The 17 masked men pulled two teenage boys off the Rev. David Beaumont's truck in northern Mexico, forced them to the ground, and put guns against their heads as their mother screamed to the priest that her sons were about to be killed.
Beaumont, who was born in Hempstead and grew up in Commack, has spent the last 20 years as a Franciscan missionary in one of the most dangerous and violent areas of the world. On this day last April, he had to make a split-second decision.
"I was saying to myself, 'Well, now either I'm really going to be a missionary and be prepared to give my life for the people, or run and hide,' " Beaumont recalled in a telephone interview. "I felt it was a pivotal moment in my life. When I walked out to them [the masked men], I realized that the last thing I might see would be the bullets coming at me."
The men did not fire at the American priest in his tattered brown friar's habit, and he was able to get the boys back in the truck and leave with their mother. But for the next several days they were all so shaken they lost their appetites and could not eat.
Deeply spiritual mission
Beaumont, 50, who says his call to the priesthood started during his days as a boy in Commack, is a Capuchin Franciscan friar, a Roman Catholic religious order that takes its inspiration from the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Where he lives and works in northern Mexico is so dangerous the U.S. Embassy recommends Americans stay out of it. His home base village of Yécora lies in the state of Sonora, near the border with the state of Chihuahua.
Beaumont lives and works surrounded by guns, drugs and violence. Authorities say two drug cartels - the Sinaloa cartel and the Juarez cartel - control the surrounding areas.
Beaumont is an emissary to thousands of impoverished Indians in the Sierra Madre mountains in northwest Mexico, including some who, when they first saw the 6-foot-3 white man with long hair and a beard two decades ago, ran and hid from him in caves out of fear. Today, he is their hero and savior, a pied piper figure who speaks four indigenous languages and is swarmed by admirers when he walks the streets of the state capital, Hermosillo.
"I said to him, 'You are like the Jon Bon Jovi of Hermosillo,' " said his cousin, Long Beach resident Cynthia Younker, who is trying to make a documentary film about him. She visited her cousin last year.
People shout, and teenage girls pull out cellphones to take pictures with him, she said. At one point on her visit with her cousin, a police car with its lights flashing pulled Beaumont and Younker over as they drove through the city. The police officer wanted a picture, too.
Beaumont laughs off the adoration and says his mission is a deeply spiritual one inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, and the saint's devotion to Jesus Christ, the poor and nature.
"I feel very blessed to be able to live in the mountains . . . and to serve a beautiful and noble people who over the centuries have suffered a lot," he said.
His calling came early
Beaumont said he first felt the pull to the priesthood as a boy growing up in Commack. He adored the woods and streams near his home. Fire Island held a particular appeal.
"I loved to walk in the forest. I think that's where my vocation began," he said, adding, "I felt very strongly the presence of God walking along the beach."
When he made his first Holy Communion at Christ the King parish in Commack, a priest asked who in the group wanted to become a man of the cloth. Beaumont raised his hand.
When he was 8, his family moved to Los Angeles. By the time he was 14, he had read a biography of St. Francis and had been deeply moved. The next year he entered a minor seminary, and by 18 he had joined the Franciscans.
When he first arrived in rural Mexico 20 years ago, most roads were dirt, there was no electricity, and people traveled mainly by mule. Beaumont had to learn to survive on a diet of beans and tortillas.
Two decades later, he still travels by mule at times but also drives a frequently broken-down cattle truck that the Indians pile into for long rides, sometimes over snowy mountain roads. He's organized a multitude of activities from soccer for Indian boys who had never played Mexico's national sport to karate and kung fu classes for Indian girls.
He's never felt targeted by the drug cartels, though he's had to escape from armed highway bandits who block the winding mountain roads with rocks. He says the violence in the area is devastating.
"My greatest fear is the little children, growing up and seeing the results of the violence," including bodies left on the streets for hours before authorities remove them, he said.
After the incident in April, which occurred amid shootings and killings in several nearby villages, some of the Indians were so scared they stayed in caves for days without lighting fires for fear of the masked men finding them, Beaumont said.
Soon after the incident, he and others organized a religious procession that attracted 1,000 people. The event was "transformative," he said. "The joy came back to them after that day. They felt we can stay; we can live in our villages again in peace."
Despite the violence, Beaumont says he hopes to stay in Mexico the rest of his life.
"I feel like I belong where God wants me to be," he said.