‘We live to serve our community,’ say Santa Fe pastors who aided dying man
At the close of Wednesday night’s service at New Beginning Christian Church, more than a dozen parishioners huddled around a petite woman, putting their hands on her shoulders, clasping her hands and raising their hands in blessing over her head.
They bowed their heads, and inside the storefront church in an Airport Road shopping center, they prayed.
“We love you … We want God to help your healing,” the Rev. Joe Cortez said, urging his congregation to gather around the woman. “Let her know she is not alone, God. She is our sister.”
A week before, almost to the moment, some of the same congregation members were gathered around the woman’s husband in the street outside, pressing their hands to his body, trying to stem the flow of blood spilling from a gunshot wound to his leg. Members of another church in the small shopping center, Centro Cristiano Casa de Oración, joined them, praying for the dying man.
Richard Milan, 64, was shot near an abandoned McDonald’s site across the street from the two churches just before 9 p.m. on Sept. 26, police say. He died at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center.
Milan and his wife had been traveling home on a road trip from California to Kalamazoo, Mich., and had stopped in Santa Fe to visit relatives.
Sometime after the couple arrived, Milan took their dog for a walk. He was less than 10 minutes from an apartment complex where the walk began when, police say, he ran into a group of young people near the intersection of Lucia Lane and Airport Road.
According to the Santa Fe Police Department, a confrontation occurred and Milan was shot. The suspects fled on foot.
The next day, police announced they were searching for five men and women in their late teens or early 20s. As of Saturday, no one had been arrested.
Neighbors and parishioners of the two churches say that since the McDonald’s closed, Lucia Lane has become darker and less trafficked. Not far from the retail center on the corner, the pavement gives way to dirt, streetlights end and darkness envelops the road at night.
With Milan’s killer still at large, parishioners are cautious, some even fearful.
Members of both churches asked The New Mexican to withhold their names because they don’t want to be targeted. Church members have offered prayers, solace and money to the woman who became a widow so far from her home.
Ask pastors of either church why they did it, and they’ll say the same thing. “We do this because we live to serve our community,” Cortez said.
The Rev. Ismael Lopez of Casa de Oración echoed that thought in Spanish: “Es para esto estamos nosotros: Para ayudar a la communidad. Para ayudar a todos.”
Stop by either church and that sense of community is on display. A massive collage adorns one of the walls at New Beginning, packed with photos from dozens of parishioners. On a recent night at Casa de Oración, prayer service didn’t begin until the pastors and parishioners had convinced an intoxicated man on the sidewalk outside to join them.
In the days after Milan’s death, when the crime tape was cleared and the story of Milan’s journey to Santa Fe started to spread, Cortez and his wife wondered: Where was Milan’s wife? Did she have anyone to help her?
“This is the worst time not to have somebody,” the pastor’s wife said last week. “We wanted to see her, to let her know we’re there for her.”
Then, Milan’s wife found them.
Some of the parishioners were outside the church Sept. 30 before the Sunday service, in front of a homemade cross that church members erected where Milan fell, when a woman drove up with a dog.
“At that moment, we knew,” Cortez said. “We knew it was her.”
Milan’s wife stayed for a service at New Beginning. She prayed with the congregation at Casa de Oración. And in the days that followed, she grew close with the congregations. On Monday, Cortez went with the widow to view her husband’s body. She attended his church’s Wednesday service. And on Thursday, Cortez prayed with her one last time at the site of her husband’s death before she left to return to Michigan, he said.
Milan’s wife declined to speak with The New Mexican.
At Wednesday night’s service, she stood to thank the parishioners for their kindness.
“I want to say thank you to everyone that helped my husband that night, too,” she said.
At her feet, and constantly by her side, was the small, brown dog that police say had gone back to the Talavera Apartment Homes after Milan was shot and was reunited with Milan’s wife.
A week after Milan’s death, the neighborhood seemed back to normal. But the memories remained.
“It’s kind of hard to forget,” said a 13-year-old girl attending a recent weeknight service at Casa de Oración with her mother and siblings.
When she saw Milan laying in the street the night of the shooting, the girl said he was trying to say something. He was moving his mouth, but the words just wouldn’t come out.
“It’s hard, but sometimes I forget,” she said. “Then it comes back. Like, when I’m leaving [church] I see the cross and I remember. … Every time I come to church, I remember.”
The girl’s mother said, because of the shooting, she’s stopped letting her children wander outside during services.
“We’re afraid to let our kids go out because they’re not secure outside since that happened,” the woman said. “Even when I go out to take the trash out, I’m kind of afraid.”
Cortez prayed during the Wednesday night service that the suspects will listen to their conscience and turn themselves in to police.
Some fear the revelation itself could prove painful.
“You want them to come clean, but you’re also worried because we’re a small community,” said Cortez’ wife. “Everyone knows everyone, and it’s also going to hurt if [the suspects] are someone you know.”