NORTH RICHMOND -- One by one, mothers and other family members walked to the front of the church and pasted a sticker bearing a name and two praying hands onto a white board, a small but poignant memorial to their children and loved ones who fell to gang violence.
"It brought back so many emotions, good and bad," said Tunisia Benjamin, who lost Derrick Cooper, the father of her young twins, to a shooting in North Richmond in February. "But it felt good to be with people who care and who understand."
More than 50 people came to Greater New Bethel Apostolic Church on Sunday for a special service honoring the mothers and other loved ones who have lost men to gun violence in North Richmond, a tiny neighborhood that has the highest per capita homicide rate in the Bay Area.
The event was organized by Pastor Sidney Keys, who moved his church into the neighborhood last year and has sought to attract young people and families of those most in need to his congregation. Keys put a sign on the fence in front of his church that reads, "No violence; Know peace."
"North Richmond really is a forgotten community," Keys said. "And it's important to us to bring our ministry out into the streets, to the people and let them know they have support and love here."
Sunday's event comes amid increased awareness of the ongoing public safety crisis in this mostly unincorporated community -- a few square blocks are in the city of Richmond's borders -- which has just 3,200 people but has already seen two homicides this year and 19 since 2010.
The homicides, which are investigated by the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office, are rarely solved, a fact that sheriff's officials attribute to tight funding and a lack of community cooperation, but that critics say is the result of poor performance by law enforcement.
Several teenagers were also in attendance Sunday. Keys said he uses a white van to go around the neighborhood on Sunday mornings to pick up kids for breakfast and basketball, along with church services.
Richmond Councilmember Corky Boozé, who attended the service and spoke for more than 20 minutes, said he was troubled by the lack of public services in the area, noting that garbage dumping in empty lots remains prevalent and that tall weeds and graffiti mar virtually every block.
A development of newer homes is divided from the public project housing by a cinderblock wall, Boozé added, calling it a "barricade" and an example of how the community is isolated and neglected.
"This community has always been lost in the eyes of the political arena," Boozé said. "It's obvious that nobody cares what happens in North Richmond."
Keys said Sunday's service was about emphasizing that community members whose loved ones have been killed ¿will not be forgotten and standing together against violence.
The program included a prayer dance performance by 5-year-old Zyon Brown and remarks by Boozé and Mattie Scott, executive director of Sojourner Truth Foster Family Service Agency Inc., and herself the mother of a young man killed by gun violence.
"It's time we as a people stop the killing and start the healing," Scott said.
After the service, the mothers and other loved ones of the dead gathered for a home-cooked lunch in an adjacent multipurpose room. At least a dozen of the people who sat in the church's long wooden benches raised their hands when Keys asked if they had lost someone to community violence.
"It feels very good to not be forgotten," said Lynn Hamilton, who had two stepsons die due to violence in North Richmond. Marquis Hamilton, 20, was gunned down in front of a store blocks away from the church in 2011; Nelson Earl Hamilton III, 23, was killed in North Richmond on March 8.
"I hope that our example and the pain we share can spare other mothers from going through this."
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.