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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | VENTURA COUNTY LIFE

Reaching Out--to the Very End

July 16, 1999|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

How could Brother Manny not have heard the train?

Trooping up to the pulpit at the Victory Outreach church in Oxnard, friends at his funeral offered some theories: Angels were talking to him. Jesus was calling him home. It was Manny's time, and he was ready.

Five hundred mourners packed the hall Wednesday night. If one of them was the object of Brother Manny's final, futile, evangelistic effort, he kept a discreet silence.

Nobody seems to know the man's name. He was on the street early Sunday and he looked drunk. Manuel Marcopulos Lopez III, and his good friend, Albert Orozco, spotted him from Albert's car as they cruised the Colonia, Oxnard's poorest neighborhood. He looked like he needed their help.

Like most members of Victory Outreach, they had been through tough times themselves. Orozco--Brother Albert in the church--is an ex-heroin addict with his years in a state pen thankfully behind him. Manny Lopez had been a gang member partial to angel dust. Both had been in and out of rehab homes run by Victory Outreach.

But that was awhile back. Now they were family men--Albert with five kids, Manny with three. Both held regular jobs. And both were immersed in "Search and Rescue '99"--an aggressive effort by their church to bring into the fold dopers and boozers and despairing drifters.

Hours before church services, they would hit the streets. Last Sunday, they brought along Manny's 3-year-old daughter, Connie. They picked up doughnuts for her and drove slowly, on the lookout for lost souls, "treasures out of darkness," as the church calls them.

"I said, 'Hey, look at the homeboy,' " Albert recalled. "Let's go testify to him."

Manny hopped out while Albert parked. He hailed the man and crossed the tracks, making a fervent case for the mercy of God. He was known for his relentlessness. When he worked as a supervisor at a hat factory in Oxnard, he preached to the workers. At lunch, he would grab a bullhorn and preach in the streets.

But this man was in no mood to hear it. Manny came back across the tracks, ready to leave with his friend and daughter.

"But I think that's when the Lord said, 'No Manny, go back, go back,' " Albert said. "He was just so determined . . . "

When the Amtrak train hit him, he died immediately. The man on the other side of the tracks looked stunned. Albert screamed: "He was trying to save you . . . "

The man walked away.

At the funeral, Manny was painted as a martyr, much as if he had been speared or burned in the name of his faith. "He died a true soldier for the Lord," said Pastor Fernando Franco, who has started a fund for the Lopez family. "He was a mighty man of valor."

Franco said he spoke with Manny late Saturday night. Manny had drawn up a list of "backsliders," people who had drifted away from the church and, often, back into drugs.

"He was so determined to get these people back into church," Franco said. "He couldn't wait to get started."

Men in dark suits and boys in sweatpants, women in cocktail dresses and jeans, stepped up to the microphone with a familiar story: Brother Manny helped me kick drugs. Brother Manny turned me toward the right side. Brother Manny helped me go the distance in rehab: "Two more feet--come on, Juanita, two more feet! God is right there--just two more feet!"

With hands outstretched, many sang songs of praise. Gilbert Neri, a church youth leader who used to join Manny on lunch-hour crusades, blasted out an original rap: "R-E-A-L-I-T-Y / You got to know Jesus before you die."

Victory Outreach--a group with more than 30,000 members throughout the world--has been criticized by some. Former workers contend it takes in more money than its leaders admit. State inspectors found unsanitary conditions at some of its California rehab centers. And nobody knows for sure if its success at turning lives around is as high as the 85% it boasts.

Maybe all that is so--or maybe it's not. It was irrelevant Wednesday night, in a room full of people who can tell you more than you want to know about being without hope, people paying tribute to the blinding zeal of a Brother Manny.

"He was on fire," said Junie Morales, who accompanied him on preaching forays into the Avenue area of Ventura. "He just didn't take no for an answer."

*

Steve Chawkins is a Times staff writer. His e-mail address is steve.chawkins@latimes.com.

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