The Rev. Michael Quinn began to pray as a passing BART train screeched on a bend near the Daly City line.
The Catholic priest was all but alone on a recent gray morning, except for two companions, all three in a half circle on an Oceanview hillside street corner.
He’d come to find the site of one of San Francisco’s recent killings near the corner of Head and Sargent streets. But Quinn and the two who’d accompanied him, Julio Escobar and Alma Zamora, settled on a small tree since they couldn’t pinpoint the spot where Phillip Gaston was shot dead on Oct. 10.
“Dispel this shadow of death,” said Quinn, holding a prayer book and wearing a vestment. Escobar and Zamora, both employees of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, stood nearby with their heads down and hands to their chests.
After the last prayer was said — and holy water was sprinkled from a small plastic bottle — the three climbed into Quinn’s Toyota Avalon. Quinn spoke to his iPhone, asking for directions to the next homicide site they planned to visit.
“Living alone, she’s the only one I talk to,” joked Quinn as the computer voice said the location could not be found.
Each week since 2012, Quinn, who is also a chaplain for the San Francisco Police Department, and Escobar, who helped create the prayer efforts and outreach for the Restorative Ministry of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, have often stood alone on street corners and in alleys to pray for those who have lost their lives to violence.
“You kinda get used to the neighborhoods,” said Quinn.
Over that time, the pair have come to know the neighborhoods where most of The City’s fatal violence occurs: Bayview-Hunters Point, the Tenderloin, Ingleside, the Mission.
So far this year, they have prayed at every one of the 46 homicide scenes across San Francisco, oftentimes with little fanfare and no audience.
The first homicide victim they prayed for was 19-year-old Jose Escobar, who was shot and killed in the Mission in October 2012, said Escobar of the Archdiocese, who not only prays weekly at the sites of violence but also meets with the families of the victims.
Escobar, who took a job in the ministry in 2010, started volunteering at The City’s juvenile hall in 1995, mostly with Mission District youths and their families.
When he came to the Archdiocese, he wanted to do similar outreach across the Archdiocese in Marin, San Mateo and San Francisco counties. But praying at the site of a killing is just the start.
“We connect with the family and accompany the family through that process and invite them to come to spiritual retreat to find comfort in healing,” said Escobar. “Then, when ready, they help other families.”
The ministry — which has three elements, including victims, families and the community — also works with people in jails and prisons, as well as their families, in a similar vein.
For Escobar, born in San Francisco but raised in El Salvador with his parents, praying at the site of killings is not new.
“Many times we would go and find bodies on the streets. One time 20 bodies had been dumped near my house. We came to them and prayed,” he recalled of his time in Chalatenango, one of El Salvador’s 14 provinces. “We did in a way
what we are doing now here in the U.S.”
At the time, in the early 1980s, the government was fighting a civil war against a leftist guerrilla army, the EZLN. Oftentimes bodies would be dumped on the street and no one knew if they’d been killed by the army or the guerrillas, he said. Families would often not claim the bodies for fear of being targeted, too.
“I remember praying in the streets for my own people in El Salvador,” said Escobar. “There was nobody there, and it was my first experience dealing with people dead in the street.”
In 1981, when he was 16, he left because of the violence, returning to the U.S. “I came here alone,” he said.
On a recent Monday, Escobar, Quinn and Zamora crossed The City, praying at four scenes of death. From Oceanview to SoMa they gathered, intoned prayers, sprinkled holy water and at times welcomed passersby to join them.
Ten minutes after the first prayer, the Avalon pulled into a parking space in the same neighborhood on the corner of Plymouth Avenue and Broad Street where Keron Lamotte was killed Oct. 14.
Quinn, a large man who has no qualms about describing himself so, ambled to a makeshift memorial on the sidewalk outside a corner barbershop.
A man and a woman from the neighborhood joined in the prayers.
“I saw him the day he got killed,” said the man. “He was the neighborhood thief.”
No matter the crimes or sins committed, Escobar and Quinn pray for the dead.
“It’s a societal sin that this young man lost his life. Society has failed him,” said Quinn, who noted that Lamotte may have done wrong, but he will still be prayed for.
The trio were soon on Interstate 280 heading north to a SoMa nightclub, where John Sanyaolu was shot to death Oct. 2.
Outside of The Endup nightclub, where Sanyaolu was killed, the three once again formed a half circle and began to pray, the traffic of Harrison and Sixth streets providing a loud backdrop.
Once again Quinn pulled out the bible, the holy water and began to pray.
“We gather here to pray for John Sanyaolu,” began Quinn, who then prayed for the Stockton man’s family and friends.
Their last stop was an alleyway off Sixth Street, a block south of Market Street, where Alfredo Dixon was shot and killed Oct. 8.
Once again they found a tree to pray around, and puddles of pee stinking up the corner of Natoma and Sixth streets.
“We usually like to pray near a tree when we don’t know the exact spot, because it’s a sign of life,” said Escobar as Quinn spoke to a man who had been passing in the alley.
The passerby, Liam, who did not give his last name, decided to stay after offering food to Quinn, who told him to keep it. Then Quinn opened up his prayer book and began the process once again.
“At this site Alfredo gave his life to God,” intoned Quinn as part of his service, which ended with a healthy sprinkling of holy water at the tree’s base. “Jesus wasn’t stingy.”
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