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Greg Leonard

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Joselo Lucero speaks during a Bethel AME Church program about building bridges during Black History Month. Photo from Tom Lyon

By Tom Lyon

Members of Setauket’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church hosted a community forum last Saturday to conclude Black History Month with a time of reflection about violence and its aftermath.

The event was a follow-up to last June’s memorial gathering held just three days after the tragic shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Nine people, some related to Bethel church members, died in the church’s sanctuary, yet their families spoke out for healing and forgiveness. Actions resulting from the tragedy included the removal of the Confederate battle flag from many public places across the South.

The 80 audience members reflected personally about the main themes of how we can change in response to tragic events and of building bridges throughout our communities to prevent future violence.

A featured speaker was Joselo Lucero, whose brother Marcelo, an Ecuadorean immigrant, was murdered in a Patchogue hate crime six years ago. Joselo Lucero has since become a champion against hate crimes and for tolerance, and has presented programs to thousands of Long Island students. At Bethel AME, he spoke of his family’s loss and how the village of Patchogue now holds an annual vigil in remembrance of the tragedy.

Jennifer Bradshaw, an assistant superintendent in the Smithtown school district, said, “It was so empowering to be surrounded by people dedicated to not just identify societal problems, but to work actively to solve them … to sit down and talk honestly, yet hopefully about building bridges across differences.”

Susan Feretti, of Setauket, said, “The conversation began here today is the beginning of neighbors and groups building bridges … the root of healing both locally and globally. I look forward to what lies ahead.”

Rev. Greg Leonard added that, “Based upon the very positive responses from the audience, and a questionnaire distributed, a task force is being formed to explore ways to hold more ‘building bridges’ events in the future. All community members are invited to join.”

Tom Lyon is a program director at Lift Up Long Island, a group that teaches leadership skills to youth.

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Bethel AME Church in Setauket. File photo by Alyssa Melillo

“It changed, so how can we?”

That is the question Rev. Greg Leonard of Setauket’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church has asked the Three Village community, and that is the question residents will have the chance to answer at a special service planned for next week. Leonard and more than 100 members of his church hosted a moving ceremony in the aftermath of June’s horrific shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, and he said Black History Month was an appropriate time to reflect.

“At the previous meeting, we started to build bridges to one another and we want to continue doing this,” he said. “And with this being Black History Month, Bethel wanted to take leadership and hold an event at which all people — because black history isn’t just for black people — can come together.”

Bethel AME scheduled the gathering for Saturday, Feb. 27 at 3 p.m. at the church, located at 33 Christian Ave. in Setauket.

Rev. Gregory Leonard leads a service at Bethel AME Church in Setauket. File photo by Alyssa Melillo
Rev. Gregory Leonard leads a service at Bethel AME Church in Setauket. File photo by Alyssa Melillo

The event flyer that Bethel AME Church has been distributed promoted the hash tag #PrayForCharleston, which went viral following the June 17, 2015 shooting that killed nine African Americans at a church in South Carolina. The flyer also challenged the Three Village community with moving the dialogue forward to address racial issues and injustice across America.

“The primary issue we’re talking about is change,” Leonard said. “It’s about how this change happens on a community-wide basis, and also on an individual basis.”

North Shore native Leroy White lost his second cousin DePayne Middleton Doctor in the tragedy and said the outpouring of support from Three Village families was overwhelming in the days following the shooting.

“What we saw was a community coming together so well that it was almost unbelievable,” White said in an interview in June. “The response was so overwhelming that we were taken aback by the number of people who showed up. It showed me that this is one of the better communities in America.”

Since the shooting, Leonard said he has already seen strides made across the country to enhance the discussion about race in America. He cited the removal of the Confederate flag outside a state building in South Carolina back in July as a pivotal moment showing what could be achieved through common understanding.

“That was a revolutionary moment,” he said. “I think no matter how people might have felt, the remembrance of the tragedy and also the great grace the people had in terms of forgiveness after the fact can begin to build bridges, even to people who feel they might oppose your stance on any particular matter.”