The Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter, seen here in 2018, reached out...

The Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter, seen here in 2018, reached out to South African anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu in 2008 for guidance. Credit: Jeffrey Basinger

The Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter thought of South African anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu in 2008 as he faced disagreements over who should be allowed to attend community forums after Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero was killed blocks away from his Patchogue church.

Seeking guidance, Wolter tracked down the Nobel Peace Prize-winning cleric by phone at a London hotel and asked for his support.

Within hours, Tutu emailed a letter encouraging Wolter to "invite all parties, including the police" to take part in the forums, Wolter told Newsday.

"I said that that is the person I want to talk to," Wolter said Monday, after the legendary Anglican archbishop died at age 90. "I said, this is a person who really knows what to do."

Tutu was remembered on Long Island for his role in ending apartheid, the policy of racial separation that ceased in the early 1990s with the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the suspension of majority-white rule in the majority-Black country.

After apartheid was dismantled, Tutu was commissioned by Mandela to lead a panel called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which elicited harrowing stories of violence during the apartheid era but also sought healing and forgiveness.

Elaine Gross, president of Syosset-based ERASE Racism, said Tutu set an example for the world to follow.

"I was so impressed by his moral compass that really allowed him to be both very strong in his condemnation of evil and wrongdoing, and also equally as strong in his support of reconciliation and for peace," Gross told Newsday.

"Without his voice and his leadership, there would have been so much more bloodshed [in South Africa] and that would not have been to anyone’s benefit. … Not that there weren’t problems with what happened next, but the transition that happened was remarkable."

Wolter took inspiration from Tutu after Lucero, 38, was stabbed to death on Nov. 8, 2008, during a confrontation with seven teenagers near the Patchogue train station. A Medford teen, Jeffrey Conroy, later was convicted of first-degree manslaughter as a hate crime for Lucero's death; six other teens pleaded guilty to assault and other crimes.

Wolter, pastor of the Congregational Church of Patchogue, part of the Cleveland-based United Church of Christ, sought to convene gatherings where Latinos could describe crimes that they had been afraid to report to police.

But some Patchogue residents and supporters of Lucero opposed Wolter's plan to welcome anyone who wished to participate — including police and Suffolk County elected officials, whom some blamed for an atmosphere of racism that they believed contributed to Lucero's death.

Wolter had never met Tutu but had mutual acquaintances with him, including a Unitarian minister and Tutu's literary agent. The latter helped Wolter contact Tutu in Great Britain.

Wolter said Tutu's letter, which arrived hours after their conversation, expressed support for his plan.

"I am praying for you all," Tutu's letter said, "the victims and the perpetrators, and their families and friends."

Some dismissed Tutu's letter or questioned its authenticity, but others backed off their opposition and the church doors opened to all, Wolter said.

Then-Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota and high-ranking police officials, including then-Commissioner Richard Dormer and the commanding officer of Patchogue's Fifth Precinct, were among officials who attended the forums, Wolter said.

About 34 people discussed crimes that they had not previously reported; Suffolk police took those reports for further investigation, Wolter said.

Wolter led a memorial service for Lucero about a week after he died. Hundreds of people jammed the pews — and no one was barred from attending.

"We welcomed everyone in. The place was packed," Wolter said.

Suffolk police in 2014 agreed to reform the way the department handles reports of crimes against Latinos following a federal probe launched after Lucero's death.

Wolter said he remained committed to Tutu's message of healing despite "blowback" from some, such as when he attended a play about Lucero's death in 2011 with Conroy's father, Robert.

"I had people who wouldn’t talk to me," Wolter said. "I just kept thinking, 'Desmond Tutu went through this, Desmond Tutu went through this. Desmond Tutu forewarned me.'

"We need Desmond Tutu and we can’t have him, but we have his works," Wolter said. "There are many who will carry that torch. Peace has enemies but peace has friends. … Love wins, but it ain’t easy."

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