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Body and Soul : Victory Outreach Travels the Mean Streets, Offering Spiritual Refuge to Those Who Have Lost It All

November 30, 1994|TY TAGAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They carry an urgent message beneath the drone of circling police helicopters. Apostles who have been to hell and back, they roam Pico-Union, offering food, shelter and a way out.

They eschew psychology and job-training programs in the belief that those treat the shell of a person. To resist the pull of the gutter, Victory Outreach followers say, one must fill the inner void. And only Jesus can do that.

Fifty gangs with more than 2,000 members occupy the area patrolled by Rampart division police, near Downtown. Etched in blue across necks, shoulders, hands or foreheads are the names 18th Street, Mara Salvatrucha or Crazy Riders. Although murders are down this year, police so far count 88, most of them gang-related.

Death looms large here. It touches many, and it loves the young. One 31-year-old says only three of his 20 boyhood friends are alive, out of prison and ambulatory. The gangs prey on universal human needs. "They give love," a member says. And they watch your back.

Eager to prove they are "down," the youngest recruits follow orders. Later, they learn to give them. Opting out means being branded a coward, and alienation from friends or even family.

For those who stay in, a life of crime, prison or death await. Those who survive to have families tend to set a poor example. "Like produces like. Father dies and the son takes over," says Abel Reyes, a Victory Outreach assistant pastor. "It's a chain and Jesus breaks it."

*

Sonny Arguinzoni started Victory Outreach in 1967. A heroin addict living in New York, he stumbled across two evangelists, Nicky Cruz and David Wilkerson, who led him away from drugs and encouraged him to begin praying at their Teen Challenge center. They sent him to Los Angeles and enrolled him in Latin American Bible College in La Puente. Before long, he started his own church in Boyle Heights.

Arguinzoni has since moved back to La Puente, and his ministry, Victory Outreach, has inched its way across the world. It relies on former gangsters and addicts to help themselves by helping others into a refuge. Once there, the ministry attempts to rehabilitate them with food, shelter, jobs and more: Victory Outreach works on "the inner man."

A decade ago, Arguinzoni, 55, plucked Francisco and Angie Cruz from the streets. After they spent five years praying at and evangelizing for his La Puente church, now 3,500 strong, he sent them to start their own Victory Outreach ministry.

Francisco Cruz found a two-story house on Dewey Avenue off Pico Boulevard. He turned the upstairs into a home for his family--wife Angie and three sons--and offered the ground floor as a refuge. Cruz now delivers sermons to 300 in a Presbyterian church on Valencia Street, and a nearby refuge sleeps 40, with room for 60 more.

His and other Victory Outreach ministries subsist on money collected from the congregation and the surrounding community. Stores donate food and other items to the refuge, and the ex-gangsters, -felons and -addicts living there do odd jobs to help pay the $3,800 monthly rent.

Each branch also helps subsidize the ministry's expansion throughout California--where it has 49 of its 152 churches--and the world, Cruz says. He recently sent a missionary to El Salvador to establish a church and is grooming another for Guatemala City.

Stuart Wright, a Lamar University sociology professor who studies non-mainstream religious groups, says the experiential, emotional brand of religion espoused by such ministries appeals to those who feel disinherited by society. They go places "where a lot of churches are intimidated to go," he says.

Pedro Facio, a rehabilitation coordinator who has a contract with the county, regularly refers clients to Victory Outreach, he says, but only if they express interest in religious guidance. The nine-month program works, he says, because it uses discipline to prepare people with chaotic lives for a structured work world.

Victory Outreach members believe its grass-roots quality makes it effective. "You cannot Xerox this ministry, you cannot duplicate it," says Reyes, the 58-year-old assistant pastor. "We have our feet on the soil. We come from the dust."

Economic help, such as government relief checks, he argues, can't change a person's values: "You can get the man out of the ghetto and take him to Beverly Hills. But how do you get the ghetto out of him?"

Reyes and Cruz, 32, both admit that many people come to the shelter simply to take a shower or hide out. Half of them disappear after a few days, but others stay on.

Once within the fold, they are invited to spend nine months living in the refuge and adapting to a life of discipline. Reyes hustles jobs, contracting out workers to wash cars or do construction, plumbing or painting in exchange for donations.

On some nights, they hit the streets to evangelize. On others, they attend Bible study sessions or pray. They go to church four times a week. With so many former refuge residents in congregation, the comfort level is high.

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