Oakland Tribune

OAKLAND -- Three days from finishing a three-month personal challenge to put others first, Jose Antonio Durante left a church event in East Oakland to help a stranger who had run out of gas.

That act of kindness would be his last.

As he and two friends pushed the car, a man who admitted to police he had consumed alcohol and used methamphetamine before getting behind the wheel plowed into Durante, got out of his truck and ran away, witnesses said. The 39-year-old Pittsburg man later died at the hospital.

"He wanted nothing in return. That was the most remarkable thing about him," said Sanjev Desilva, a youth leadership director of the Mosaic Project, where Durante worked. "If you tried to give him gas money, he'd refuse it."

Jose Durante (Courtesy of Heidi Pese)
Jose Durante (Courtesy of Heidi Pese) (Jose Durante Memorial Fund)

His actions in the moments before his death personify Durante, friends said. A devout Christian and church youth director, he helped people move and offered rides and meals to anyone in need.

"Jose was committed to serving others to the end," said friend Josh Harper, a volunteer council member with New Hope Covenant Church in Oakland who knew Durante for two years. "Jose was one of the most loving, energetic, and joyful people we have known.

"Jose's deep empathy for others drove him to build meaningful and impactful relationships with people from all backgrounds."

On Friday night, Durante was attending a church leaders' appreciation event at the Eastside Arts Alliance at 22nd Avenue and International Boulevard when a church family with a baby reported that they couldn't exit the driveway because a stranded SUV was blocking it.

Durante and his friends quickly stepped in to help the motorist, whose SUV had run out of gas, move the vehicle and ask him what else they could do to help.

The night had been far different for Oakland resident Celso Tapia Lopez.

The 37-year-old Lopez had been drinking alcohol and using methamphetamine that evening, he told investigators after his arrest later that night, yet he set out in a borrowed truck and was driving to a hardware store to buy a tool for a weekend construction job.

While Durante and the other two men were pushing the car, police said, Lopez was speeding down International Boulevard about 7:45 p.m. before he rammed Durante, pinning him between the two cars.

Durante was rushed to Highland Hospital in Oakland with major internal injuries and was later pronounced dead at 10:07 p.m. No one else was injured.

Although Lopez left the borrowed 2001 Chevrolet Silverado truck behind and ran away, police tracked him late Friday night to an East Oakland home, where he was found hiding behind a garbage can. He was arrested and was charged Tuesday with felony vehicular manslaughter and felony hit-and-run causing death or injury, a spokeswoman from the Alameda County District Attorney's office said.

He remains in Santa Rita Jail in Dublin on a no bail hold. Lopez has at least three prior driving offenses in Alameda County, including a 2002 DUI conviction and a running a stop sign and driving without a valid registration or driver's license last year, police said.

In a 2011 personal essay, Durante described how he saw firsthand the effects of social injustice, including poverty and war, during his childhood in Guatemala. He immigrated to the United States when he was 12, attended school in Colma and South San Francisco, and earned a bachelor's degree in liberal arts from San Francisco State University.

It didn't take long for him to find his true calling, according to his sister, Heidi Pese, of Antioch.

"I couldn't stay away from church and the nonprofit world," he wrote in the essay. "When I'm not doing motivational speaking or church-related work, you can find me pondering how to have the most impact in people's lives."

Church colleagues and friends have set up a fund to help his family with funeral and other expenses; by Wednesday afternoon, they had raised more than $9,400. Donations to the Jose Durante Memorial Fund can be care of the New Hope Covenant Church, 2626 E. 16th St., Oakland, Calif., 94601.

Services for Durante will be at noon Saturday at Cornerstone Christian Center, 1745 East 18th St. in Antioch.

"The ones he was trying to reach out to were the young ones and people just really felt comfortable around him and they knew he would be there for them," Pese said. "He just brought a lot of joy in life to every room and every situation."

Contact Kristin J. Bender at kbender@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/kjbender. Contact David DeBolt at ddebolt@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/daviddebolt.