Keeping the Covenant
Clergy, citizens unite to build peace in gang-plagued Salinas.
Thursday, April 1, 2010
Building on the momentum from a huge March 27 peace march in Salinas and outrage from the tragic killing of six-year-old Azahel Cruz, the Catholic Diocese of Monterey is hoping parishioners and the community at large stay involved in fighting gang violence.
“Perhaps some good could come out of Azahel’s murder, if it galvanizes people,” says Warren Hoy, Diocese spokesman. “Maybe this will be the tipping point.”
On March 23, Cruz was shot in the head by a stray bullet, which police say was aimed at gang members on East Laurel Drive. Bishop Richard Garcia dedicated the peace march in his honor.
Before the innocent boy became the city’s first homicide victim of the year, clergy leaders developed a four-fold peace strategy, or covenant. Central Coast parishes along with members of Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action will work to connect families, promote trust with law enforcement, expand after-school activities and open space, and pray for peace.
Since a large proportion of Salinas’ Latino population is Catholic, church leaders say the strategy could go a long way. “If we were real consistent about these strategies and follow through on them, we will change our thinking and affect the town,” says Rev. Mike Miller of Sacred Heart Parish.
Miller says his parish may promote communication between kids and parents, invite police to speak at church services, open up gyms and fields to youth, and set up a place for 24-hour prayer.
Alfred Diaz-Infante, a COPA leader and CEO of affordable housing builder CHISPA, says it’s important to get all residents involved in making Salinas safe. “We just can’t let things happen the way they’ve been happening,” Diaz-Infante says. “We have to have hope. There has to be optimism that we can change for the better.”
COPA was a key organizer behind a city and county agreement that will allow the Salinas Regional Sports Authority to apply for grant funding for a soccer complex proposed for Constitutional Boulevard. The 11 additional fields, including two turf fields and one indoor arena, became a rallying cry for expanded recreational activities and positive alternatives for youth.
With design, environmental and fundraising work still ahead, Diaz-Infante says the soccer expansion is far from finished. “We need to fine-tune and better define the operation for this facility to include access, to include fees,” he says.
Diaz-Infante, also a parishioner at Sacred Heart, says his church will be exploring how to connect with middle school kids between first communion and confirmation. “It’s not just, ‘Have the march, then that’s it,’” he says. “There is work to be done at the local level and at parishes.”
Although Salinas, which had a record 29 gang-related homicides last year, has been the focal point of the effort, Hoy says Santa Cruz, San Benito and San Luis Obispo county parishes will also implement the covenant. Catholics from all four Central Coast counties attended the march, including Carmel Mission and San Carlos Cathedral, he says.
“[Gang violence is] not going to stay in Salinas,” Hoy says. “People look to the church to lead. That’s what we are looking to do – find a way to lead them out of this.”