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.
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