For San Bernardino’s elected officials, keeping busy is one way to grieve

The Arias family kids, Junior, 2, left and Jenesis, 5, bottom, and their parents, Robert and Sierra pay their respects at a memorial site in San Bernardino, Calif.

The Arias family kids, Junior, 2, left and Jenesis, 5, bottom, and their parents, Robert and Sierra pay their respects at a memorial site in San Bernardino, Calif.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

In the sanctuary of the Azure Hills Church on Friday evening, Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown is at the third vigil in her district in as many days. Fourteen candles sit on a table near the altar, 14 roses to honor the victims of Wednesday’s shootings.

Brown (D-San Bernardino) listens as Pastor Marlene Ferreras talks about the different ways in which people grieve. Some are intuitive grievers, the pastor says, feeling their way through the pain. But others, she adds, are action-oriented — “We do grief.”

Dec. 7, 5:56 p.m.: An earlier version of this article said Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown is from Rialto. She lives in San Bernardino.

Brown nods her head — she knows this feeling well. It’s nearly 8 p.m., and she’s been awake since 3 a.m., crisscrossing her district attending prayer breakfasts, news conferences and briefings with law enforcement officials.


Sitting next to her is Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands), who has been up since 1:45 a.m. Aguilar, a freshman who had been mayor of the nearby city of Redlands, has been by her side for several of those events. It’s the kind of reunion neither of them wanted.

Their schedules over the last few days offer a glimpse into the world of an elected official attempting to comfort a community still reeling from an act of terrorism.

“I have to work to get past it, which is probably why I’m working the way I do,” Brown says. “It doesn’t give you time to think about yourself or how you feel. Whenever I get to reflecting, then it gets heavy.”

Earlier that morning, at a pre-dawn prayer breakfast where Aguilar sat front and center, Brown offered a prayer for politicians. In times of tragedy, she told the gathering of about 50 people, these are the moments that define an elected official’s career.

Brown says she is proud of the first responders and of the way the region, one of the poorest in the state and hit hard by unemployment and crime, has come together in the face of tragedy.

Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown (D-San Bernardino)

Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown (D-San Bernardino)

(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

But she immediately saw the work that needed to be done: bringing people together, giving them spaces to mourn, providing services to the families of the victims.

“You have to decide how you’re going to handle all that carnage and all that pain, and you have to do something positive with it,” Brown said after the evening vigil drew to a close. “You have to do something.”

For Brown, that has meant late nights and early mornings, discussions with imams and pastors, with police chiefs and fire officials, spontaneous prayer circles and giving hugs when she sensed they were needed. It’s meant reading John Maxwell, the Christian pastor she so admires, when she can’t sleep and carrying around her Bible in a well-worn leather folio as she searches for answers.

Her colleagues — Aguilar, Rep. Norma Torres (D-Pomona), Assemblyman Marc Steinorth (R-Rancho Cucamonga) and state Sen. Mike Morrell (R-Rancho Cucamonga) have kept similar hours, she says.

“I don’t know what a community leader does in a situation like this,” Brown said. “I can only tell you what my heart said that I should do … which is to go and console and pray for the family members who were waiting for their loved ones to come back.”

Aguilar said he has comforted parents who have lost children to gun violence or other crimes in the city, but nothing on this scale. “You know, there’s nothing you can say to a mother who’s lost her son ... You just try to add comfort and listen and tell them that they’re in your thoughts and prayers.”

The congressman has two young sons, and while they’ve talked about the violence as a family, he hasn’t been home much while they were awake over the last few days.

When Aguilar learned about the massacre, he got on the first flight home from Washington. He went directly to the emergency command center when his plane landed Wednesday night, and has spent the days since visiting wounded victims and attending briefings, community meetings and memorial services.

“I think the most difficult piece for me was seeing pictures of the victims; putting faces to the names has been tough,” Aguilar said.

Rep. Pete Aguilar speaks at an interfaith group prayer vigil held at the Islamic Center of Redlands.

Rep. Pete Aguilar speaks at an interfaith group prayer vigil held at the Islamic Center of Redlands.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Santa Ana, one of the ranking Democrats on the House Committee on Homeland Security and House Armed Services Committee, said she has been doing what she can to assist Aguilar.

“I told him to get on a plane, get back here to California as soon as possible,” she said. “And got information that he needed, because he was fielding a lot of questions, and getting a lot of questions from people – ‘What about visas? What about fiancee visas?’”

On the day of the shootings, Brown rushed to the Rudy C. Hernandez Community Center, where family members were waiting to be reunited with survivors and those who had been evacuated from Inland Regional Center. She knew she had to do what she could to calm frayed nerves, allay some of the panic she was seeing on people’s faces as the afternoon’s chaos unfolded.

She saw a bearded man, pacing back and forth, his eyes on every bus that arrived to drop off more evacuees. “He looked forlorn,” Brown said. Brown asked him if he was okay, if she could pray for him.

“I’m pagan,” Ryan Reyes replied. He was looking for his boyfriend, Daniel Kaufman, who ran the coffee shop in the center and wasn’t answering his calls. Brown embraced him, told him she cared about him, and said she would be praying for him anyway.

When Kaufman was named as one of the victims the next day, Brown said her heart fell.

There have been moments when she’s been overcome with emotion. At a news conference Thursday, tears streamed down her face as she listened to first responder Lt. Mike Madden describe the grisly scene he encountered. “Just the pain that those people must have suffered, the fear they went through,” Brown said, shaking her head.

But she wiped away the tears and pulled herself together. “People don’t want to see me boo-hoo,” she said. “I’m not shot, I don’t have a family member who’s shot, I don’t have anybody who’s dead. But I cry for them.”

Not long after, Brown took a moment to shake hands with Gov. Jerry Brown, then stopped briefly to do an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews before rushing off to the evening vigil at San Manuel Stadium.

After three hours of sleep, she started it all again the next morning, leaving her house to make it to the prayer breakfast before the sun rose. She stopped at her office before heading to an 11 a.m. news conference to stand beside Aguilar and the San Bernardino County sheriff as federal officials declared they were officially investigating the shooting as terrorism. Next, Aguilar and Brown appeared at an interfaith prayer at the Redlands Islamic Center, about a mile from where the shooters had lived.

“The people who perpetrated this crime, they didn’t want us to get together like this. They didn’t want us to enjoy each other, across faiths, across cities. They wanted to divide us. The fact that we are here and we’re doing it together as one community speaks volumes for this region,” Aguilar told about 50 people gathered on a dry patch of grass next to the mosque’s parking lot.

“I came because I want you to know that we are one family in our community … It’s very important for us to stick together and not allow any kind of discourse to take place to divide us,” Brown said.

After clasping hands with Aguilar and the gathered ministers, Brown drove to a mosque in Fontana to address the congregation and soothe the fears that some had expressed about a possible backlash. Following that, she said, was a final briefing from San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan before the investigation was turned over to the FBI. Next, a vigil near City Hall, and, finally, this vigil, her last of the evening, but certainly not her last for the next few days.

“I want to console them so that they know that somebody is there who cares, somebody’s there who’s going to go back and do something about it,” she said. Brown added that she already has ideas for legislation to introduce after the Legislature reconvenes in January.

But for now, Brown said, “I still have funerals to go to.”

Times staff writers Colleen Shalby, Sarah Wire and Phil Willon contributed to this report.

For more on politics in the Golden State, follow me @cmaiduc.

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