Armed only with flashlights and friendly greetings on a Tuesday night, eight volunteers walked a south Merced route familiar to them – and to gun violence.
Merced Ceasefire is a program led by pastors and deacons that asks volunteers to take two hours out of their week to wind through the city streets in south Merced, just west of Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The group has been walking that neighborhood for about a year and is set to expand to more locations.
“It’s my hope that we cover the entire Merced County a bite at a time,” the Rev. Don Ramsey said.
The pastor for Saint Matthew Baptist Church in Merced heads Ceasefire.
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Just this week, residents were reminded of the kind of violence that Ceasefire is working to stamp out. Monday morning, a 16-year-old boy was shot to death near West 20th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Family members identified the victim as Donovan Webster.
Merced police responded to that shooting after receiving a call reporting shots fired about 12:30 a.m. Officers found the teenager at the scene, and he was taken to an area hospital, where he was pronounced dead, according to Sgt. Scott Skinner. A motive for the shooting has not been determined, and police said it’s unknown if the shooting was gang-related.
Ceasefire was inspired by Boston-based Operation Ceasefire, an effort that dates to 1996. When in operation, Boston’s program reduced youth homicide numbers by 63 percent, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice.
A similar program in Sacramento saw shootings drop by 39 percent in the area walked by volunteers, according to Ramsey. Gang-related shootings decreased by 60 percent.
Ramsey described the walks as a “faith-based program.” Eight church leaders are involved in the program, and Ramsey challenged other pastors and deacons to get their churches involved. “We’re going to bring on as many other clergy as we possibly can,” he said.
On a recent Tuesday, eight volunteers took the streets near McNamara Park holding flashlights and wearing white T-shirts that read “STOP THE VIOLENCE.” They greeted passers-by in English and Spanish, waved and smiled.
Jose Lumbreras, 32, pulled his van over and flagged the group down. He said through a translator that he thought the weekly marches would be “a cool thing to do” and he wanted to join.
“I think it’s something my kids will appreciate, and it sets a good example,” he said in Spanish. “And I’m tired of the violence.”
The father of four said he’s lived in the area for 12 years, and he’s seen young people hurt or caught up in gangs.
Newcomers to the program undergo a training session, which includes safety facts and information about the program.
Organizers worked with Merced police Capt. Tom Trindad to identify neighborhoods that could benefit from the weekly walks. He said there is not any quantitative data on whether Ceasefire is effective or not, but the program is providing a service.
“What they are doing ... they’re showing people in this area that there are people who care about them and want them to feel safe,” he said.
Trindad said the program would ideally have a caseworker who could meet with identified gang members and point them to services that could give them a chance at rehabilitation. He said that part of the program would need funding, but none has been identified.
Trindad said the churches do provide some counseling. He said Ceasefire, as well as Merced’s police department and other groups, deserve credit for the decreased the crime rate.
The overall crime rate in Merced in 2013 was down by nearly 27 percent from the previous year, according to numbers released last month.
While homicides were down by about 45 percent, gun assaults were up by almost 17 percent.
Jesus Sanchez walked with Ceasefire on that recent Tuesday, and has done so on many other nights. He heard about the walks at a community meeting, he said, and wanted to take part because he’s witnessed fights and heard gunfire outside of his home.
Sanchez said he feels like the walks are making a difference. “I can tell it’s more tranquil,” the 67-year-old said in Spanish. “People who know we’re doing this tell me it’s a good thing.”
Ramsey said organizers are planning to start a regular walk in March or April in the Loughborough Drive area. He said other organizers are close to launching one in Planada as well.
Merced Ceasefire will hold its next training for newcomers at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at This Ain’t Your Mama’s Church, 1405 W. Main St. The trainings usually take place monthly.
For more information about the program, contact Ramsey at (209) 676-9824 or firstname.lastname@example.org.