‘This Place Where Violence Occurred, We Are Reclaiming as a Place of Peace’
After a mass shooting in California’s Half Moon Bay that left seven dead, the local Catholic church accompanies a grieving community.
HALF MOON BAY, Calif. —The funeral Mass for Marciano Martinez Jimenez, held on Feb. 9 at Our Lady of the Pillar Church in Half Moon Bay, California, marked the close of two weeks of unrelenting pain for his grieving family and friends, as they grappled with his violent death at the hands of a disgruntled co-worker.
But Servando Martinez Jimenez, the younger brother of the homicide victim, has never wavered from his initial plea that God forgive the man accused of firing the shots that ended Marciano’s life.
“I never expected this could happen to my brother,” Servando told the Register, as he spoke of his eldest sibling who had shown him the ropes in his new job in California, while the rest of their large family remained in Mexico.
Instead of giving in to a surge of vengeance, however, Servando found himself contemplating Christ’s words on the cross.
“Jesus told the Father, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do,’” he said, speaking about the need for unity and healing, not division and retribution.
Marciano and Servando were both farmworkers in Half Moon Bay, a small coastal town located about 30 miles from San Francisco that is best known for its surfing beaches, a pumpkin festival and a five-star hotel that attracts well-heeled denizens of Silicon Valley.
But on Jan. 23, after local authorities reported that four people had been found dead at one farm off Highway 92, and three more bodies were discovered at another farm on Highway 1, Half Moon Bay became the latest U.S. town to join a lengthening roster of communities that have witnessed a mass shooting.
The dead, and one additional victim who was hospitalized, worked at local nurseries that produce mushrooms, herbs and flowers, and their hardscrabble existence was mostly hidden from public view until their deaths brought a flood of reporters to the scene.
The accused, Chunli Zhao, 66, lived and worked at Terra Garden, one of the farms, and previously work at the other, Concord Farms. According to media accounts, local law enforcement reported that he specifically targeted the six men and one woman he shot. After the killings, police found Zhao in his car with a semiautomatic pistol on the passenger seat. He was taken into custody and has been charged with seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder.
Two of the dead, Marciano, age 50, and Jose Romero Perez, age 35, were Catholic, and both had immigrated from Oaxaca, Mexico. Five others were ethnic Chinese, and their religious background and other personal details have not been made public.
The Archbishop’s Prayers
Days after the shootings, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco conducted a prayer service and blessing at the two farms where the rampage took place, and all the workers and their families were invited to attend.
“A moment such as that transcends denominational differences,” Archbishop Cordileone told the Register in a Feb. 8 interview.
During the prayer services at the crime sites, the archbishop implored God to begin his healing work.
“We come together this day to reclaim this space of death as a place of life,” he said, reciting prayers composed for this special purpose as he moved across the grounds and sprinkled holy water. About 50 farmworkers and their families stood by.
“This place where violence occurred, we are reclaiming as a place of peace. This place that causes fear, anger and pain, we are reclaiming as a place of hope and community.”
“We reclaim the humanity of both victim and victimizer in God’s name,” he continued, during the Jan. 25 service.
Father Jose Corral, the pastor of Our Lady of the Pillar, also offered prayers for his slain parishioners and visited the farms where they were gunned down.
“You think about the families that were left behind,” Father Corral told the Register. “I cannot imagine their pain and shock. Nothing like this has happened in this town before.”
Secular media coverage of the public events following the mass shooting ignored or only briefly mentioned the interfaith prayer service conducted by the archbishop, but his presence marked the local Church’s long-standing support for families grieving the loss of a loved one from violence.
The Archdiocese of San Francisco’s Restorative Justice Ministry, which operates under the auspices of the Office of Human Life & Dignity, regularly organizes public prayer services for victims of violent crimes that take place within the local Church’s jurisdiction.
“We try to accompany the family on their journey of grief and healing, and we stay in touch with them,” Julio Escobar, the coordinator of the Restorative Justice program, told the Register.
Throughout the year, he monitors crime reports in three counties within the archdiocese’s jurisdiction. When a homicide is reported, he contacts a local priest to immediately go pray in the street where it occurred and begin forging a bond with the victim’s loved ones.
“If the family is Catholic, we look to see if they need help with the funeral, the Rosary and the cemetery. And we have retreats for them.”
In the wake of the Half Moon Bay mass shooting, Escobar immediately reached out to the families and local community leaders to provide services that would offer prayerful support to everyone, irrespective of their faith.
Escobar organized a vigil as well as a community service that brought local city and religious leaders together, and he helped Our Lady of the Pillar Church plan the funerals for the two Catholic farmworkers.
The mass shooting presented a daunting challenge, but Escobar has spent years learning how to accompany families in ways that offer spiritual solace and practical support and do not make things worse.
And as the culture moves away from organized religion, and more communities look for rituals that affirm the inviolable dignity of a life lost to senseless violence, and offer hope to survivors who mourn the death of a loved one, Escobar believes that this special work of the Church will only become more important.
A Broken Culture
Likewise, Escobar also coordinates programs for people who have been incarcerated and are being released from prison. His office links them with services designed to help them find a job and housing, address drug and alcohol issues, receive spiritual counseling, and finish their education.
“We believe nobody is beyond redemption, even those who commit acts of violence,” said Archbishop Cordileone. “Some can be rehabilitated. We need to strive for that.”
As a pastor as well as a bishop, he has been moved and dismayed by the brokenness that defines the lives of so many Americans. The rise in fatherless children, substance abuse and mental illness have played a part in the steady increase of mass shootings that no longer have the power to shock.
Just two days before Zhao began his rampage in Half Moon Bay, 11 people were killed by a gunman who opened fire at a dance studio in Monterey Park, California.
In 2022, victims of mass shootings included 19 children and two teachers at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school on May 24, barely a week after 10 people were slain in a Buffalo, New York, supermarket.
The wave of shootings has prompted calls for tougher gun-control measures, particularly for adults with criminal records or mental-health issues, and sparked a search for answers that can explain what has gone wrong. But such explanations often appear elusive and insufficient amid such violent explosions of brutality and glimpses of raw malice.
The shootings in Half Moon Bay have prompted local law enforcement and media outlets to investigate the conditions at the farms that may have contributed to the gunman’s sense of grievance. Reportedly, the rental fees for housing on the farms swallowed up much of the workers’ paychecks, but the structures themselves were in poor condition and not up to code.
The owners of one Half Moon Bay farm have promised to make changes. There have also been calls to resolve the immigration status of the farmworkers, allowing them to emerge from the shadows where they have labored for so long.
Archbishop Cordileone expressed hope that the farmworkers’ lives would improve, but also that his own flock would be inspired by the extraordinary witness of faith in God’s providence on display in this humble community largely “invisible” to most Catholics.
There is a need for “reparation, for justice as mercy,” he acknowledged.
“But to speak words of forgiveness when there is so much deep pain is a sign of true goodness,” he said. “The love of God brings that grace. It isn’t humanly possible.”
Goodbye to a Beloved Brother
Just before the funeral service for his brother, as he politely answered a reporter’s questions, Servando showed signs of strain as he prepared to say a final goodbye to a beloved brother who was also a trusted guide and a model for emulation in a foreign land.
Nevertheless, he maintained his composure as he delivered a message of gratitude to the congregation that comprised his co-workers dressed in formal black clothes and other members of the local community.
He thanked his pastor, Father Corral, and the Archdiocese of San Francisco for accompanying him and his family and helping them navigate the difficult days following his brother’s death.
Finally, he told the congregation that he was glad Marciano’s body would be returned to Mexico for burial with other deceased family members, as was his wish.
“Thank you for contributing your grains of sand so that Marciano can return home,” said Servando, speaking in a clear, calm voice.
Then the mourners lined up before the open coffin to offer one final prayer for Marciano’s soul and place white and red roses that would accompany his body back to Mexico.
This story was updated after posting.
- half moon bay
- mass shootings
- victims of violence
- archbishop salvatore cordileone
- joan frawley desmond