In November 2008, a Latino man, Marcelo Lucero, was stalked and murdered on a street in Patchogue, Long Island, by a group of teenagers from the local high school. After a moment of horror, I had a guilt-laced sense of relief that it was not a group of Latino teenagers who had killed a white boy because acts of vengeance would have occurred before I could get my pants on.
Shortly thereafter, the funeral of Marcelo Lucero was held at the Congregational Church of Patchogue where I am the pastor. Not everyone in my church or the community celebrated my actions. I was seen as clearly "on the side of the Latinos." But I also invited the families of the seven teenagers involved in the killing to vigils and other events at the church because I believe that everyone -- everyone! -- must have a seat at the table of justice.
A week before the sentencing of Jeffrey Conroy -- one of the teenagers accused of the murder -- I was contacted by his father, Robert Conroy, who asked me if I would arrange a meeting, without attorneys or reporters, between him and his wife and the brother and mother of Marcelo Lucero. I tried, but the Lucero family was not willing.
The court received more than 100 letters of support for Jeff Conroy. Nonetheless, the judge sentenced Conroy to the maximum sentence. The father exploded in pain and rage, shouting, "You call this ---- mercy! He was only ---- 17!" as he burst out of the courtroom. Members of the Lucero family muttered,"Now he knows how we felt when we heard about Marcelo." A New York Times reporter caught up with me outside the courtroom. "How do you feel?" he asked. "I feel sick to my stomach" I said, "It is worse today than it was the day of the funeral." Many people have since asked what I meant by that.
In the Bible there is a strange statement that "The sins of the father will be visited upon the son." But the Bible does not say that the sins of the son should be visited upon the father. Indeed, many believe the father made the boy into a killer. Mr. Conroy, in my opinion, was indeed demonized in the press. There is no place for the father of a teenage hate-crime murderer with a swastika tattooed on the calf of his leg to rest his head.
A year earlier, I had invited the Lucero family for private time with the open casket before 1,452 people jammed into the church that seats 420. I heard howls of pain, emptiness, and horror gurgle up from the throats of the family as they looked upon the body of the young, Latino, undocumented, murdered Marcelo Lucero. I hoped never to hear those sounds again. But I did. I heard the same howls of pain, emptiness, and horror gurgle up from the throat of Robert Conroy as he looked upon what remains of his son. As the courthouse emptied after the sentencing, I said the same words to Joselo Lucero as to Robert Conroy, "I'm sorry."
I am sorry that after the sentencing, everyone was still wounded. I am sorry for the tombstones in the eyes of the survivors. I am sorry there is no Balm in Patchogue to heal the souls of the remnant people. I am sorry for the lack of closure for the wounds of prejudice. I am sorry for the writers of 100 letters of support for the slayer and 100 letters of support for the slain.
And I wonder, if the two families had secretly come together, would the outburst in the courtroom have occurred? Would the Lucero family have felt the soothing balm of restoration justice begin to work in conjunction with the justice of retribution?
There will be no healing until 200 more chairs are brought to the table of justice for the writers of those letters. The law has had its way with Conroy, but the jury is still out on Patchogue. Not even Jesus could get justice in the courtroom. But just as the story of Jesus didn't end when he was sentenced, we have only reached the beginning of the end. Now the difficult work of healing and restoration begins as we chop wood, carry water, break bread, and share stories. And not only is everyone welcome at the table -- their presence is absolutely necessary.
Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter is the pastor of the Congregational Church of Patchogue in Patchogue, New York.