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‘Death does not have the last word’

12 11.16.17_French5-TWO PAGEFather Piers Lahey leads a prayer vigil on the hillside where Ed French was killed at dawn July 16, sprinkling holy water to reclaim the popular Twin Peaks overlook as a place of “love and life.” (Photo by Debra Greenblat/Catholic San Francisco)

 Street vigils for homicide victims reclaim peace from a place of violence

November 16, 2017
Christina Gray

Film industry location scout Edward French was robbed of his camera and his life at dawn on July 16 while photographing the sunrise from popular Twin Peaks overlook in San Francisco. His obituary said he had a “keen eye for capturing the obvious and hidden beauty” of the city where he had been born and raised.

“He was ‘San Francisco,’” it read. “When you look to the city skyline – he will be there smiling with his camera.”

Ten days later, with visitors behind him posing for selfies against that storied vista, an unassuming priest in street clothes stood on the red dirt where French drew his last breath, and bowed his head.

“We come together in this space, at this time of grief, acknowledging the violent act committed against our brother Ed French,” Father Piers Lahey said to the circle of some 30 people who joined him in prayer, including a group of visiting Catholic high school students and their adult chaperones. None knew the 71-year-old victim, but all came to bear witness.

“When somebody’s life is taken away, especially by gun violence, all of us feel that outrage, all of us feel that pain,” Father Lahey said. “Any violent act on someone is a violent act on us all.”

A tall votive candle draped with a rosary and labeled with French’s name flickered on the ground as hilltop winds lashed at the pages of Father Lahey’s prayer book. In a closing ritual he reclaimed the spot with a sprinkling of holy water.

“Come, Holy Spirit, and redeem this space and people from the pain and death that occurred here. Return it as a safe place, a place of love, a place of life, a place of hope,” he said.

French is one of more than 200 homicide victims who have been memorialized over the last five years in public vigils organized by the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s restorative justice ministry. The deaths of a few, like French, make headlines. Most do not.

Ministry coordinator Julio Escobar initiated the vigils in 2012 as a “Christian response” to a violent crime. The vigils, he said, aim to prayerfully reclaim the place where a violent death has occurred as a “place of peace, a place of life.”

In 2016, there were 61 people murdered in Marin, San Mateo and San Francisco counties combined, Escobar said. The services offer prayer for the victims and the families and loved ones they leave behind. Prayers are often also said for the person who committed the murder, including those who died in a murder-suicide.

Early on, pastors of parishes nearest a crime scene were called upon to officiate street vigils, and they still sometimes do. In 2015, Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone led one for a young man shot on a Mission District street corner and he stayed to comfort his parents.

For the last few years though, it has been Father Lahey, pastor of St. Andrew Parish in Daly City. Particularly during the summer months, the San Francisco-born priest crosses town as often as six times a month in between his pastoral responsibilities to pray with Escobar – and less often family members and other loved ones – for the city’s homicide victims.

“I just thought about this as a way that as a priest in the church I could help,” said Father Lahey, who was ordained 35 years ago and has been a longtime archdiocesan pastor.

Interviewed at St. Andrew earlier this month, Father Lahey pointed to a statue of St. Francis in the church parking lot.

“We have this statue of St. Francis, a small one, right here next to where we park our staff cars,” he said as he tossed seed to a congregation of birds. “Every time I see this statue I think about the Prayer of St. Francis: ‘Make me an instrument of your peace.’”

Father Lahey credits his brother Denis, a local Buddhist abbot dedicated to nonviolence and works of mercy, for influencing him to “do something” to stand up against violence – particularly gun violence. He asked Escobar if he could regularly lead the prayer services.

“We are not going to overlook this violence,” Father Lahey said. “We are going to come and speak words of faith and prayer and to oppose in Christian love, what has happened here. In this ministry what we are trying to say is that we choose life.”

His prayer book for the service is somewhat self-styled, combining Catholic prayers of remembrance with language from Street Psalms, a nonprofit resource center for urban faith leaders.

Mostly, though, Father Lahey speaks from his heart, sometimes directly to the crime victims.

On Oct. 10, he prayed over two crime scene memorials separated by a few feet. First for 20-year-old Susana Robles who was shot by her boyfriend, and then for Angel Raygoza who then shot himself as the two sat in a car on a quiet side street in an affluent section of the city.

“This is not the Garden of Eden, we know that,” he said. “We know there is suffering, but we are praying that peace will be restored and that God will be present somehow to both these families.”

The church teaches us that every human life has dignity, Father Lahey said, and we are reminded at prayer vigils that, “this was a human being with a human face and a human life and a story as a unique person who was created in God’s image and likeness.”

Public street vigils attract varying responses. Curious passersby sometimes stop and join a gathering, said Father Lahey. But he has also had people spit out of car windows as a sign of disrespect. One time, he said, a menacing-looking driver in a black car revved up his engine as much as possible to “drown out the sound of people praying.”

As Catholics, we affirm the culture of life, not the culture of death, Father Lahey said.

“What we are saying at these prayer vigils is that God’s love is stronger than death,” he said. “The cross tells us that in more ways than anything else could ever tell us.”

Death does not have the last word.

“The power of God’s love is ultimately going to defeat this stuff,” said Father Lahey, “but it sure is a struggle.”

 

01 11.16.17_Father P FOUR HALFFather Piers Lahey prays at a street memorial for Anthony Torres, killed in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. The pastor at St. Andrew Parish in Daly City regularly leads prayer vigils to reclaim peace at homicide scenes in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy Julio Escobar)


 

 

 

 





12 11.16.17_9.17_PrayerservciFIVE PAGEFather Piers Lahey blesses the spot on a San Francisco side street where Susana Robles was fatally shot on Sept. 30. (Photo by Christina Gray/Catholic San Francisco)

 

12 11.16.17_French4-THREE PAGEA rosary-draped votive candle marks the Twin Peaks overlook where an attacker took the life of Ed French on July 16. (Photo by Debra Greenblat/Catholic San Francisco)

 

12 11.16.17_FrenchONE PAGEVisiting Catholic high school students participating in a restorative justice service-learning project hug one another July 26 at a memorial for French. Father Lahey is seen in the background. (Photo by Debra Greenblat/Catholic San Francisco)

 

12 11.16.17_PiersSIX PAGEFather Piers Lahey is pictured in the parking lot of St. Andrew Church in Daly City where he is pastor. A small statue of St. Francis, he said, inspires him daily to be “an instrument of God’s peace.” (Photo by Christina Gray/Catholic San Francisco)

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