"Somebody can go there stinky smelly and they won't throw them out. They treat them like somebody in a suit," says a four-year Victory Outreach member.
On a sunny Sunday morning, Pastor Cruz delivers a sermon that alternates from Bible readings to booming testimony of his own voyage from gangs and drugs. Many of the several hundred who have come to hear him, even the newcomers, writhe in seeming anguish or rapture when the music--electric guitar, drums and song--kicks in. Arms flail, tears drop, voices wail. Some shield their eyes, as if from an unbearable light, or drop to elbows and knees, clutching heads with arms.
Many in attendance were raised as Catholics, and some of them say that the religion's layers of ritual and its confessional system make it difficult to stay clean. Catholics "can drink, fight and destroy things and then feel good. They come in and say, 'I'm sorry' and then do it again," Cruz says.
For him, the rules are simple: pray, live by the Bible and reach out to others. "When you know God, then you got a passion for people. If you don't pray every day, then you lose the passion," he says.
Despite the passion, despite the commitment and despite the support of fellow church members, one-third backslide, he says.
Says Jessy Murillo, a 21-year-old who came to the refuge last December after spending more than a year in jail: "You got an empty space in your heart. When you don't fill that up with the presence of God, you got other things around you."
Evangelizing helps cement a commitment to reform, Cruz says. "Jesus said, 'Go out to the people and preach.' "
On weekends and Monday evenings, church members gather in the parking lot to pick a bad neighborhood. Equipped with flyers printed in Spanish and, on occasion, a bullhorn, they roam the streets in groups of 10 or more.
They tell of their lives on the streets and exhort anyone who will listen to come to the church. To those who appear homeless, they offer refuge. Many passersby cross the street to avoid them, but others accept the flyers and politely listen. Some nights, someone goes with them to the refuge.
Some in the neighborhood don't appreciate their presence, especially when they bring the bullhorn. But, says a police officer watching over a drug bust in MacArthur Park, "We're not going to kick them out. They're the only ones saying anything out here worth listening to."
On a recent excursion, a group of church members approached a huddle of gangsters leaning on a car. They listened attentively to the pitch about a life with Jesus watching their backs, and some requested flyers. But they later piled the papers on the sidewalk and burned them.
Their time will come, say the church members. Adds 17-year-old Robert Baldison: "A lot of times they don't (come), but they remember that moment. They know that there's a way out--maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But they'll come."
The needle tracks running across 32-year-old Yolanda Flores' arms, ankles and neck belie her quiet life with her two children and husband Pablo.
"When we tell people what we used to do, they don't believe us," he says.
For years they lived day-to-day, sleeping in parks or abandoned cars and robbing stores and passersby to pay for heroin, crack and cheap wine.
Pablo, 31, would steal cars with a friend by asking drivers for directions before holding an ice pick to their necks.
Police once arrested Yolanda mid-heist when she was nine months pregnant with a previous boyfriend's child. The state has long since relieved her of the three children she had by him.
"We were like Bonnie and Clyde," she says of that relationship.
After "Clyde" went to prison in 1988, she followed a friend to a Victory Outreach ministry in Santa Monica. (It has since moved to Hawthorne.) She had never seen a church like that, she recalls, where people with slicked-back hair talked about their gangster pasts. But the pull of drugs was too strong, and she was soon back in the streets.
Then, four years ago, pregnant with her first child by Pablo, she spotted people singing, clapping and carrying the same signs she had once briefly carried. "Jesus is the answer," the sign read.
"Oh man, they're Christians," she remembers thinking. A girl approached Yolanda to say she had used cocaine when she was pregnant, and her baby was born prematurely. Yolanda started to cry, but she and Pablo refused to go to the refuge. "There was a part of me crying out for help, but there was another part of me that didn't want to let go of the drugs," she says.
Later that month, Pablo was arrested by narcotics agents. When he was released a few days later, Yolanda persuaded him to go to the church with her. "I knew it was my only hope," she says.
Yolanda hasn't touched alcohol or drugs since, she says. "It was weird, man. The moment I prayed, God freed me--even from cigarettes."
Today, Pablo works for minimum wage delivering refrigerators. Yolanda stays home with the children and plans to work when they're older.