The six young men were seated in places of honor and were applauded by a crowd of more than 200. They were treated to a performance by armless guitarist Tony Melendez, who is best known for playing for Pope John Paul II. They shared the dais with Pomona Police Chief Richard Tefank and with a Roman Catholic bishop, who spoke glowingly of them.
"You guys are really special," Bishop Juan Arzube of Los Angeles told the six privileged guests. "All these people have come here for your benefit."
The teen-agers who received this acclaim are neither football heroes nor junior statesmen. They are gang members.
The six youths, representing three Latino gangs, gathered Sunday at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Pomona for a "breaking of the bread," a symbolic pledge to honor a truce during the holidays.
Their appearance was a partial victory for the Combined Agencies Committee--a coalition of police, churches, community groups and the county Probation Department's specialized gang-supervision program. For more than a month, the committee had brought together representatives of various gangs to discuss terms of a truce.
But when the bread was broken at the church auditorium Sunday, neither 12th Street--Pomona's largest Latino gang--nor any of the city's black gangs was represented.
And less than 36 hours before the truce was to have begun, two teen-age members of the Sur Trese gang were shot and wounded, one critically. Sgt. Gary Elofson, head of the police department's Crimes Against Persons Unit, said that the shooting was not an instance of inter-gang warfare, but an internal dispute within the gang.
Yet for Brother Modesto Leon, who has worked with gangs in East Los Angeles for the last 14 years, the participation of three such groups in the ceremony was a promising start.
"It takes a while," Leon said. "You have some people who are very angry. The healing process takes a long time. We don't expect young people to just quit overnight. There's still going to be violence. The important part is to have a round-table where people can talk."
Another positive note was that two members of Sur Trese participated in Sunday's ceremony, though they said the shooting incident "made us think twice" about attending.
"We don't feel really good right now because we got a home boy in the hospital, but we like this (ceremony) because it helps us feel better," said Mario (Snipper) Cruz, 17. "We give thanks to everybody for doing this."
However, the efforts to bring peace to the streets of Pomona have been initially greeted with skepticism by many gang leaders.
"I think there's a certain amount of apprehension and mistrust among the groups," Police Capt. Jack Blair said. "But we haven't given up on any group and we won't give up."
The forces of community pride and peer pressure that lure teen-agers to gangs make them wary of breaking with tradition, Leon said. Viewing the 20 gang members who attended Sunday's ceremony, Leon said, "It took a lot of guts for these young people to come here."
Elofson said police have received truce commitments from four Latino gangs--Pomona Sur, Sur Trese, Happytown and Cherrieville. The problem at this point, he said, is the intransigence of 12th Street, which boasts a membership of about 200 and a territory that covers a broad section of south Pomona.
"We're meeting some stumbling blocks in getting a hold of 12th Street," Elofson said. "They aren't in our program. They don't want to meet with the other gangs. I told the members of Cherrieville, you can relax in your barrio, but you can't let your guard all the way down because you're still at war with 12th Street."
After a rash of shooting incidents last spring, Blair asked Leon and Mike Duran, director of the Probation Department's specialized gang supervision unit, to come to Pomona in the hope that they could duplicate their success in East Los Angeles.
Leon has used the Catholic Church's influence to bring together gang members and their families to heal the wounds caused by decades of fighting. Duran has recruited former gang members to work with teen-agers and provide them with alternatives to violence.
Their approach appears to be working in East Los Angeles, where for years, between 15 and 20 people had been killed annually in gang-related attacks, Duran said. Last year, there were four such slayings, and there have been two so far this year, according to Sheriff's Lt. Al Scaduto.
'Did Make a Difference'
"I think we did make a difference," Duran said, adding that the drop in the number of gang-related murders has been matched by a reduction in the number of teen-agers entering his program.
Speaking at Sunday's ceremony, Duran, a former gang member from East Los Angeles, offered himself as an example.