Ruben Cruzate was the longtime head of Latino outreach at a major evangelical church in Smithtown when a parishioner suggested he become a "missionary" -- not in another country, but in the immigrant stronghold of Farmingville.
Six years later, Cruzate's bilingual storefront church, Uno Mas Para Jesus -- One More For Jesus -- is emerging as a pivotal force in bringing the once strife-ridden hamlet together. It is attracting hundreds of immigrants, including day laborers, raised as Catholics and building bridges with longtime residents and the Suffolk County Police Department, with whom Hispanics in Farmingville often had an uneasy relationship.
"Suddenly, the Lord says you are going to open a church in another place -- that's painful," Cruzate, 53, recalled of leaving Smithtown. But going to Farmingville has been "the greatest blessing of my life."
His church is even paying to send some immigrants home to Mexico because Cruzate thinks it is more important for the men to be with their families than make money in the United States.
"After three or four years [here] he stops being the father and becomes the provider," Cruzate said. "You cannot be a father at long distance. They try to handle the house through cellphones."
A native of Peru, he has established a satellite church in Hidalgo, Mexico, where many of the immigrants come from. He also wants to open churches in Venezuela and Peru.
In August, his church and the Farmingville Residents Association co-hosted what they called the hamlet's first multicultural festival, complete with food, dancing and traditional clothing from a dozen countries including Mexico, Germany, Italy and Portugal.
When his church hosted a showing in February of the PBS documentary "Not in Our Town: Light in the Darkness" about the 2008 hate-crime killing of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue, attendees included police brass, politicians, longtime residents and Latino immigrants.
The church is attracting the immigrants -- many of them former Roman Catholics -- partly because it is a beehive of activities conducted in Spanish. Nearly every day, it holds religious services, group meetings or English classes, along with offering assistance with housing, food, shelter, dental and legal work.
Its spirituality is luring many who say they seek a "personal relationship" with Jesus that often evolves during exuberant church services. That reflects a larger, international trend of Latino Catholics joining evangelical churches.
Filling a void
Moreover, Cruzate says his church is filling a void left by the local Catholic parish, Church of the Resurrection. "They're not working so much in the [Latino] community, unless something big happens," he said. "They don't get together with us -- I'm not sure why."
Sean Dolan, a spokesman for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, disputed the criticism. "Resurrection parish is a vibrant parish that serves all in Farmingville," he said. The Rev. Malcolm Burns "is a very committed and actively involved pastor who speaks fluent Spanish and has learned Portuguese."
Dolan added: "If someone finds Christ honestly and in good conscience in another Christian community, then such a person should act on conscience. We believe and will always proclaim that the fullness of Christ is found only in the Catholic Church."
Source of solace
One member of Cruzate's church, Carlos Cruz, 35, a day laborer from Mexico and a former Catholic, said the evangelical church helped him and his wife, Yesenia, overcome bitterness that started a decade ago with a harrowing crossing of the border. He said the odyssey included "coyotes" -- immigrant smugglers -- raping teenage girls and three days and nights walking through desert with little water and food.
"All of my family [back in Mexico] are Catholic, but they don't have a personal relationship with God," Cruz, of Medford, said in Spanish. Cruzate's church "is something very different. The spirit of God is revealed to us."
Cruzate, who speaks Spanish and English, is on the board of the residents association and also served on the Brookhaven Anti-Bias Task Force.
Insp. Robert Oswald, head of the Suffolk Police's 6th Precinct, says he turns to Cruzate to connect not just with the Latino community but all residents in Farmingville.
"He's known down there and he's respected down there," Oswald said. "He's a go-to guy. He's a man of integrity, a man of honesty."
Marisa Pizza, a leader of the residents group, said many Latinos have flocked to Cruzate's church "because it's been a safe haven from all the turmoil" that once afflicted the community, where two day laborers were nearly killed by white supremacists in 2000 and a Mexican family's house was firebombed in 2003.