Blacks, Latinos gather in search of understanding

Church leaders sponsor a rally in Long Reach in effort to ease tensions

July 23, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

After the body of Antonio Ayala was found in a wooded area in Columbia's Long Reach village in late May, a rumor started in the Latino community that a black man was responsible for the killing.

Ayala's three Latino roommates were arrested last month on charges they had beaten the 33-year-old lawn worker to death after an argument. But leaders in the black and Latino communities said the rumor was a sign of the growing rift between the two groups.

"Even though it wasn't a [racially motivated] crime ... it was obvious there was a lot of fear," said the Rev. Jorge Fonseca, a pastor at the Iglesia Cristiana de Columbia.

To ease the tension, pastors of several Howard County Latino and black churches held a gathering Friday in Long Reach Village Center.

The rally, which drew puzzled looks from some residents picking up their dry-cleaning or going to the nearby Safeway, was a mix of bilingual Christian songs and preaching by several pastors, urging the black and Latino crowd to gather in circles to pray, hold hands or simply give each other a high-five.

"You may say you like everyone ... but to get out of your comfort zone is the only time you can prove it," the Rev. Fiifi Pentsil, pastor at the Action Worship Center in Columbia, said to about 70 people who attended the event.

Church leaders say that blacks and Latinos have had long-standing animosities. Some Latino men have complained that they are robbed by blacks late at night as they ride their bikes home from work, while blacks say that they have been targeted for attacks by Latinos.

`A lot of fear'

"It's no secret there's been tension between the African-Americans and Latinos and that there's a lot of fear on both sides," said John T. Shaia, director of community outreach for the predominantly black Long Reach Church of God.

But that fear seemed to ebb for some after the gathering Friday. Gerry Revelez, a 29-year-old living in Long Reach, said he is occasionally hassled by black youths when he walks to Safeway.

"I've had problems with blacks in the past, but I feel better ... after we've all gotten together like this," he said.

Howard County police say that they will try to help diffuse tensions by working more with the Latino population. Many Latinos are unwilling to go to the police with problems, said Capt. Stephen Prozeralik of the Howard County Police Department.

"Often, the police [from Latinos' countries of origin] are a lot more brutal than we are, and we need to do a better job of reaching out and letting them know we're not like that," he said.

Police plan outreach

Howard police officials say the department, which has seven officers who speak Spanish, is working on a plan to increase its profile in the Latino community through cultural training and outreach.

Prozeralik and several other Spanish-speaking officers attended services at the Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal in Owen Brown on Sunday and addressed the nearly 50-person congregation in Spanish.

"If you need help, feel free to call about anything," Pfc. Sandra Copley said.

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