GREENSBURG — New York City (NYC) is some 700 miles from Greensburg, but for Bishop Carmelo Velez and his wife Pastor Emily, the distance between the two cities can’t be expressed in such simple terms.
“Greensburg is a paradise,” Carmelo said. “I strongly believe that the people here don’t fully realize how wonderful this community is.”
Carmelo draws this conclusion following more than two decades ministering in NYC.
Working through their God in Action Ministries, the Velezes specialized in ministering to the homeless, to drug addicts, prostitutes, victims of domestic violence and HIV sufferers.
“New York is a great city,” Carmelo clarified, “but it’s so fast-paced, and there comes a time in life when you just want peace. We’ve found it here.”
Emily agreed. “There’s such a tremendous peace in this community,” she said. “People are so different here. They nod and wave and say ‘good morning’ when you see them out.”
Emily first came to Decatur County not long ago to visit her granddaughter and her family, who’ve lived here for two years.
“I fell in love with Greensburg,” she said.
In NYC, the Valezes focused on some of the city’s most drug-infested neighborhoods. Prostitution, homelessness, gang activity and HIV infection – all were rampant in the areas where they ministered. The locales were so treacherous, in fact, that the couple never ventured out alone.
Carmelo described “cities of cardboard,” wherein inhabitants literally lived out of cardboard boxes.
“We went in, brought them food and clothes and ministered to them,” Carmelo said.
He added, “We always made sure to help educate them, too. You have to teach them about Christ’s love and that God’s always there for them, but that’s simply not enough; they need more than a Bible. That’s why we had numerous relationships with rehab clinics and education programs around NYC and elsewhere.”
It might sound like the Velezes have settled in Greensburg to retire, but they deny such plans.
“We haven’t been here long,” Emily said, “but our goal is to get involved in the community, and to continue ministering.”
To that end, the Valezes have already met with Mayor Gary Herbert and with Greensburg Police Chief Stacy Chasteen. They also regularly visit with Diane Moore, executive director at Greensburg’s New Directions Domestic Abuse Services Center.
Moore welcomed the Valez’s involvement in the community and with New Directions, telling the Daily News that their experience is both extensive and impressive.
The couple still isn’t finished with their church back in NYC, either.
“I’m going back there in three months,” Carmelo said. “We’re still pastoring there, but we’ve ordained members of the congregation to serve as deacons and elders. We’ve ordained another member to serve as interim pastor. The goal is to eventually turn the church over to them.”
The couple understands that their impact in an area of Decatur County’s size will be far less reaching.
“If we make a difference in one life,” Emily said, “we’ll be making a difference for the entire community.”
Although the Valezes have helped countless people over the years, a handful of the stories stick out in their memories.
One of those, Carmelo said, is the story of a young prostitute who was addicted to heroin and crack cocaine.
“Her name was Rosa,” he said. “She was so greasy and terrible looking, they called her ‘Rosa Pork Chop.’ She was the lowest of the low in that area.”
The Valezes saw potential in the woman though, and decided to reach out. It wasn’t easy. In fact, the only way to procure any of Rosa’s time was to pay for it.
“We paid her $5 for five minutes,” Carmelo said, explaining that $5 was the going rate in NYC at the time for a hit of crack cocaine. “We paid her three or four times like that, and she’d come over to the car, hunch down, and talk to us.”
He continued, “We talked to her about transformation and changing her life and about the power of Christ’s love.”
The last five-minute session with Rosa would ultimately transform the young woman’s life.
“She finally agreed to let us help her,” Carmelo said. “We took her to a friend’s house overnight, and the next day, we sent her off to a program in Pennsylvania called New Life for Girls. That was one of many such programs we partnered with.”
Emily still remembers the night before shipping Rosa off.
“We stayed up all night with her,” she said. “We had to. We wanted to help her, but she was a junkie. You can’t trust a drug addict. We wanted to make sure she didn’t run off or steal anything.”
In fact, several months later, a mysterious visitor came to see Bishop Carmelo at the First United Methodist Church of Queens, where he served as co-pastor at the time.
“Emily saw her first,” Carmelo explained. “When I came in, I didn’t recognize her – not at all. Then Emily said, ‘One of your spiritual daughters is her to see you,’ and that’s when I knew. I couldn’t believe the change in this young woman. She was absolutely transformed. She was beautiful.”
Rosa’s transformation wasn’t the only surprise she brought; she also had a baby with her.
“We were shocked,” Emily recalled. “We didn’t know she was pregnant when we sent her off.”
“We were both pretty surprised,” Carmelo added. “She was beautiful; her baby was beautiful. She’d absolutely turned her life around.”
Eleven years later, Rosa still keeps in touch (she’s one of the many who do). She’s continued to stay off drugs and now works as a nurse’s aid. She and her daughter live in a house Rosa bought in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Carmelo’s own story isn’t much different from Rosa’s.
“I myself was a drug addict,” he said. “I tried many, many drugs, but I was addicted mostly to heroin and alcohol.”
One night, Carmelo recalled, he was out on the streets of NYC, talking to a minister named Reverend Rosa, himself a former drug addict.
“I told him I was a werewolf and that I needed a silver bullet to put me out of my misery,” Carmelo explained. “I needed a way out. He told me he had the silver bullet I needed; his name is Jesus Christ.”
Reverend Rosa eventually talked Carmelo into going to the “hospital” with him, which, in actuality, was a rehab clinic. Carmelo spent three days in there and came out “transformed by the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
“The power of Christ saved me,” he said. “And after he delivered me from drugs, Christ gave me a desire to help other addicts.”
That was 30 years gone, and neither he nor Emily has looked back.
Now, as they transition to a new community, the couple said “nothing would make us happier” than to someday be blessed to have a “Rosa” or a “Carmelo-like” story to tell from their time in Greensburg.
Carole Burr, councilor with New Directions, sees that as a distinct possibility.
“I’ve met them both,” she said of the Velezes. “I think they’re absolutely fantastic. They’ve absolutely embraced us here at New Directions, and they’re willing to do anything to help.”
For now, the Velezes are preparing to leave for Oklahoma City as part of First Christian Church’s Oklahoma Tornado Relief Caravan. That trip departs from the church July 7.
“This community is just blessed to have them,” Burr added. “I can’t wait to see how active they become here. I expect they’ll do great things.”
Contact: Rob Cox 812-663-3111 x7011