

  • Thanks!

  • I like this article.

  • Great reporting of very sad story. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?

  • I am proud to know a man of God like pastor Dimas. I pray that it is God's will to turn the heart's around of the city officials who could change this policy. I pray for peace for pastors family in this difficult time. Know that the will of God will be carried out. I just pray it's not at the expense (our thoughts are not His thoughts) of our brother in Christ.

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