Rev. Danilo Lachapel was respected for his efforts to build solidarity among people from diverse backgrounds and for his support of the disenfranchised, from his local ministry. But as his casket was closing, his closest friends cried out that the church had betrayed him.
“Danilo lives! The fight persists!”
That chant reverberated through the full pews at Holyrood Church in Washington Heights on Nov. 3 during the funeral for Rev. Danilo Lachapel, an evangelical pastor who died on October 30th. His ministry was based out of the South Bronx Evangelical Church on E. 156th Street for over two decades before colon cancer took his life. He was 65.
Lachapel is survived by paternal and maternal siblings, cousins, and his mother in the Dominican Republic, where he was born and now will be buried. But he also said that the members of his community were his siblings, grandchildren, cousins—in short, his family.
“Pastor Danilo,” as his friends refer to him, was more than a teacher of religion. Those who knew him best remember and revere him for his service to the poor and immigrant communities in the Bronx and beyond. Far from sectarian in his faith and activism, Lachapel provided an example of the role faith leaders play in building solidarity with people across different background and social causes.
“If all were like Danilo, the world would be much better,” reflected Carla García, coordinator for the Black Honduran Fraternal Organization (abbreviated as OFRANEH in Spanish), a group that worked with Lachapel to feed, clothe, lodge, and provide legal services to the Garífuna community, a people of afro-indigenous roots from Central America and the Caribbean.
In 2014, hundreds of Garínagu (plural for Garífuna) women and children began arriving in the Bronx from the Caribbean coast of Honduras with ankle bracelets from US immigration authorities. According to numerous testimonies including that of García, Lachapel received them in his soup kitchen at the E. 156th Street church.
“Whatever you need, we’re here to help,” said Lachapel, according to García’s account. He held forums in the church to discuss the needs of the new arrivals and provided them with clothing, housing, and legal services for their immigration cases. He also organized marches and other public demonstrations in their defense, including at Federal Plaza in Manhattan. Over time, he became one of the closest confidants of the Garífuna community.
That’s why dozens of Garínagu formed a semicircle around his casket to pray, sing, console one another, and pay their final respects on Nov. 3 at Holyrood Church.
Melissa Mark-Viverito, former Speaker of the City Council of New York, remembered his community work long before the arrival of the Garínagu. Viverito explained to the Hunts Point Express that Lachapel was closely involved with the movements to remove the U.S. Navy from Vieques, Puerto Rico and to liberate political prisoners in favor of the island’s independence, like Óscar López Rivera.
“We need more people like him that have that kind of mindset of building coalitions across struggles,” Viverito said in a conversation with the Express.
In part, Lachapel sought to foster that mentality in the community through his food ministry, “Give Them to Eat.” In addition to feeding thousands every year on Tuesdays and Fridays, he led discussions about current events in Central America, the Bronx and the US, and encouraged community members to get involved in those issues.
Anecdotes abound connecting Lachapel to left-wing movements in the hemisphere. He met with Hugo Chávez, then-president of Venezuela, during his trip to the South Bronx in 2006. A decade later, he organized a youth choir to sing for Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro. Xiomara Castro, wife of former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya—who was overthrown by a military coup d’état in 2009—sent her condolences to his funeral.
Lachapel also looked after the physical wellbeing of his community. His ministry sought to stop violence in the community in two ways. On one hand, he organized local demonstrations so residents could take to the streets to denounce violence. On the other, he frequently met with members of local gangs to negotiate ceasefires.
“It was important to have a person that [the gangs] respected, because he not only talked about the work, but also did it,” said Wanda Salaman, executive director of Longwood-based Mothers on the Move, which works on community issues like public education and affordable housing.
But when Salaman took the open mic during the funeral, it wasn’t with the same nostalgic tone. Salaman said that the evangelical church, where Lachapel ran his ministry for more than twenty years, “betrayed him.” A large contingent of congregants stood up, clapping and voicing their agreement. Salaman had to speak loudly, almost shout, to be heard amid the tumult.
In a separate interview, Salaman claimed that accusations circulated in the church in 2015 that Lachapel brought in drugs and stole money and food. She says Lachapel and Meily de Olmo, who is now the church’s pastor, “had different visions for the church” and that Pastor de Olmo expelled Lachapel from the church in a letter. That letter arrived around the same time that Lachapel discovered his cancer, at the end of 2015.
García confirmed that Lachapel received the suspension letter in 2015, adding that when the church suspended him, Lachapel lost his income, plunging him into deep financial trouble.
The reverend, though, was private about his personal difficulties, even with the people closest to him.
In 2016, Salaman found out that Lachapel had been living in a Mott Haven shelter for months, without telling those closest to him. When they found out, community members and parishioners began to raise funds among friends and sympathizers to rent him an apartment. Lachapel spent the last three years of his life fighting his cancer under the constant care of an intimate circle of loyalists who had left the church with him after his expulsion.
Two days after his death, the church left a message on the fence that surrounds it: “God bless you. We inform you that the Give Them To Eat will be closed this Friday, November 1, 2019, in memory of our brother Danilo Lachaper (sic).”
Despite various attempts, the Express was unable to obtain the church’s account of Lachapel’s departure.
As the funeral came to a close, the mourners lined up behind his casket and filed out of the Manhattan church slowly. Some tried to touch the casket one last time. Many sobbed.
That scene recalled the words of pastor, activist and academic Luís Barrios when he opened the funeral service earlier:
“Danilo walked with the people, and the people walked with Danilo.”
Roman Gressier translated this report from the original Spanish to English. He is a freelance multilingual journalist reporting from the South Bronx. He is also a student at the Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY and a former applied research fellow at the Vera Institute of Justice. Readers’ comments are welcome over Twitter or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.