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A Community's Mission of Peace : Parish Continues Father Boyle's Anti-Gang Efforts

June 24, 1993|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The killing of Edgar Sosa threatened to sink the Dolores Mission community into a spiral of bloodshed.

The 17-year-old, known as Triste (the Sad One) on the streets of the Pico-Aliso housing project, was gunned down in May by gang rivals as he headed home after a Saturday afternoon at the church.

It was the first gang-related homicide in the Eastside neighborhood in more than a year--and, more troubling, the first since the celebrated gang priest, Father Gregory J. Boyle, was transferred from the parish by his religious superiors last summer.

On the day of Triste's burial, a volatile time of grief, anger and free-flowing liquor, Boyle was at a Jesuit seminary in Detroit. The parish's senior priest, Father Tom Smolich, was out of town on a retreat. And the new pastor, Father Pete Neeley, was taking his regular day off.

But instead of resigning themselves to a new round of retaliatory violence, the people of Dolores Mission took to the streets.

Mothers sought out the anguished youths, offering hugs and kisses. They began holding a series of barbecues aimed at forging a bond with each of the eight gangs that call Pico-Aliso home. Almost every Friday and Saturday night since then, they have led a "Love Walk" through the housing project, continuing until the wee hours even when gunfire is heard.

"Before, they would have locked themselves up in their homes," said Leonardo Vilchis, an organizer with the Comite Pro Paz en el Barrio, a group of concerned parents from the neighborhood whose ranks have doubled to about 60 core members in the last year.

"Now, they're taking over the leadership," he said. "There's a vacuum, but it's being filled by the community."

It has not been an easy transition, but neither has it been the apocalyptic collapse that many predicted when Boyle left.

His charismatic presence--the street moxie, the tough love and the peacemaking skill--is still sorely missed. But in the year since Boyle left, those he sought to empower seem to have caught his spark, rising to the occasion and discovering their own potential.

In fact, some of the very residents who most fretted about Boyle's departure have been those who most confidently picked up where he left off.

"To think we have done all this since Greg left and it hasn't fallen apart!" said Pam McDuffie, a longtime community activist who had been particularly distraught when Boyle was transferred. "I think a lot of people who would have sat back and depended on Greg realized that we had to take over so that his hard work didn't go to waste."

Residents gave Boyle a hero's welcome when he paid a week-long visit to Dolores Mission in June, while awaiting word of his next assignment. "It's just been waves of affection and love," Boyle said. "Mutually."

Boyle's replacement, the 44-year-old Neeley, does not seem daunted by the hurdles he faces.

A congenial man with blue eyes and a tidy gray beard, whose Birkenstock sandals poke out from under his white frock, Neeley said he spent the morning of Triste's burial taking care of security arrangements with police.

But he chose not to accompany the bereaved gang members to the grave site because, Neeley said, "I don't know that my physical presence has some mystical thing for them."

When they returned to the parish that afternoon, the gang had begun drinking in Triste's honor near the church parking lot. Neeley had told them he would not permit it, but then left for the day. By the time he returned, several drunk youths had started fistfights and rampaged through the church office.

"Father Pete--he's a nice man, a good priest, but he's just doing whatever he regularly does," said Juan Carlos Munoz, 23, an artist from the community who is overseeing work on a spray-painted "Homeboy" mural on a church-owned bakery across the street from Dolores Mission. "Father Greg--he had the energy."

Although Neeley concedes that he does not share Boyle's magnetism with the gangs, he is also no stranger to that world.

As a teen-ager growing up in San Francisco's blue-collar Sunset District, he was a member of a gang of Irish youths who called themselves the Sunset Packers. The reference was to a meat-packing hook, he said, the gang's symbol and favorite weapon.

Neeley, however, realized that gang life was not for him after he saw one of his comrades kill another youth by cracking his skull on the edge of a curb. He took a job as a longshoreman and later entered a seminary when he was 24.

Since then, his pursuits have been primarily academic. Before coming to Dolores Mission as an associate pastor three years ago, he was a tenured professor at the University of San Francisco, where he taught theology, sociology and business administration.

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