A photo of Jesus Huerta was placed on a stand near the altar of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, where he received the Sacrament of Confirmation several years ago. Jesus, a smiling teenager wearing oversized glasses, whose life ended on Nov. 19 in the back of a police car. Jesus, 17, whose memory has been publicly defined by a singular incident, not the innumerable small moments—the laughter and comfort he brought his family, his favorite music, the way he told his mother he loved her every day—that make up a life, no matter how short.
Father Bill McIntyre led a bilingual service for Jesus 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, and last night, a march that ended in vandalism at a police substation that resulted in six arrests.
"Jesus 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 the uplifting reading from the Gospel of Mark and McIntyre's gentle demeanor, an undercurrent of anger ran through the service.
"A lot of people are disrespecting his memory," Jesus' sister told those assembled. "A couple of searches on the Internet don't say who he was."
"We all loved him. Some have said he's a bad boy. That's a lie," she went on. "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, addressed the family, who was seated in a front pew. "I'm here as a mother. 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 Jesus 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."
Community members approached the altar and lit smaller candles from a large Paschal candle, which represents the life of Christ, placing them in sand. By the end of the service, there were more than 100 candles burning.
"When we see it, even if it burns dimly, it is there to guide us and console us in our sadness," McIntyre said.
One by one, McIntyre asked various groups in the audience to stand in support of Jesus: 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 was standing, including Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez, who was in a pew near the back.
"Remember that you are not alone," McIntyre told the family. "They are praying for you and giving you support."
Outside after the vigil, the family wept and hugged, then released silver balloons, one inscribed with the words "Peace and Love".
"Chuy, presente!" they yelled.
The wind carried the balloons northward into the clear, cold sky until they disappeared into the night.