Antonio Jones gently bowed his head, lowered his eyes and made the sign of the cross. His mother, Barbara, did the same as Father Egren Gomez led the congregation at St. John Vianney Church through the closing prayers at the noon Mass on Sunday, March 31.
They admitted they understand more about this ritual showing the outward sign of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The tragic death of 9-year-old Trinity Love Jones — Antonio’s daughter and Barbara’s granddaughter — brought them to this place of healing. The sign of the cross, a reflection of the blessed Trinity, is their new way to remember and honor their own Trinity.
Just six days after St. John Vianney Church brought the Hacienda Heights community together for a “Memorial of Light” service and a historic gathering of a Baptist minister and Buddhist monk to celebrate with the Catholic priest, the same church dedicated a permanent shrine to the murdered girl.
In an alcove off to the side of the main altar, an oversized photo of a smiling Trinity with 75 candles from her funeral service was placed in front, with two large baskets of white flowers on each side. A sign on the wall refers to Trinity as “Hacienda Heights’ Little Saint of Unity, Love and Light.”
After Gomez blessed the site, Antonio Jones and Barbara Jones spent the next half hour receiving tearful hugs and condolences from the parishioners in the vestibule as they exited Mass.
“I know from my time reading the Bible that God has many names,” Antonio told one who asked if he felt out of place in this Catholic church, considering he had grown up Baptist.
“I have a new appreciation for the Catholics, as well as the Buddhists,” said Barbara, also Baptist. “I have found peace at a time when so much is overwhelming. It helps you stand strong and stay strong. There’s no way we could have done any of this. They all made a difference.”
On March 5, LA County workers doing maintenance work on Hacienda Boulevard near Colima Road found the body of a 55-pound girl in a duffle bag right at the bottom of an embankment, near an equestrian trail. No one knew her name. They assessed she had probably died on March 1.
The body was recovered directly down the hill from the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple, also in Hacienda Heights and just four miles east of St. John Vianney Church.
Upon hearing the news, the Buddhists immediately invited religious leaders from around the city to a communal prayer service at its memorial pagoda. Gomez, the St. John Vianney Church associate pastor, was among them.
In the weeks that followed, tipsters led county prosecutors to locate and file murder charges against the girl’s mother, 28-year-old Laquesta Graham, as well as her boyfriend, 38-year-old Emiel Hunt. They are accused of the killing Trinity on or about March 1.
The three had been living in Long Beach, but were said to have been homeless and staying in their car or a Santa Fe Springs hotel before the girl died.
When it came time for the family to convene and plan a funeral and burial, could it — should it — be in a place where Trinity didn’t grow up? In a church where she wasn’t Catholic?
Arlene Silva, a St. John Vianney Church parishioner for 47 years, attended the memorial service and met the family. She got permission from the pastor, Msgr. Tim Nichols, to contact Queen of Heaven Catholic Cemetery and Mortuary in nearby Rowland Heights and ask about planning a funeral.
“It’s a pay-it-forward thing for me,” said Silva, whose stepson was killed in a violent crime years ago. “The parish did so much for me in my time in need. It was time to help someone else through this.”
Silva solicited food donations from local restaurants to accommodate those expected for the funeral reception at the Hacienda Heights Community Center. More help came in planning from LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who attended the funeral service.
“Hacienda Heights has never done anything like this,” said Silva. “We have a community of love and concern and caring. There are too many children who are victims of abuse and violent crime. When does this stop?”
The ecumenical service, on March 25, covered extensively by local TV crews and various media, might have brought some relief to the family. But the shrine dedication may have meant more.
“This was very heartfelt, a sense of real unity, something I didn’t feel was done for the cameras or for any publicity but something very genuine,” said Antonio, noting Trinity was the youngest of his four children.
“Sometimes, there is too much negativity in the media. But this shows you so much positivity coming out of a very, very, very negative thing. Evil did not win. Even if Trinity is gone, love is winning. She really did have a purpose.”
Antonio, a native of Oakland who lives near his mother in San Bernardino, admits he had never heard of Hacienda Heights before all this happened, but “now I really feel part of this community and I want to pay back as much as I can.”
Evette Dominguez, a St. John Vianney Church’s parishioner from Hacienda Heights, was visibly moved by meeting the family after the Sunday Mass.
“All this, I think, touched the community in a big way,” Dominguez said. “Who could do that to a child? It was shocking.
“I’m a proud practicing Catholic and we have the best community here. Msgr. Tim and Father Egren and everyone here make everybody feel more welcomed and loved and accepted. It’s such a blessing. I’m proud not just of this church, but of all the different faiths that came together. We’ll help each other get through all this.”
At the funeral service, Gomez told the hundreds in attendance they were in a version of the St. John Vianney Church that had only been reopened for the last nine months. He explained how in 2011 the previous structure was burned to the ground by an arsonist.
The site of the former church is now a patio area where the funeral ceremony for Trinity started at noon with 90 seconds of the church bell tolling nine times.
Moving inside, the mourners — nearly all of whom didn’t know her — heard Gomez reference in his homily the fact that St. John Vianney Church is recovering from its own act of violence and Trinity’s arrival in the sanctuary is a reminder “that the Resurrection is real.”
Although he was away in the Holy Land during the week of the services for Jones, Nichols told Angelus News it was an “honor and a privilege” for his parish to help lay the murdered innocent to rest.
“We the People of St. John Vianney want to embrace and wrap our arms around other faith communities and share the love that was shared with us,” wrote Nichols in an email. “The love of Jesus Christ is bursting out of the doors of our Church to build God’s kingdom everywhere."
During his eulogy, Pastor Darnel Hammock from New Life Community Church in Oakland said of Jones: “Something has to be said about this brilliant young life with the capacity to transcend generational borders, and surpass economic, religious, and even political party affiliations. Those who knew her would argue they’re not surprised by the surplus in attendance today.”
The Venerable Maio Hsi from the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple said this was a time to “pray to Buddha for the children of the world, to bless and protect them. They are children who suffer abuse and violence, humiliation and pain. Oh great compassionate Buddha, we hope more people of the world treat children with kindness and loving words.”
Gomez believes the ecumenical memorial service was “a beautiful thing” that more deeply revealed the meaning of the Holy Trinity.
“The Trinity is complex to understand theologically — and I was just ordained nine months ago,” said Gomez. “It’s not to be understood intellectually or through a book. Here, we lived out the Trinity.”
Gomez said the week between the funeral and the shrine dedication felt “like a roller-coaster ride of sadness and grief, tiredness, and prayer. But it all leaves me with a great sense of comfort to know Trinity came to our community for a reason. God doesn’t do coincidences.
“As we know in the story of salvation, anything that’s difficult usually ends to be a life-giving event. I have no doubt this will produce tremendous and beautiful fruit. It already has. To be able to have her icon here this Lent as a reminder that our death and suffering can transform into new life.
“We know she is in heaven. To me, all that has happened here makes Jesus real. I’ll forever be changed by this moment.”
Tom Hoffarth is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles.
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