Singing hymns in Spanish, English and Samoan, hundreds of parishioners from St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Santa Ana took part in a Palm Sunday procession designed as a show of resolve against gang violence.
"We've been a part of this community since 1986," said Samoan American parishioner Maria Leuta Faatea, 44, who led her group in a lilting version of the song "Walking the Light" in her native language.
"A lot of lives were being lost every year, but there's no more violence. Jesus is everywhere."
The Blessing of the Streets began 18 years ago, when a 17-year-old parishioner died in the arms of former St. Joseph's pastor Christopher Smith. Smith, who returned this year to help lead the procession, said the victim was riding his bicycle past the church when a gang member shot him in the head in an initiation rite.
Violence in the Minter Street neighborhood has dropped dramatically since then. Santa Ana police say they have recorded only one gang homicide in the city this year.
But Father John Moneypenny, the current pastor, said the deep recession has left many young men idle, raising fears of a reprise of deadly gang rivalries.
"People are not feeling so safe," Moneypenny said.
The street blessing was part of a long Catholic tradition of religious processions and celebrated Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem a week before the Crucifixion. The mood during the Sunday event ranged from reverent to celebratory.
Holding intricately plaited palm fronds up to the sky, the crowd paced slowly past four street corner altars decorated with candles, marigolds and religious icons and statues. Many fell to their knees as Moneypenny held up a gilded vermeil monstrance displaying the consecrated host and led them in prayer.
A small boy with a mohawk haircut crouched under his apartment's satellite television dish and yelled "Hallelujah!" as another priest sprinkled holy water on the lawn of his complex. A chubby Chihuahua and a portly pug struggled to keep up with kids in strollers.
"It really brings a sense of hope that God is truly with us and can protect our homes from violence," Moneypenny said, in explaining the ritual.
Many in the crowd remembered past victims. As the procession approached the site of the notorious gang shooting of a 2-year-old boy, Connie Linnert, the parish's youth minister for 32 years, inhaled sharply.
"This is really hard; I still get chills," said Linnert, her voice breaking slightly. The victim died in his father's arms, she said. "He was only 2 years old, and his dad was carrying him to get a haircut."
As the procession progressed, neighbors trickled out of apartment buildings and off the wraparound porches of gracious bungalows to join the crowd. Larry Budner, 52, a member of a nearby Episcopal congregation, was one of a number of Protestants who attended the ecumenical celebration.
"I really believe in Santa Ana, and the problems in the community need to be solved by the community, especially the religious community," said Budner, a child psychiatrist.