By Sabina Mollot
Lower East Side-based clergyman Richard del Rio, or, as the hog-riding, tattooed 61-year-old is better known in the neighborhood, “Pastor Rick,” will be on the ballot on Primary Day as the Democratic challenger facing Council Member Rosie Mendez.
Del Rio, who founded his nondenominational church, Abounding Grace Ministries, over 30 years ago and has since become known as a community activist as well as a spiritual leader, said he is running because he feels there’s been a neglect of the poor and the elderly in the second city district, in particular NYCHA residents.
He’s also staunchly against elected officials being able to run for a third term, a policy enacted four years ago so Mayor Bloomberg could run again. “It’s legal, but it’s still offensive,” said del Rio. “It was just a few people that overturned the will of 8.5 million people.”
Mendez, of course, is running for a third time, and, while del Rio was quick to say during a recent interview at his Avenue C campaign office that he isn’t about to “trash her,” he has referred to her as a “no-show” politician on his website.
During the interview, del Rio discussed a number of issues from crime (which he’s been on top of as an NYPD clergy liaison), NYCHA’s plan to build market rate housing on eight of its developments (which he’s opposed to) and the gentrification of the district, which includes the Lower East Side, the East Village, Alphabet City, Gramercy Park and Kips Bay. (Del Rio said he’s been extremely concerned about residents being priced out of the area and NYU’s ongoing expansion without having to build any affordable housing as part of the development deals.)
“Meanwhile they’re getting prime real estate and (they want) humungous towers that are overwhelming to the community.”
On NYCHA’s “infill” plan of leasing space on public housing parks and parking lots to outside developers, including at Campos Plaza, del Rio said he feels that the housing authority’s board has “not only neglected but dismissed the poor.” If elected, he said he promises to fight the plan, as well as fight to protect the rent-regulated housing that exists.
“The middle class and the poor are being pushed out,” he said, “the creativity of the East Village — that’s all being stifled with this new plan to create a city for the wealthy.”
Del Rio, whose parents were immigrants from Puerto Rico, has always worked directly with the poor since starting his church in “the worst area” of that time which was the Lower East Side. This place, cops, warned him, was where people sold heroin and their bodies. The idea of setting up a base there was to cut down on gang activity and crime, with del Rio saying he found the most effective way to do this was by befriending gang members and other young people who were failing school, homeless or facing other problems like incarcerated family members. Del Rio and his sons, then ages 3, 6 and 8, were often with him as he took a van around, in particular to Union Square, offering information about treatment and other drug-related programs.
It was in the mid-90s when, del Rio said, he was able to stop a gang from retaliating at Alphabet City’s Haven Plaza for the killing of one its members by a rival gang. He did this by showing up, talking to the gang members and “letting them vent.”
“They want to know you’re going to talk to them without judging them or even preaching to them, so I became friends with them,” he said.
After asking his wife to make some sandwiches and hot chocolate — because he’d be inviting the gang over — the group talked some more and then, said del Rio, “It was my turn and I told them, ‘If you do this, this is just going to escalate.’” In the end, the retaliatory battle never happened. Del Rio said he became privy to the looming gang war from the cops, who he said he’s always enjoyed a good working relationship with. For the past 20 years, del Rio has been an NYPD police-clergy liaison.
On crime these days in the district, del Rio is concerned about the still-occasional shootings at public housing projects, and attends meetings of the 9th Precinct Community Council. He has mixed feelings about stop-and-frisk, having once been on the receiving end of such an investigation in which he thought the officer’s behavior was “rude,” but also believing that the local cops – NYPD and those working for NYCHA – have a tough job to do.
On education, del Rio is not a fan of the current system that shuts down failing schools. “Our mayor brags about being able to shut schools down; why in the world would he want to have that as his achievement?” asked del Rio.
In 1996, del Rio and his family started a program called Generation X-Cel, which was aimed at helping kids who were failing in school and had other problems. His sons, who helped run it, had asked local kids, what kind of things they wanted to see in an after school program, and found that by asking, the kids got interested. The program ran at a space rented in a building at the Jacob Riis Houses, until the group was booted when NYCHA decided to use it for storage. The organization was replaced in 2008, though, by another program called 20/20 Vision for Schools, which was implemented at 16 schools.
One of his sons is still involved with the program. Del Rio has a total of three grown sons as well as a grown daughter, now a registered nurse, who is adopted. She came from a family he knew, in which the mother was dying of AIDS. The mother had asked del Rio and his wife Arlene to care for her children, which they did, and he wound up adopting one of them.
As for his pastoral duties, del Rio has operated his church in a space he rents at MS 34, a school on East 11th Street and Avenue D. Though he’s been less active at the church since he launched his campaign earlier in the year, he’s still been involved in some activities including a couple of local street fairs organized by clergy as well as an 18-year-old church tradition of holding an annual basketball tournament.
“(People are) so dismissive of clergy, but clergy are servants you don’t have to pay and they have a relationship with the community,” he said.
Del Rio noted that it was through relationships he’d developed with locals and law enforcement that enabled him to respond to Sandy with trucks full of supplies. He and others, including groups from as far as West Virginia, distributed hot meals as well as things like blankets and batteries on the street on Avenue D. Eventually, 20,000 people were recipients of the supplies and 12,000 hot meals were served.
On smaller issues, del Rio said he would like to do more for residents who feel that they’re living in “permanent construction zones” and be quicker about fixing things, like, for example, restoring a few Alphabet City bus stops that were recently removed. The removals were supposed to be temporary, he said, but complaints he’s gotten from local seniors have indicated that they weren’t.
If elected, del Rio said he is hoping for a Democratic mayor that is either Bill Thompson or Bill de Blasio. Both, he said, have promised to have roundtables with local clergy.
“Being a political outsider, I know there’s a lot for me to learn,” said del Rio, but, he added, “I’m a quick learner.”