When pastor Martin Amador and others gathered last week for a gang awareness meeting at Apostolic Assembly First Church of Modesto, the reality of senseless violence taking the lives of young people already had hit close to home.
Eight days before the meeting, stray gunfire killed a 16-year-old mentally disabled boy about a block northwest of the church on Sonora Avenue in Modesto.
Stanislaus County sheriff's officials said the shooting appeared to be gang-related, while neighbors said a fistfight between friends escalated to deadly violence.
About 70 adults and 50 youths arrived at the church meeting with a sense of urgency, looking for answers to the gang culture that lures children from their families, Amador said.
"We as parents need to take back our homes and our community," he said.
The church invited gang investigators from the Ceres Police Department to speak about the signs of gang involvement: the colors, the clothes and the gangs that operate in the area.
Amador said the meeting had been scheduled months before the shooting. Gangs were to be the first of a variety of topics planned for monthly public seminars called Building Strong Families.
Residents say their unincorporated neighborhood between the Tuolumne River and Ceres is a tough place, where the sound of gunfire is common and outsiders are met with suspicion.
Church caretaker Jesus Romero, 76, has lived in the neighborhood for about 10 years.
"It bothers me a lot," he said about gangs, in Spanish. "If you don't stand up and denounce these things, the crimes will only continue to escalate."
While gang graffiti is spray- painted on alley walls and vagrants roam neighborhood streets, the church sits unharmed.
"The church is the anchor of this community," Amador said. "The church is off-limits to gang activity. Nobody bothers it."
Amador said the church serves as a safe haven where he hopes residents can come together and speak about the gangs that surround them.
For the first time, Willie Valdez, 55, spoke freely at the gang awareness meeting about his struggle with drugs and crime as a youth. He shared his story in the hope of showing others there is a way out.
Valdez is a member of the church and lives in the neighborhood. He and his wife saw the recent shooting unfold from their front yard.
"It was an innocent boy," Valdez said. "We can't tolerate this no more. This has to stop."
Eliazar Hernandez's mother, Esther Zavala, said her teenage son was riding with her in their van when he was shot Oct. 20 near Lombardo Avenue. She said he had no involvement in the dispute that led to the shooting.
She said her son, who was born with Down syndrome, was a fun-loving 10th-grader at Johansen High School.
Valdez said the shooting shook up a lot of parents in the neighborhood, and he hopes it will push residents to work together to protect their children.
"We have to start watching over each other," Valdez said. "The seminars here at the church are a good start."
Barbara Garza, 47, another member of the church, spoke about her involvement with gangs as a teenager. She wanted to show parents that anyone can be pulled into gang violence, including girls.
"It's a really strong pull for the girls," said Garza, who lives in the neighborhood. "It gets to them at a younger and younger age. You have to be involved as a parent."
The public is invited to attend the second monthly seminar at 7 p.m. Nov. 18 at Apostolic Assembly First Church of Modesto at 917 Sonora Ave. School officials will discuss what the education system is doing to steer students from gangs.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.