Hector Roach hands out pamplets to Keith Baxter, left, and Lafell White… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)
STOCKTON — Hector Roach was in a race with his draining cellphone battery.
"I've been calling everyone, but there sure is nobody here, and now I have no bars."
He had a decision to make: cancel the night walk or go it alone.
In an attempt to quell the shootings that have plagued California's second-most-violent city, church members in the hardest-hit neighborhoods -- operating in groups of no fewer than three -- have been going up to youths hanging out on street corners and parking lots. "Hey, how are you doing?" they ask. "Do you like the neighborhood the way it is?" "What would you like to see different?"
Now, standing outside the Greater White Rose Church of God in Christ, under a white magnolia tree, Roach saw a woman coming down the street pushing a stroller, followed by two little girls on bicycles.
"You would have never seen that six months ago," said Roach, a 50-year-old former gang leader. "That street corner over there was full of bangers. People on this street stayed locked up in their houses."
But every week, Roach and his church friends had been going to that corner for a chat. "We were consistent. That's the key," he said.
Eventually the men left. They still gather just a few blocks away, dealing drugs, "but one street makes a difference," Roach said.
With that, he tossed out the training manual and set off on an evening's journey that would wind him through many lives in South Stockton.
Three blocks down on Pilgrim Street is the tidy stucco home where 18-year-old Travae Vance lived until he was shot in the head. His was the 77th homicide investigated by Stockton police and the San Joaquin County sheriff's office in 2012, a year that saw 88 slayings.
"He was a nice kid, friendly. He'd started coming to our church," Roach said.
Around the corner, the parking lot of the Grand Save Market is the neighborhood hangout.
"Don't think this is just the spot to drink and smoke and sell," said Robert Latin, 51. "This is where people have been coming to tell stories -- mostly lies, but with lots of truth -- for 60, 70 years. Come here after church. You'll see grandfathers in their Sunday best."
There have been five shootings in the parking lot and immediate area in three years, according to police records. Latin said that sounded right -- if you count only the shootings where someone called the cops.
Menione Moore arrived to buy apple juice for the baby she's trying to adopt. It's her cousin's daughter, and if Moore doesn't get custody, the 7-month-old could end up in foster care.
The 21-year-old with bright eyes, hair pulled back in a ponytail, had been going to community college. But she stopped in order to look for work and take care of the baby.
"I've got this covered," Moore said. "I'm going to have a different life. For me and her. I'm going to make sure she has someone."
She greeted by name every person who passed -- including the men with gang tattoos.
"We all grew up together," she said. "When there's gunshots, I just try to stay out of the way. When you live here, it's just normal. Nothing shocks. I never expected to live to 18."
But sometimes, she said, even if it's just the way life is, things happen that change you. She turned around and lifted the hood of her sweat shirt to show the name Travae Vance and the dates 1994-2012.
"He was my brother. We talked every day," she said."I have to admit, that one was a shocker."
Roach approached everyone in the parking lot that evening, shaking hands, clasping shoulders. He asked them all -- the drunk, the sober, the furtive, the kids on bicycles -- the same questions: "Are you happy with the way things are in your community? What would you like to see different?"
Before a religious conversion at age 24, Roach ran a gang in East Stockton. He's sold drugs, shot a man and spent time in the California Youth Authority. For his 21st birthday, his father gave him burial insurance.
Now he's a churchgoing man with a wife of 25 years, a job, a mortgage and worries about how to pay for college for his kids.
"I praise God for my life," he said. "Last night I took my wife to the movies for our anniversary, and I wished I could go back in time and not waste a minute on anything other than a life like this."
Latin, also a former gang member, said that "when you hit 30, 40, it's supposed to be over.... You're in a lot more danger just from happening to be in the wrong spot when the young guys start shooting. That's how I got hit." He lifted his shirt to show a shiny scar on his side. His buddy rolled up his pants leg to show where he'd been sprayed with bullets from a drive-by shooting.
Anything could happen at any time, Latin said. Maybe that's why he liked knowing that someone from the church would come by tonight. "They're dependable. I always ask them to pray for me."
Roach said he doesn't expect people to offer community improvement suggestions the first two or three weeks he asks them.