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Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Commack drops proposal to house immigrant children

Rev. Dennis Walker, of the Holy Cross Lutherian

Rev. Dennis Walker, of the Holy Cross Lutherian Church in Commack, inside of the sanctuary on Aug. 12, 2014. Credit: Johnny Milano

Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Commack has dropped a proposal to temporarily house some of the tens of thousands of immigrant children illegally crossing Mexico's border with the United States to reunite with family, church officials said Monday.

The decision comes after neighbors of the church facing Jericho Turnpike angrily opposed its proposal this month to assist the children. A church official said Lutheran leaders were not bowing to community pressure.

Lutheran church superiors in Manhattan said the Commack church missed a deadline to apply for the federally funded program, but did not detail when the deadline had passed. Church leaders said it was unlikely the proposal could become a reality anytime in the next few years.

"It's very unrealistic to see it happening in the short term," said Rev. Marc Herbst, a top assistant to the bishop of the Metropolitan New York Synod-Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

Herbst, who oversees strategic plan implementation for the church, also cited pending changes at Holy Cross as a reason not to pursue the proposal. The pastor, the Rev. Dennis A. Walker, is retiring next year, and an interim pastor would likely hold the post for a year after that, which wouldn't provide the stable leadership needed for the immigrant housing program, Herbst said.

While Holy Cross can make its own decisions, church superiors can make suggestions to local churches and also intervene during a leadership transition, Herbst said.

"We've been one of the largest advocates" of the immigrant housing program and we are looking at several sites" to house the children in the New York metropolitan area, he said.

Walker Monday confirmed the proposal is being dropped and referred questions to Herbst. Both will speak about the issue at a public meeting Tuesday night at Smithtown Public Library's Commack branch.

The proposal provoked outrage in Commack, where the church's neighbors said they feared crime and plummeting property values.

"I think the whole neighborhood would be very happy if they drop the whole scenario," Jeff Bertuccio, 57, who runs an alarm security company and lives near the church, said Monday.

Advocates for the children, who contend they are fleeing violence in their homelands mainly in Central America, said they were disappointed with the decision to shelve the proposal.

"These children are desperately in need," said Maryann Sinclair Slutsky, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group Long Island Wins.

Walker said last week that the proposal included housing about 40 children, ages 4 to 17, at the church at any one time for between seven and 30 days. The children would be in transit from federal immigration detention facilities to relatives in the New York area. They would leave the church only for medical appointments or other important issues, Walker said.

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