OAKLAND, Calif. — Lorrain Taylor smiled a toothy grin and was warmly welcomed by customers and employees as she entered a popular barbecue restaurant just off Oakland's waterfront for a lunch meeting last week.
She was pulling a roller bag that serves as her mobile office and her cellphone rang constantly. The Everett & Jones restaurant is a favorite haunt of Taylor's because of its proximity to the police station, where she has been persistent presence for several years.
In that time, Taylor has been working full time as a self-appointed advocate for what she calls "my families" — the mostly poor and black women who seek her out after their relatives have been murdered. Of the 90 people murdered last year, 67 were black.
"Most of my families don't like the police," said Taylor, 57, after fielding a phone call from the Oakland Police Department about her program to distribute free Christmas trees to victims' families. "They feel hopeless and powerless. Many are fearful of the police."
She took on the role after emerging from a yearslong depression caused by the murders of her 22-year-old twin sons in 2000. She created the nonprofit is 1000 Mothers to Prevent Violence, serving as a counselor, pastor, diplomat and advocate.
Her work, she said, is a form of therapy and an attempt to bridge the gaping divide between many grieving families and a police department that has long had a troubled relationship with the city's minority residents.
The tension has sometimes boiled over into violence, with the most recent episode occurring during protests over police brutality.
Taylor said she has worked with three different chiefs and three different lieutenants in charge of the homicide division in the last seven years. The department has been plagued by high turnover and is under the supervision of a federal judge.
"It's hard for people to cooperate with the police," said Bobby Dell, a black resident whose 24-year-old son Robert was shot dead on a city street in 2013. Dell is one of the few men who rely on Taylor.
Dell said he spoke with neighbors who witnessed the shooting and identified the killer after police failed to arrest anyone. But he said all are reluctant to talk to authorities who they fear won't protect them from reprisals if they cooperate with them.
"I was going to take the law into my own hands," Dell said. "Lorrain helped calm me down and cope with deep stress."
Dell's case remains open.
"Lorrain is an angel in the flesh," said Shantee Baker, whose 26-year-old daughter Jessica was stabbed to death during an attempted rape in Oakland in December 2012. A few months later, a homicide detective referred Baker to Taylor.
Now Baker assists Taylor and her organization, which holds an annual December fundraiser. Among those who have delivered speeches are Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent, former Oakland A's pitcher Dave Stewart and former San Francisco manager Dusty Baker.
Taylor also presides over monthly group therapy sessions, delivers groceries, badgers homicide detectives about cases and meets every three months with Whent and other department brass to discuss a wide variety of issues.
"1000 Mothers to Prevent Violence is a remarkable organization doing necessary work, led by an amazing woman," said police spokeswoman Johnna Watson in a prepared statement.
Taylor is seeking to improve the deportment of police who deliver the news of a relative's murder, keeping families informed of an investigation's progress and offering to lobby for more department resources.
Taylor said she encourages families to cooperate with investigations and talk with detectives. "It is our only option," she said.
Her sons Albade and Obadiah Taylor were shot dead as they worked on Obadiah's stalled Cadillac on a busy street. For many years, Taylor said she wallowed in grief and depression, quitting her job as a social worker and sought in-patient mental treatment.
"I was out of my mind," she said. "I was suffering in silence for a long, long time."
For many years, she drifted through life with little purpose or direction. The sink was always full of dirty dishes, the unopened mail would stack up for months and she cared little about her appearance.
Then one day, in 2006, the deeply religious Taylor said as she lay on the couch, she read in a newspaper of another murder and another grieving mother. "I could sense the holy spirit speaking to me," Taylor said.
"He told me I could lie there and die or get up and start living," she said.