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Murder spike prompts hands-on response by Catholic pastor, parish
August 23rd, 2011
By Valerie Schmalz and Jose Luis Aguirre

Hugo Chavez was shot four times, falling to the ground in his gravel driveway, while his brother drank beer in the back garden on a jasmine-scented July night in East Palo Alto.

“I was in my bedroom when I heard the shooting in front of my house. I ran outside and saw my son on the ground. We didn’t see who did it,” Yolanda Chavez, who moved to the U.S. from Michoacan, Mexico, 17 years ago. She spoke to Catholic San Francisco as her 3-year-old granddaughter played in the grass in front of a candle- and-flower-decked shrine to her uncle. “I don’t have words to express this feeling.”

“He had a car seat for the baby in his car,” said Chavez’s sister Irma Patricia Chavez, 31. “He really loved her.”

Hugo Chavez, 26, was buried from St. Francis of Assisi parish, and on Aug. 19, pastor Father Lawrence Goode and four parish members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society stood with Chavez’s mother, sister and two nieces to pray for him in the same driveway, his flower-and-candle decorated shrine on the lawn just inside the garden fence. The St. Vincent de Paul Society in East Palo Alto is very active in providing help with rent and food for low-income families, Father Goode said, to the extent of housing families in their own homes at times.

“God of peace and justice, please send your healing spirit on this place, as we remember the violence and death which have occurred here,” they prayed at the Chavez home and at three other sites where teens and young adults were murdered in East Palo Alto in July. Catherine Fisher, 19, died July 13; Jabari Banford, 23, died July 18; Chavez died July 19; and Kevin Guzman, 19, died July 24. In June another man was killed and in March 3-year-old Baby Isaac was shot.

While a police spokesman was reluctant to say any specific death was gang-related, Father Goode said most believe the spike in violence is tied to gang activity, possibly directed from prison.

The increase in violent deaths after a relative lull prompted two August meetings of a new community intervention, Operation Ceasefire, said East Palo Alto Police Capt. Federico Rocha, who was named to head the initiative in November. A “call-in” was held in March and in April in response to the Baby Isaac killing, Rocha said.

So far 10 California cities are using Operation Ceasefire, which invites or mandates attendance of targeted offenders to a meeting with law enforcement and community and social service representatives who present what will happen if they continue on the path of violence but offer help.

“It is a comprehensive approach to addressing violence in the community,” Rocha said. “You stand shoulder-to-shoulder in that effort. So it is not a cop thing, it is not a church thing, it’s not a social worker thing – it is a community coalition speaking with one voice.”

In East Palo Alto, Rocha has enlisted the churches because the churches have credibility, he said. Father Goode, for instance, attended the Aug. 8 Operation Ceasefire “call-in,” Rocha said. The presentations are followed by one-to-one connections including help with job training, housing, job placement, finding counseling, Rocha said. “You cannot say, ‘I had no other place to go.’ Yes, you did,” said Rocha.

Approximately 30 or 90 percent of those targeted have signed up since March, and none has relapsed, Rocha said.

“It’s a simple way,” said Father Goode. “But I think it is taking the bull by the horns and trying to clarify what their options are and encouraging them to pick good options.”

From the Aug. 26, 2011 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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