A photo of Jesús Huerta was placed on a stand near the altar of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, where he received the Sacrament of Confirmation several years ago.
Jesús, a smiling boy wearing oversize glasses, whose life ended on Nov. 19 with a gunshot wound in the back of a police car. Jesús, 17, whose memory has been publicly defined by a singular incident: Durham police and SBI investigations claim an officer failed to find a .45 revolver during a pat-down, and Jesus later committed. suicide in the squad car.
However, the family reminded us, there were innumerable small momentsthe laughter and comfort he brought his family, his favorite music, the way he told his mother he loved her every daythat made up his life, no matter how brief.
On Sunday evening, Father Bill McIntyre led a bilingual service for Jesús, also known as Chuy, and his family, that, for many in Durham, offered a peaceful alternative to the street demonstrations that have led to clashes between police and protesters. On that night, a march ended in vandalism at a police substation, which resulted in six arrests.
“Jesús was very important. He was loved by God,” McIntyre told the 200 or so people who attended the vigil. “He is not a headline. He is someone who is loved and desperately missed.”
Despite an uplifting reading from the Gospel of Mark and McIntyre’s gentle demeanorhis stole was adorned with sewn images of childrenan undercurrent of anger ran through the service.
“We all loved him. Some have said he’s a bad boy. That’s a lie,” Jesús’ sister said. “Chuy was a loving son. He was a shining star who would light up our day. He was an outgoing and strong and positive child. We didn’t ask to go through this. We just wanted him to be back. Now we are grieving. Someone tell us, who is going to give us that joy back?”
Anne Hodges-Copple, an Episcopalian bishop from Durham, stood at the altar with McIntyre and addressed the family, which was seated in a front pew.
“I’m here as a mother,” she said. “I remember another Jesus who died a violent death he did not deserve, whose family gathered at a tragic spot where all seemed lost and dark. I remember another mother whose heart was broken and thought there would be no way to go on. We go on in faith and hope and love. We will remember Jesús as we seek truth, as we seek justice, as we seek mercy. We are a community not divided, but united to defend the dignity of every son and daughter.”
About 90 minutes earlier, demonstrators had gathered outside the church. There were no uniformed police, nor a show of force such as the one at CCB Plaza in December in which officers wore riot gear and tear-gassed protesters. Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez attended the vigil inside the church, but he was dressed in a gray suit and tie, not in uniform.
Carrying banners and flyers that read “Cops are liars” and “Silence in the face of injustice is violence” and banging drums, the 150 demonstrators headed up Buchanan Avenue and then toward downtown. Some wound up a mile away at the police substation on Rigsbee Avenue, where protesters broke rear windows of cop cars and spray-painted the word “Pig” on their side doors.
Meanwhile, back at the church, community members approached the altar and lit smaller candles from a large Paschal candle, which represents the life of Christ, placing them in sand.
One by one, McIntyre asked various groups in the audience to stand in support of Jesús: elected officials; the organizations that co-sponsored the vigil (Durham CAN, the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham and El Centro Hispano); members of the clergy from all faiths and finally, those who had come out that night to support the grieving family.
Eventually everyone in the church was standing.
“Remember that you are not alone,” McIntyre told the family. “They are praying for you and giving you support.”
Outside after the vigil, family and supporters wept and hugged.
“My friend is gone,” one boy said, sobbing.
Trailed by the media, the family headed to a quiet area of the parking lot where they held silver balloons. One was inscribed with the words “Peace Love.”
“Chuy, presente!” they yelled.
The wind carried the balloons northeast into the clear, cold sky until they disappeared into the night.
Diali Cissokho, Kaira Ba and Positfaction are performing at a benefit concert Friday, Jan. 24, at the Pinhook in Durham. All proceeds go to the Huerta family. Suggested donation $7–$20, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Loving son.”