Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in east San Jose is rich in history. It’s where Cesar Chavez launched his fight for migrant workers. But today it’s a refuge, a safe sanctuary that sits in the middle of a gang turf war.
As candles burn inside the church, outside you'll find a glaring reminder of the violence surrounding the east San Jose parish: crosses representing people killed in the Mayfair community. Gang violence is a reality here, with the church located right in the middle of the territories of rival gangs, the Norteños and Sureños.
“Gangs divided the churches and said this is our territory,” Father John Sandersfeld said. “But here is a unique place where the two gangs come together, and the line is right on the back of the parish: It borders both sides.”
Yet, for years, the rival gangs have considered this church with 7,000 parishioners neutral territory. “We could take them on retreats together,” Father Sandersfeld said.
Children of rival gang members attend first communion classes at the church together, but as a precaution, they are told not to wear gang colors.
“In essence, the parents or grandparents of the now gang members built this church,” parishioner Rachel Garcia said, “so there's a legacy,”
Parishioners hope that legacy of peace hope will one day extend beyond the walls of the church.