RICHMOND -- The 25 peace activists gathered in New Hope Missionary Baptist Church on Friday night listened as a 78-year-old grandmother gave them their marching orders.
"Stay on message out there," resident Bennie Singleton told them. "Ceasefire, ceasefire, alive and free. Now let's go show that we are here and we care."
With that, the group hit the streets, passing out brochures and talking to everyone they encountered over the next hour as they toured the tiny, crime-plagued community of North Richmond.
Friday's outreach was part of a volunteer effort that has been building momentum since late last year, when the city was awarded a $370,000 grant from CalGRIP, a statewide initiative to address gang violence at the local level.
The grant helps local anti-violence workers, clergy and volunteers implement "Project Ceasefire/Lifelines to Healing," which previously helped reduce violence in cities such as Boston and Chicago.
"Ceasefire isn't a program, it's a movement, a campaign," said the Rev. Eugene Jackson, an organizer at Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization, one of the coordinating agencies.
Jackson said more than 1,000 residents have participated in dozens of "nightwalks" through all the city's neighborhoods since September. He said the effort revolves around meetings at local community centers with parolees and other high-risk populations, rapid responses to saturate streets with activists
"We are building a community-based coalition for peace," Jackson said.
And there are signs the effort -- along with ramped up police patrols and operations in North Richmond by the Office of Neighborhood Safety -- is having an impact.
There have been 10 homicides in Richmond this year, fewer than the average pace of deadly crime in Richmond in the past decade. Last year, the city saw 26 homicides, a total boosted by a summer spate in violence that resulted in 18 killings in June through August. Most of the gun violence, police say, is triggered by long-simmering feuds between rivals in north, central and south Richmond neighborhoods.
"We are cautious about where we are now with the number of homicides because the streets can heat up very quickly," said Richmond police Capt. Mark Gagan. "But the good working relationships among community groups is cause for optimism."
There have been three homicides in North Richmond this year, a 4,000-resident enclave divided between city and unincorporated Contra Costa County territory. There have been no killings here since May 14, when 22-year-old Orlando Yancy was killed in a drive-by shooting.
Soon after Yancy's death, the Office of Neighborhood Safety launched its Summertime Gun Violence Interruption Initiative, a strategy focusing the agency's resources in North Richmond.
"North Richmond is a containable theater, a small place with just five ways in and out," said agency director DeVone Boggan. "Along with Ceasefire out here doing their work, we think by focusing our resources here in the summer months we can decrease gun violence throughout the city."
On Friday, playing children scattered around the cul-de-sac of the Las Deltas Housing Projects as the two-column line of volunteers trouped in, led by the Rev. Alvin Bernstine, a longtime anti-violence advocate.
Adults emerged from their apartments to greet the group. A few joined them to walk and spread the nonviolence message to their neighbors.
One of the marchers was Adittya Raj, 53. Raj wore a shirt embossed with a picture of his son-in-law, Edwin Martinez.
Martinez, a 22-year-old Contra Costa College student, was shot and killed in central Richmond in January while sitting in the passenger seat of his sister's car.
"Edwin loved everybody, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," Raj said. "He would be happy to know that we are out here making a difference."