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In response to gun violence, a Mountain View church opened a resource center and hopes to change lives

About 50 congregants at a church in the southeastern San Diego neighborhood of Mountain View were praying midweek in August last year when the sound of gunshots shattered their sense of tranquility. Three months later, it happened again.

Gun violence in the vicinity of Bridge Church, like the outbursts of gunfire last year, galvanized the congregation.

“We had to do something,” said Pastor Steve Marron.

And they did.

Pastor Steve Marron, of the Bridge Church, left, and Obdel Ventura, right, pray for Glenn Yavorsky during a weekly food bank in August. Yavorsky was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and said he has less than a year to live.

(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In May, Bridge Church opened an on-site community center that offers free resources, including a food bank, marriage counseling and a variety of programs for children. Recently, the center started offering tutoring services.

Other ideas are in the works.

The hope is to break cycles of violence, to support families and keep young people off the streets — away from gangs, crime and other trouble.

It is an investment in an underserved community and an example of a community-led effort that aims to root out chronic issues like gun violence. It comes at a time when many residents and advocates say policing alone is not the solution.

A paletero pushes a cart in the Mountain View neighborhood.

A paletero pushes a cart in the Mountain View neighborhood.

(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Chickens roam the sidewalk in the Mountain View neighborhood.

Chickens roam the sidewalk in the Mountain View neighborhood.

(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Graffiti in the parking lot of Mike's Market, a convenience store, in the Mountain View neighborhood.

Graffiti in the parking lot of Mike’s Market, a convenience store, in the Mountain View neighborhood.

(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Located on the corner of Teak and South 37th streets, Bridge Church took over the site in March 2021, two months after the pastor of Apostolic Assembly Church No. 3, which previously occupied the space, died of complications from COVID-19.

The church abuts Ocean View Boulevard, where shootings, drug deals and prostitution are chronic issues, police and residents say. At Mike’s Market, located on Ocean View Boulevard essentially across the way from the church, police recorded one shooting in 2019, two in 2020, three last year and four so far this year.

In February, a feud between two gangs resulted in four shootings in Mountain View and the neighboring community of Mount Hope within a 32-hour time frame. The bullets left one man dead, and three other men and a woman injured.

Two of the shootings, including the homicide, occurred outside of Mike’s Market.

Police are seen outside Mike’s Market

Police are seen outside Mike’s Market in the Mountain View neighborhood where a shooting left one person dead in February.

(Kristian Carreon / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“It’s very ugly,” resident Rosa Grijalva said, referring to the gun violence on Ocean View Boulevard.

Grijalva, who lives a block away from Ocean View, said she believes policing is important but so are resources to keep youngsters busy.

“If they are just lazy, what are they going to do? Drugs, gangs — that’s what happens,” Grijalva said in Spanish.

In April, residents spoke up about the violence and crime in their neighborhood during a townhall-like forum hosted by Bridge Church. San Diego police Chief David Nisleit, Mayor Todd Gloria and Council President Sean Elo-Rivera, whose district includes Mountain View, attended.

Pastor Archie R. Robinson, of New Birth Christian Fellowship,

Pastor Archie R. Robinson, of New Birth Christian Fellowship, offers a prayer, during a Community Assistance Support Team meeting at the Bridge Church in August.

(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The church opened the Bridge Community Center in response to the violence and crime, but the inspiration came from Tommy Barnett. Barnett co-founded the Dream Center in Los Angeles, which offers housing, education and other resources.

Marron, the pastor of Bridge Church, met Barnett at an event at a Spring Valley church just a few weeks before Bridge Church took over the Mountain View site. Marron and Barnett had a brief conversation, but it made a big impact. Marron recalled recently that Barnett told him he was destined to be a “bridge” in San Diego.

Marron said he sees the Bridge Community Center as a hub, “a safe place for the community to come together.”

“It’s a bridge from being without direction to a life of vision, to having purpose, a bridge to discover your way,” he said.

Since its opening, the center has offered a variety of programs, such as CrossFit for teens and adults, mural art classes for children and teens, and marriage and family counseling for couples.

Every other Wednesday, the center hosts a food bank.

Community members line up for a weekly food bank in August.

Community members line up for a weekly food bank in August.

(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, families lined up on the sidewalk outside of the site while volunteers — teens and adults — set up the food bank.

The volunteers unloaded boxes from a San Diego Food Bank truck and set up the food — loaves of bread, boxes of plums and broccoli, bags of apples, onions and potatoes, cereal boxes — on folding tables set up in the church’s small parking lot.

Several families walked up and filled boxes and folding shopping carts with food.

On other days of the week, the church transforms into a venue for programs offered through partnerships with organizations.

From left to right, Ryan Murray, 11, Alesia Smallwood, 7, Ryghteously Murray, 6, and Jaleal Givens, 11

From left to right, Ryan Murray, 11, Alesia Smallwood, 7, Ryghteously Murray, 6, and Jaleal Givens, 11, head to hip-hop practice in August at the Bridge Church.

(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A group of teens and young adults recently completed a 12-week photography and video production class. The group produced videos about events around San Diego, such as San Diego Pride, collecting stipends of up to $100 for each event they covered.

“It’s been great for kids to get hands-on experience,” said Kenny Key, founder of Game Face, a photography and video company that offered the class in partnership with the center.

Moises Garcia, a sophomore at Preuss School UC San Diego, said he had never had the opportunity to work with high-tech equipment like the cameras used in the group. At first it was overwhelming, he said, but with time the group felt “like a big family.”

Key said Game Face used a $50,000 grant from the county District Attorney’s Office to purchase equipment for the class.

The center also hosts Playground Preachers, a Christian rap youth group that includes about 30 children in elementary and middle school. At its core, Playground Preachers offers mentorship through music. The children perform at various events in San Diego and beyond.

Ryan Murray, 11, sings during hip-hop practice.

Ryan Murray, 11, sings during hip-hop practice.

(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

When Bridge Community Center opened, it became Playground Preachers’ new home. The group plans events and rehearses there.

Playground Preachers has recorded five albums. Its members regularly stand outside of grocery stores, doling out their CDs and asking for donations. The children get to pocket some of the money, and the rest is saved to pay expenses for trips — for performances or just for fun.

Playground Preachers manager Nicholas Shivers — known as SK, short for Spiritual Knowledge — said the program teaches the children how to “run a business” and keeps them away from trouble, like gangs.

Shivers picks up and drops off the children before and after rehearsals, events and trips, making it easy for children to participate.

Jaleal Givens, 11, hugs Machelle Slade during hip hop practice.

Jaleal Givens, 11, hugs Machelle Slade during hip hop practice.

(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Parents said the program gives their children an outlet to express themselves in a positive way.

Jaleal Marvin Givens, 12, joined Playground Preachers about a year ago. Jaleal, who goes by J-Bless, said the highlights of his time with the group include a performance in Las Vegas — his second time traveling out of state — and his feature in a music video for “The Program,” a song released six months ago on which he raps about staying on the right track and getting with “the program.”

His mother, Octavia Smith, tears up when she watches the music video.

“There’s a lot of things he could have been doing as opposed to what he is doing,” she said.

Celestino Montalvo, who teaches mural painting at the center, said the facility presents an opportunity for him to serve as a change agent. As part of their first project, he and five children painted a simple orange and blue mural on the church grounds that reads, “The Bridge,” and depicts the silhouette of the San Diego-Coronado bridge and a palm tree.

Montalvo, 39, wants to show children change is possible.

He said he was a standout student in middle school, but in high school, he got off track. At 19, he landed in prison for a stabbing.

“I went from up here to down here,” he said as he first held his hand out above his head and then lowered it below his torso.

Ronnie Gonzales and his daughter, Rosenda, 5, worship at the Bridge Church in September.

Ronnie Gonzales and his daughter, Rosenda, 5, worship at the Bridge Church in September.

(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Near the end of his prison term, he started going to church, which changed the course of his life, he said. He was released in July 2015 and turned his life around.

“I didn’t change until I was 32 for the reason I never saw anybody change around me,” he said recently as he took a break from helping out with a recent food bank at the center.

The center also hosts the Community Assistance Support Team, or CAST, a network of groups that offer wraparound services. CAST meets once a month at the center with officials from the law enforcement realm and criminal justice system. During the meetings, officials and community leaders discuss crime and efforts to address the issue.

Marron, like some residents, welcomes police and their role in crime fighting. The pastor regularly invites officers to stop by for lunch in between church services on Sundays. On a recent Sunday, six officers stopped by and had burritos and iced coffee alongside congregants.

Marron sees it as yet another way to build bridges in the community — a stronger relationship between officers and community members.

The possibilities for programming at the center seem endless. Marron has floated the idea of boxing and martial arts classes, perhaps in partnership with San Diego police officers, nutrition classes and more.

“Whatever we can do (to provide services to the community), that’s been the focus,” Marron said.

The sun sets in the Mountain View neighborhood in August.

The sun sets in the Mountain View neighborhood in August.

(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

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