Those who know Nguyen Pham and James Chaney say they live to serve others.
That’s what brought the pair to San Jose’s Grace Baptist Church on Sunday, where they spent the evening planning an upcoming memorial for the unhoused.
In the church gym, the group fashioned tombstone replicas made out of foam to represent lives lost on the street this past year. Later that night, two more lives were lost in a stabbing spree that injured three others—including Pham and Chaney.
SJPD has yet to identify the attacker, but the Mercury News reported him as Fernando Jesus Lopez, a 32-year-old Grace Baptist regular with a history of domestic violence.
Meanwhile, Santa Clara County Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Michelle Jorden has yet to release information about the deceased—a man who died at the scene and a woman who succumbed to her injuries at a nearby hospital.
And though the names of the wounded haven’t been formally announced either, friends of Pham and Chaney have confirmed they’re among the survivors.
On a GoFundMe crowdfunding page set up for Pham, Jenny Do calls him “a community hero” who has “worked tirelessly to support vulnerable communities in San Jose and beyond.” By late in the day Tuesday, the campaign had raised nearly $24,000 of its $30,000 goal from more than 300 donors.
Huy Tran, an employment rights lawyer and local activist, said it’s no surprise that the community is rallying around his friend.
By day, Pham oversees the Work2Future job training program for San Jose’s Office of Economic Development, but he spends much of own time running a charity for children in his native Vietnam and helping unhoused people in Silicon Valley.
“He’s one of those guys with a huge heart,” said Tran, who connected with Pham about a year ago by trying to get the word out about the 2020 Census.
Shaunn Cartwright, a veteran advocate for the homeless, met Pham in a similar way.
When the city put Pham to work on census outreach, he linked up with Cartwright and other enumerators working on getting an accurate count of the South Bay’s unsheltered populations. “His job assigned him to the census, which involved working with unhoused people,” Cartwright said, “and he became very passionate about that.”
Pham developed a knack for knowing exactly what someone needed—a pair of size 10 shoes, notebooks for school or toiletries, which he packs in tissue paper and a gift bag. Even when he recently went out of town on vacation, he made sure gifts wound up in the hands of the people who needed them on the day he’d normally see them.
“That’s the kind of love and dedication he shows,” Cartwright said.
When he speaks about the unhoused, she said he calls them “my homeless friends.”
Chaney and Pham—both immigrants from Liberia and Vietnam, respectively—bonded over their shared devotion to helping the homeless. While Pham volunteers in his spare time, Chaney works as a full-time church staffer.
As a regular at Grace Baptist, Lopez crossed paths with his victims many times.
Lopez was among a group of unhoused people who came to the church Sunday night for its cold-weather shelter. Cartwright and a few other volunteers left the grounds at 10th and San Fernando streets around 7:15pm as Lopez helped staff set out mats in the gym.
Police responded to the stabbing less than an hour later to find the five victims. Lopez was taken into custody soon after, booked on suspicion of committing the 40th and 41st homicides in San Jose so far this year.
Grace Baptist will close for the time being as it undergoes deep cleaning and repairs, which leaves San Jose with one less shelter amid freezing nights and a deadly pandemic.
HERO Tent and BLACK Outreach—two grassroots community service groups that emerged from the George Floyd protests in San Jose this past summer—have dipped into fundraising proceeds to place dozens of people who usually rely on the Grace Baptist shelter in hotels. The activists have also stepped up to feed the unhoused church regulars.
“We’ve been scrambling to get people fed and make sure they have a place to stay,” said Brodie Storey, an organizer for both groups.
Over the past few months, Storey said he’s spent a lot of time at Grace Baptist, where he launched the CHANGE (Community Horticulture and Nutritional Growth Exchange) Garden Project. He knows many of the people who relied on the church for shelter and food, and he’s close friends with Chaney.
“It’s been really hard,” Storey said, “not only because of what happened to the victims, but also because of all the misinformation going around and demonizing of homeless people because of this incident and how that runs the risk of closing this shelter.”
From the hospital Tuesday evening, Chaney relayed a message through Cartwright about the need to fight exactly that kind of stigma.
“We cannot take the action of one person and judge the enter unhoused community on the actions of that one person,” he said, “because being unhoused isn’t just a physical issue, it’s a mental one as well, and we need to address that.”
In a statement on the church website, Pastor David Robinson expressed heartbreak over the tragedy. “We at Grace Baptist are deeply saddened by the terrible incident that happened at our church and to our community,” he wrote. “Our hearts hurt as we pray for the dead, injured and their families.”
The pastor thanked church shelter staff and commended the San Jose Police Department for their rapid response Sunday. Robinson also stressed the importance of staying true to “our call, our purpose, our mission.”
“This is what faith is all about,” he said. “Faith is risking it all. We risk knowing both the rewards and the reality that there will be problems, pain, and conflict. We are called to this radical hospitality for those who need it the most.”
He urged people to pray for the wounded, guests and staff traumatized by the violence, anyone else who’s been “deeply affected”—and the perpetrator.
“As a church community, we will continue to be with those that suffer,” he went on to write. “We will continue to advocate for better mental health and substance use services. We will continue to provide love, food, clothing, and shelter to those in need. We will continue to visit those in prison.”
A PayPal account has been set up for people to donate to cover medical bills for survivors and burial costs for the deceased. Click here to contribute.