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For Long Island Council of Churches, an uncertain future

Volunteers gather to unload food into the Long

Volunteers gather to unload food into the Long Island Council of Churches food pantry in Freeport in April 2017. Credit: Chris Ware

The Long Island Council of Churches, once the largest umbrella group for Christian churches in Nassau and Suffolk, is facing an uncertain future months after ousting its executive director in a contentious public dispute.

The council has shut two of its three food pantries, laid off half its staff, and seen its spokesman resign. Even the group’s current leader acknowledges its future is unclear.

“We are struggling,” said Tom Wallace, the group’s board chairman. Asked if he thinks the council will continue, he said: “We certainly hope so. I don’t think anything is assured.”

The council, which has represented 800 churches on Long Island, closed its Hempstead operation, where it had both its headquarters and a food pantry, at the end of January. It moved its headquarters to its one remaining pantry, in Freeport.

The group’s Riverhead pantry was shut at the end of March, though Wallace said he hopes it can reopen. Some 1,600 families depended on the two that have closed.

The council’s paid staff has dropped from a dozen to six, he said.

The group’s projected income for 2018 has decreased from last year’s $875,000, Wallace said, though he could not provide specific numbers.

Hank Boerner, the former vice chairman and spokesman for the council, quit at the end of January.

“I was unhappy with the way things were going,” he said, referring to the group’s financial problems. “I felt it was time for me to step down.”

He added, “It’s very unfortunate where they are now after four decades of service to the community.”

Besides the food pantries, the council has provided social services, advocated on social-justice issues, and sought to promote understanding and cooperation between Christians and non-Christians. The group was founded in 1969.

“The past year has been one of the most difficult and challenging in the LICC history,” Jack K. King, chairman of the council’s ministry and missions board, wrote in a summary presented at the group’s annual meeting, held in May. “While our fiscal difficulties have been persistent through the years, they reached a crisis point this year which called for a radical restructuring.”

The council became embroiled in controversy last September when it removed its executive director, the Rev. Dyanne Pina, a little over a year after she took over the post. Pina was the first woman and the first African-American to lead the council.

Wallace said at the time the decision was financial. With the council facing a budgetary shortfall, it was forced to eliminate Pina’s job with its $81,000 annual salary, he added.

Pina said she was shocked by what she called her firing, and that she believed she was let go because she was exposing the council’s long-term dysfunction. Within weeks of taking over, she had shut down the council’s existing pantry in Freeport because of what she called “appalling” conditions, including backed-up toilets, exposed electrical wires, mold and holes in the roof.

Months later she reopened the pantry in a new location in Freeport as part of a partnership with AHRC Nassau, a nonprofit that assists people with special needs and developmental disabilities.

Her removal provoked both an uproar among some board members, including several who quit, and hard feelings by others who felt the council was unfairly attacked. Wallace had said Pina’s ouster was a “painful, painful decision,” but contended a reorganization was essential for the group to survive.

By October, Pina announced she was helping to start a new group, now known as the Nassau Suffolk Alliance of Churches Inc., aimed at ministering to people in need on Long Island. Pina, who has since changed her last name to Corey, declined to comment. Her group is still functioning.

Wallace said the Pina controversy hurt the council’s ability to function and attract grants. “I think it had to,” he said. “I think I would be kidding myself if I didn’t acknowledge that it certainly didn’t have a favorable impact.”

The group has lost some funding sources, and saw other grants reduced, he said. Some of that stemmed from a reduction in general of funding for nonprofit groups, he said. The group had also relied on a $600,000 bequest for several years but those funds have been exhausted, Wallace said.

The group received most of its funding from philanthropic foundations. In addition, about 50 of the 800 member churches used to make significant financial contributions, said Kirk R. Cronk, a former fund development manager at the council who was among those laid off.

Now, with two of the food pantries closed, former patrons are seeking help at local churches, Wallace said. But Cronk said those operations are limited, generally opening once a week for a couple of hours. The council’s pantries operated from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week. They also provided help with things such as rent and utility payments.

Despite the troubles, Wallace is hopeful the council will survive. A contract with Nassau County to run the Freeport food pantry was renewed recently, he said, and the group is pursuing other funding sources. Its gala last fall raised $60,000.

The organization also is seeking volunteers to help replace work previously done by the paid staff members who were laid off.

Wallace said the council has adjusted to some of the criticism it faced, such as now including the entire board in major decisions rather than leaving them to only the five-member executive committee, which had decided to remove Pina.

The council “needs tender loving care,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of dedicated people who are willing to give that tender loving care, but we need more.”

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