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Slaying galvanizes Episcopal Church

Jonathan Ramos attended a candlelight vigil last month marking the death of his cousin Jorge Fuentes.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Jonathan Ramos attended a candlelight vigil last month marking the death of his cousin Jorge Fuentes.

Jorge Fuentes did things his own way. “If you’re not being yourself, you’re not having fun,” he would say, flashing a smile.

As a contrarian kid, he sometimes drove his mother and teachers and pastors crazy. But by his late teens, he was a standout counselor at his church’s youth programs. He traveled everywhere on mission trips, doing farm work in Virginia, feeding poor people in New York. He planned to join the Marines.

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Then, just over a year ago, came the stray shot, fired from a stranger’s gun, that hit the 19-year-old in the head as he walked his dog across the street from his family’s home in Dorchester.

The death of Fuentes was a loss of incalculable proportions, not only for his close-knit family, but for Episcopalians across Eastern Massachusetts. A thousand people came to his calling hours and a candlelight vigil that followed at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the South End. The following spring, more than 650 marched in his name at the Mother’s Day Walk for Peace. Last month, Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, just back from treatment for brain cancer, came to Beacon Hill to tell Jorge’s story and demand changes to gun laws.

“Clearly,” Shaw said in an interview, “we are not doing enough.”

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A largely white denomination once dubbed “the Republican Party at prayer,” and more recently best known for its internal battles over gay bishops, the Episcopal Church has quietly increased its commitment to combating urban violence in Boston and nearby cities, a commitment that shaped Fuentes’s life.

The church has focused on prevention, embracing a simple philosophy: Begin with children as young as 5, give them help with homework, playtime, field trips, and cultural activities. Invite them, as they become teenagers, to work on community service projects and help with younger people. Then, as they reach adulthood, offer them a job and a chance to lead. Put children at the center of a caring community, the thinking goes, and they will be OK.

‘He was the poster child for the success of our programs and what we do. That tragedy hit me in a really deep place.’

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Fuentes was just 6 years old when the Rev. Tim Crellin, vicar of St. Stephen’s, a tiny, remarkably diverse church in the South End, gave about 20 elementary school children from the neighborhood a safe place to play and do homework. As Fuentes grew up, suburban churches began getting involved in the church’s work. Fuentes made friends wherever he went.

His killing devastated the diocese, and it made gun violence a personal issue for people who might not have otherwise cared so much.

It also forced Crellin and the Rev. Liz Steinhauser, the priest associate and director of youth programs at St. Stephen’s, to wonder whether they had failed Jorge.

“This year has been the worst year of my life,” Crellin said. “I think it’s partly because I loved him so much and felt so close to him and miss him, and partly because [it shattered] your sense of efficacy and hope and belief in what you’re doing. . . .

“He was the poster child for the success of our programs and what we do,” he said. “That tragedy hit me in a really deep place and caused me to question everything.”

A young man’s journey

Crellin has a favorite picture of little Jorge from around the time the boy started coming to St. Stephen’s after school. He is standing in front of the brick church on Shawmut Avenue with his four brothers, holding an Easter basket and pouting.

Mirnaluz Ramos hugged her grandson Luis Fuentes, 6, during a memorial last month honoring the memory of her son, Jorge Fuentes, who was shot dead just over a year ago.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Mirnaluz Ramos hugged her grandson Luis Fuentes, 6, during a memorial last month honoring the memory of her son, Jorge Fuentes, who was shot dead just over a year ago.

Even then, Crellin had known the Fuentes family for years. In 1991, he left law school to work with South End teenagers at St. Stephen’s and got to know many of the young people in the nearby Villa Victoria, a predominantly Latino housing project in the heart of the South End.

Among them was Fuentes’s uncle, a youth worker named Jorge Ramos. The following year, the 21-year-old Ramos was shot to death at O’Day Playground, just around the corner from the church.

Ramos’s devastated older sister, Mirnaluz, took in her brother’s son, Jonathan, 1, and raised him as her own. When her second son arrived a year later, she named him Jorge, to honor her brother.

Mirnaluz was terrified of losing another person she loved to violence. When she brought her four boys to school — and, later, her younger daughter — she walked them right up to the door. She would not let them play outside.

“The only place we had for fun was St. Stephen’s,” said Jonathan Ramos, now 22. “We could get our homework done, play on the basketball court, the jungle gyms.”

Crellin left St. Stephen’s to attend Harvard Divinity School and to serve briefly at a suburban parish, returning to the South End church as vicar in 1999. He started an after-school program and a summer camp. Fuentes was his most challenging charge.

Fuentes was often angry as a child, Jonathan Ramos said; he did not understand why his father was not in his life. He was strong-willed and threw legendary temper tantrums. But Crellin could also see he had great potential.

“He’s staying,” Crellin would tell his frustrated staff, “and we’re going to make it work.”

The youth programs were soon flourishing, but they were confined to St. Stephen’s. That changed after summer 2004, when Mayor Thomas M. Menino called on the clergy of Boston to get more involved in quelling street violence.

Crellin and the Rev. Jep Streit, dean of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul downtown, were sent by Bishop Shaw to meet with Menino’s top aides at City Hall. Assuming it would be a cordial meeting, the priests were taken aback when chief of staff Merita Hopkins, an Episcopalian herself, lit into them, telling them the church was nowhere on antiviolence work.

“She was, like, holding nothing back, I was like a lamb at the slaughter,” Streit recalled. “None of this felt unfair. She was really upset.”

As the summer ended, Hopkins visited Shaw at his office and challenged him to do more.

“We had a very, very frank discussion; it was very open, and it was deep,” Hopkins recalled.

Shaw responded. In spring 2005, he asked Crellin and Steinhauser, who had come to lead the youth programs in 2003, to bring their summer camp, B-SAFE, to other parishes. Over the next few years, they expanded it to four other parishes and an Episcopal school in Boston and Chelsea, reaching 615 children and employing more than 150 teen staff. The after-school program, B-READY, added a second site in Lower Roxbury.

Suburban parishes got more involved, too. They had begun to pitch in with the summer camp in 2001, when Crellin invited a few parishes to take turns making lunch for the children and, on Fridays, invite them out to their towns for field trips. There are now about 55 involved. They also began inviting young people on mission trips. Friendships grew.

For Jorge, said his cousin Jonathan Ramos, a mission trip to Biloxi, Miss., was a turning point. Both boys, then 13 and 15, were helping to clean out a house wrecked by Hurricane Katrina. Jorge was goofing around and cracking jokes until the homeowner, a middle-aged woman, “called him out” for his insensitivity, Ramos said. Fuentes’s smirk faded, Ramos recalled.

“He saw she was very serious about what she lost, and he could feel the emotion,” he said. “He really put himself in her shoes.”

After that, Jonathan said, “for the first time, Jorge was serious about what he was doing. People would take breaks, and Jorge was like, ‘You’ve been doing that for 10 minutes now, we’ve got to get back to work.’ ”

In high school, Fuentes excelled in the ROTC program, and dreamed of becoming a Marine. In the church camp and after-school programs, he took on increasingly significant responsibilities, serving on St. Stephen’s team of community organizers and working on a project to revitalize the greenhouse at the nearby Blackstone Elementary School.

“His presence was amazing,” said Tania Ortiz, 18, of the Back Bay, who worked with children alongside Fuentes. “I don’t know what was in him.”

She said he had a special way with the most challenging children.

“I felt like he could relate to them in a sense that maybe some of us couldn’t,” she said.

His boyhood antagonism matured into an ability to question authority with poise. After a new principal of the Blackstone school abruptly announced he was leaving, the news came as a great disappointment to those trying to help turn the school around. At a tense community meeting, others ventured logistical questions, Steinhauser said, but not Fuentes.

“Jorge is the one who stands up and says, ‘Did you think about the young people when you made this decision?’ ” she said. “He asked the question nobody else had the guts to ask.”

His network of friends expanded. Ian Marshall, 18, a member of St. Anne’s-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Lincoln, became friends with Fuentes and his brothers on volunteer trips serving the poor. “Jorge was always smiling and laughing, and he was so . . . kind and easy to get along with, you kind of were just drawn to him,” Marshall said.

On the day he was slain, Fuentes told his mother he had decided to apply to the US Marine Corps. She protested that decision; she worried about his safety. She had just marked the 20th anniversary of her brother’s death.

At Fuentes’s wake, Marshall saw youth from his parish and from all over the diocese. Some had come home from college to be there. Fuentes’s younger brother, Jasmany, who had lost his best friend, the person he could talk to about anything, said the huge crowd of mourners only made him sadder, “knowing they’re hurt, too.”

“He touched a lot of people,” he said quietly.

Like the man who killed Jorge Ramos, Jorge Fuentes’s murderer has never been found.

A mission and a memorial

Jasmany Fuentes, now 17, cannot bear to speak about Jorge for too long or in too public a setting. But Mirnaluz, who teaches children with autism at Orchard Gardens K-8 School, has become an advocate for gun control.

“I don’t want another mother going through what I go through every day,” she said.

Crellin and Steinhauser came to a realization: They did not fail Fuentes.

“We failed the kid who killed him,” Crellin said. “That kind of haunts me, on the one hand, but it also inspires me to keep going.”

That insight propelled Shaw to ask the diocesan convention last fall to embrace a renewed commitment to antiviolence work, which took shape in a campaign called “B-PEACE for Jorge,” a complex, multipronged effort with no end date.

“Getting the violence decreased is not enough; we really have to end it,” said state Representative Byron Rushing, who represents the South End and is a longtime leader in the diocese. “It really has to be incredibly exceptional that someone gets shot.”

This summer, 42 Episcopal business representatives offered summer jobs to urban teens; the diocese is hoping to boost that number to 100 next summer. The diocese is also fostering partnerships between suburban parishes and urban public schools, training clergy and lay people to help respond to families traumatized by violence and campaigning around the state for stricter gun control laws.

Julia MacMahon, a church worker who built a close rapport with Fuentes and his brothers at St. Stephen’s, put aside her plans to enter the Peace Corps last January in order to run the campaign.

No one has any illusions now about the difficulty — maybe the impossibility — of the task. They understand it is a battle that many have been fighting a long time.

On a cool evening last month, following a service at St. Stephen’s marking the one-year anniversary of Fuentes’s death, about 75 young people holding candles walked from the church to a rock in O’Day Playground honoring Fuentes’s uncle, and then to a mural that children made this summer in memory of Fuentes. It hangs on a chain-link fence surrounding the church’s small playground.

Tania Ortiz, Fuentes’s co-counselor, now works on the B-PEACE campaign. She said it was hard to go back to St. Stephen’s at first without Fuentes there; his absence was a terrible vacuum. But everyone is working hard, and it has gotten easier.

She wears a “B-PEACE for Jorge” pin, and it has somehow helped quiet the fear she felt after his killing, when she would run all the way home from the train at night.

“Sometimes, I look up in the sky, and I’m like, ‘He’s right there, he’s here with me,’ ” she said.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lisa.wangsness@globe.com.
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