Q & A: Mayor Hector Lora
Hector C. Lora is a visible a presence in his community. The son of Dominican immigrants, he graduated Magna Cum Laude from Liberty University and has worked in various Christian organizations in northern New Jersey. In 2011, he was elected as councilman in his hometown of Passaic, N.J. Today, as that city’s mayor, he works with The Salvation Army Passaic Corps to reach out to the homeless population and keep them safe during the pandemic.
Were you familiar with The Salvation Army before becoming mayor?
As a young man, I would visit the local Salvation Army to use its gym, and I knew that the Passaic Corps invited kids for activities such as indoor basketball. It was one of the many outreach programs they had for young people. I wasn’t aware at the time of all the other services they provided, but I did see them as involved in the community.
How is your relationship with the Passaic Corps today?
We have an excellent relationship. We’re symbiotic in terms of our joint efforts to help the homeless and families who have found themselves vulnerable, especially during the pandemic. The corps has become a location to rescue homeless people during the cold winter months. For that, the city made sure that the Army had extra beds and a larger refrigerator to store more food. The Salvation Army is a place where when you walk in, you know that the people there care about you. They understand that there are issues that many of the homeless face that resulted from their situation, but they are still people who deserve love, respect, and courtesy.
The Army’s holistic approach to helping is what Passaic has done with Dignity House, a resource center that provides a place for the homeless to get inside from the cold or heat. It also gives them a place to start their life again, whether through a free haircut or a mailbox to receive correspondence. There’s no cure-all for the problems of society, but we can address immediate needs that result in better solutions.
Talk about your own connection with the Lord and how He is present in your work as mayor.
My faith is very present in what I do, but I think faith is better expressed beyond our words and into our actions. That is the definition of outreach to me: to reach out with our hands, whether it be in a hug or serving a plate of food. I am deeply committed to Jesus and His way of helping the most vulnerable. The poor, the sick, the hungry; Christ fed and loved all of them. Working with The Salvation Army has made finding people like the individuals Jesus helped exponentially easier.
Earlier this year you hosted a Super Bowl party at the corps for the homeless. How did that idea come about?
I’ve been developing programs and initiatives to show that we can engage with the homeless on other days besides Thanksgiving and Christmas. The homeless don’t have the opportunity to come together with their friends and family, eat, and root for their teams like many of us do on Super Bowl Sunday. I’ve been having these Super Bowl parties for three years in different locations in Passaic. This year, The Salvation Army leaders opened their hearts and their doors as hosts. It was an amazing opportunity to connect with the homeless. We all ate, watched the game on a big screen TV, and had lively football debates. Many of our guests had favorite teams, followed players, and even knew their pro and college stats.
Creating that type of environment for the homeless population can trigger something positive inside them, even when the game is done. Maybe if they have a family that they haven’t contacted with in a long time, our event can help them realize how much they miss having that bond. Months or years from now, a dinner or a Super Bowl party may be seen as the start of a person’s recovery.
What have you learned from your interactions with the homeless?
Something interesting that I’ve noticed is that when the homeless feel that people are honest and sincere in their outreach to them, they’ll come back. It won’t be just to get help, but to offer help themselves. They will ask if they can stay to wash dishes or clean after their meal is done. What they really want more than anything is that human interaction to remind them of their own self-worth. They tell me that so often, no one looks them in the eye or even acknowledges they exist.
How have you and The Salvation Army faced the COVID-19 crisis in Passaic?
Together, we’ve done free COVID-19 testing for the homeless at Dignity House, inside the Passaic Corps, and in the corps’ parking lot. When we found individuals who were positive, we provided them with free lodging in motels so they could quarantine for two weeks. We made sure that they had knowledge of their status, medication, and proper treatment if they needed it.
In June, you became a father for the fifth time, right in the middle of the pandemic, correct?
Yes. I’d say that the whole experience was a mix of both hope and concern. It was a reminder that even in the most uncertain conditions, some things stay completely the same. Though I could not leave the hospital because of COVID after my son was born, the same joy and excitement was still there in every moment of his arrival. Life continues, no matter what may be going on outside. Of course, there was still the concern that my child had come in these unprecedented times. As a father, I had my own concerns for my family’s health. A part of me thought that I should hide at home with them to avoid the worst. But I continued to serve, because I know God is watching over me. If He can protect me in my house, He can protect me in the community. I still had to make pragmatic choices, such as wearing my mask and social distancing. But I could never allow the fear of something happening to me impede my opportunities to help those in need, especially in a global pandemic.
If you light a candle in a bright room, few will notice it. But if you light a candle in a dark room, everyone sees that light. A global pandemic gives us an opportunity to shine our faith in such a way that everyone can notice. It can inspire others and give greater hope than just hiding away in the dark.
What do you see as the next step in your work with The Salvation Army in Passaic?
My ultimate vision is to help find permanent job opportunities for our homeless. Along with that, have a place where they can stay and pay a certain amount as rent from the money they’re earning at their job. From there, they can find their own place to live, and build back their life. I want them to know that our support is always available to them, but eventually, they won’t even need it. They are now independent and have been transformed physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. I’m going to have meetings and interviews with The Salvation Army to plan how we will achieve those outcomes together.
interview by Hugo Bravo