'Bring the Church to the People’

Episcopal priest heads up Long Island diocese's new East End Latino ministry
The Rev. Gerardo Romo-Garcia

The Rev. Gerardo Romo-Garcia always wanted to work with the poor and underprivileged, but as a young man studying at the Roman Catholic seminary in Guadalajara, Mexico, he could scarcely have imagined that he would one day be an Episcopal priest called to an area not known for pockets of need but for over-the-top affluence.

His mission at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in East Hampton is to reach out to the Spanish-speaking communities on the East End. Eventually he will be based at St. Thomas Chapel in Amagansett. “It’s the Episcopal Church’s first Hispanic ministry in this area,” he said; the nearest is more than 60 miles away. His job, he added, is to serve people of all denominations, not only Episcopalians, and not only churchgoers.

Among the South Fork’s Latino residents, “It is very important to learn that there is no one culture,” Mr. Rom0 Garcia said. “There are many.”

The majority of Latin Americans he meets on the South Fork are from Ecuador, with Colombians a close second, followed, he said, by Costa Ricans and then people from other Central American countries. In Riverhead and Hampton Bays, Mexican immigrants outnumber Ecuadorians. He also has met a number of people from indigenous communities who speak limited Spanish as a second language and English as a third, or vice versa.

Mr. Romo-Garcia has spent the last few months getting to know the community and its needs, meeting people at church, on the street, at farms, even in the launderette where he took his own clothes before he settled in the rectory at St. Thomas and had a washer and dryer at his disposal.

Interviewed earlier this month in his office at St. Luke’s, he said the laundromat is very expensive. “One small machine costs $5. Drying costs $2.50. People who work for the day only and get $50 or $60 for the day and spend $30 doing laundry for themselves or for their family, that day they almost work for laundry.”

Mr. Romo-Garcia reached out to Laundry Love, a national movement that partners with laundromats and community volunteers to assist low-income families and individuals with their laundry. On the first Wednesday of each month, from 5 to 7 p.m., he and and a few volunteers visit the East Hampton Laundry in Amagansett to lend a hand. They provide money for the machines, while the laundromat provides detergent and fabric softener. He is also there to talk and listen. It is one small way he is working to build community.

People who are most in need are “the first we have to go and reach and bring the good news to,” he said. That principle has also taken him to the East Hampton train station, where laborers gather almost every morning looking for a day’s work. Earlier this month, he stopped there to offer sandwiches from a community dinner hosted by the East Hampton Clericus the night before. He went back on a bitterly cold day with doughnuts and hot coffee and plans to begin delivering brown bag lunches to the day laborers a few days a week. He has discussed this need with leaders of other congregations and has applied for a grant from the Episcopal Diocese for simple lunches.

 He is concerned that “people will be unhappy about it,” but he is undeterred. “Many people come from Hampton Bays or Riverhead hoping to get a job for the day and sometimes they don’t get it, and they still have to eat. A sandwich around the area they gather costs $10.”

 Wherever he goes “in my daily life, I stop to talk,” Mr.Romo-Garcia said. “When I get a phone number, I call.” These connections, however small, can be so important, he said, especially for people living in a new place who may feel homesick, isolated by language barriers, or otherwise alone or marginalized.

“There is a saying: I know how to give not because I have much, but because I’ve had nothing.” That is his story.

Mr.Romo-Garcia grew up outside of Guadalajara and studied at the seminary there for 12 years, planning to become a Catholic priest. The seminary “was very traditional, very conservative, and very high on academics.” He left the seminary and came to the United States, where he “met the Episcopal Church,” or Anglican Church as it is known in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking areas. He embraced it, and, he said, it embraced him. It is “more liberal than the Roman Catholic Church. It welcomes anyone that has the need of a church community, no matter their way of life or marital status.”

He returned to Mexico, and 11 years ago this month was ordained there as an Anglican priest. At first, he worked with the underprivileged in the Mexico City area. “Then I moved to England and joined the Society of St. Francis,” an Anglican religious order whose members take vows of poverty and serve the poor. He was in the order for four years, ministering among the poor and the homeless and in a community of people with learning difficulties or intellectual challenges in Canterbury. He then went to California to pursue parish ministry.

Last year, he received the call from Bishop Larry Provenzano of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island and, in October, started at St. Luke’s. The diocese plans to make its historic summer chapel in Amagansett a year-round base for its East End Hispanic ministry, but before that can happen the building must be winterized and a basement built, with space for offices, restrooms, and outreach services.

Mr.Romo-Garcia offered two Spanish-language services there before it closed for the winter — one on the Day of the Dead in early November and another just before Thanksgiving. A third service was held before Christmas at St. Luke’s. Six people attended his first, six more came to the second, and 25, including supporters from St. Luke’s, were at the third.

The numbers were small, but it’s clear that Mr.Romo-Garcia’s work here is not confined by church walls. “You bring the church where people need it rather than waiting in the church for people to come,” he said.

He is also working on the North Fork and in Riverhead, where the diocese has teamed up with the Rural and Migrant Ministry, a multifaith nonprofit organization that assists farm workers and laborers through youth empowerment, social-justice campaigns, and education. “I want people to know their rights,” Mr.Romo-Garcia said. “Even if they’re undocumented they have rights. If they’re useful to this country, then they have rights.”

He is also hoping to establish an English as a second language program and would like to sign on to a literacy program being promoted by the Mexican Consulate, “because some of the workers on the farms don’t know how to read or write.”

He will be at the laundry on Wednesday. Those interested in volunteering can reach him at the St. Luke’s offices.

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This article was revised to correct the spelling of

Mr. Romo-Garcia's name