They’re preachers in gangster clothing.
They quote Scripture and live with the inner scars of murder, rape and addiction.
They lurk in Spokane’s dark alleys, hoping to turn drug users from crack pipes to Bibles.
These preachers - reformed addicts, gang members and prostitutes - are local members of Victory Outreach.
In November, the international street ministry opened a permanent Spokane church on East Wellesley.
“There is a responsibility that God has given us,” said Alvin Moreno, a recovering heroin addict and pastor of Spokane Victory Outreach. “We’ve been there, killed people, stolen, been doped up.
“Now we’re giving hope, meaning, purpose, a sense of dignity.”
The unlicensed, cold-turkey rehabilitation methods of the La Puente, Calif.-based organization have left some addiction counselors shaking their heads.
Victory Outreach has no doctors or other professionals running its treatment program. Instead, former addicts use the Good Book to treat addiction. People who seek help are given food, a bed and a Bible. In exchange, they’re asked to help recruit new members.
Spokane police and sheriff’s deputies know about Victory Outreach, but said the group is too new to have made a visible difference on the streets.
Many of the disillusioned who failed the program said it is too rigid, and professionals are skeptical of the group’s motives.
Yet, those who traded crime for Christ said Victory Outreach was their final hope.
Baiting the hook
Searching for needy souls is a constant job at Victory Outreach, where 16 men and women live in a ragged former nursing home on the North Side.
Members walk streets in Spokane’s low-income neighborhoods nightly, trying to convince prostitutes and the homeless to give God a try.
It’s a calling of redemption with a price, Moreno said.
Victory Outreach members are often harassed by local residents who mistake them for thugs.
“People are so used to the bad they don’t believe we can do good,” said Moreno.
On a night in November, men from Victory Outreach were almost jumped outside First Step Services in the East Central neighborhood.
A gnarled man named Redeye busted through the front door of the clean and sober club as the Victory Outreach group approached.
“What the hell’s going on out here?” Redeye barked.
Instantly, a dozen men circled the visitors - Bobby Mendez, JC Massy, and three men who would only give their first names.
“We’re with Victory Outreach,” said the equally intimidating Mendez, a 31-year-old recovering heroin addict from San Jose, Calif.
“Oh, come on in,” he said. “We thought you were crack dealers.”
Once inside the club, the Victory Outreach men went to work.
“Anybody need a place to stay?” Mendez asked.
The visitors told stories about robbing their families for drug money, beating up friends and living on the streets. They praised God for saving them.
Those who heard the sermons before fell back into the club’s shadows. They know that at Victory Outreach they can’t smoke or drink. Men are separated from women. Meals are often donated leftovers from a nearby Safeway on Market. Members earn their keep by washing cars for donations and working odd jobs through Labor Ready on North Lee.
Everybody prays and preaches.
“Are you from detox?” asked a drunk man at First Step. “I don’t need detox. I’m just fine,” he said, stumbling away.
It’s considered a good night when one or two agree to give Victory Outreach a try. That night at First Step, four people went back to the church.
On the way, the group ran into the man who didn’t want detox - he was smoking crack in an alley near East Sprague and First Street.
“We know this isn’t for everyone,” Moreno said. “But if we can get one man to stay, that’s good.”
At Victory Outreach, the only constant is the belief that God heals. Even treatment professionals say faith is a formidable recovery tool.
But sobriety for hard-core drug and alcohol users usually starts with medically-supervised detoxification - a process Spokane’s Victory Outreach isn’t qualified or licensed to offer, experts said.
“Kicking a serious alcohol addiction can kill you,” said San Francisco psychologist William Henkin, an adjunct professor at the California School of Professional Psychology.
Violent seizures are common during withdrawals, Henkin said, and addicts should be monitored.
Many addicts also have AIDS, tuberculosis, hepatitis and other diseases, which makes professional detox even more crucial, explained Dr. Roger Silfvast, executive director of Community Detox Services of Spokane.
“It’s a very noble thing,” Silfvast said of Victory Outreach. “But, my God, it’s very dangerous.”
No one has died or had serious medical problems in the Spokane Victory Outreach program, Moreno said.
Professionals also question the expectation that people who are helped by Victory Outreach dedicate their lives to it.
“There’s a lot to be said for giving people a floor to fall down on,” Henkin said. “When there’s a trade, it begins to sound like a devil’s trade.”
For JC Massy, a 48-year-old recovering heroin addict from Portland, his past is never far away.
“I can never leave (Victory Outreach),” Massy said. “If I did, I’d be back in prison.”
That kind of thinking startles professionals, who believe it is unhealthy to acquiesce to an organization like Victory Outreach.
“You can only heal so much,” said the Rev. Jim Harbaugh, a certified addiction counselor and Jesuit priest at Seattle University. “It becomes a problem when people are very dependent on the leader’s personality and are cut off from their cronies.”
At Victory Outreach, members hang pictures of founder Sonny Arguinzoni above their beds and consider church pastors their emotional leaders.
Many admit that joining Victory Outreach is a desperate, drastic step.
“Only an addict can cure an addict,” Henkin said.
“If you’re addicted to something, you’re owned by it.”
A permanent struggle
Bobby Mendez is owning up to his past inside a Shelton, Wash., prison cell.
While moving his family from Vancouver, Wash., to Spokane in February, Mendez was pulled over and arrested on an outstanding escape warrant, which was issued in November. According to the Clark County prosecutor’s office, Mendez failed to show up for a Vancouver work crew after being sentenced for a 1994 assault. He awaits relocation to a state prison.
Owning up is part of the Victory Outreach strategy. Members like Mendez try to show others a way out by admitting they hit bottom, too.
When Mendez was 4, his father was killed in the yard of their San Jose home during a police drug raid. A year later, his mother died from a drug overdose.
Mendez, who claims to be a former high-ranking member of the California prison gang Nuestra Familia, struggles with his own drug addiction and a violent past.
He has served time for numerous thefts, drug offenses and assaults, according to California court records.
He married his wife, Ruth, through the glass partition of a jail visiting area. Weeks later, he said, he sold the wedding ring inside the jail for cocaine.
He was first recruited by Victory Outreach members in Portland in 1993, but he started using drugs again and left the program. Last fall, Mendez left Ruth and their four children in Vancouver to come to Spokane.
Today, he lives with more than his former bad habits and a 14-month prison sentence.
Mendez believes Nuestra Familia has put a contract out on his life. The gang, with members in and out of prison, is notorious for killing those who leave the fold, he said last winter.
But, Mendez is convinced he’s safe with God.
“I lived in danger for the devil,” Mendez says. “I can do the same for Jesus.”
He said he thrives on the intensity of converting people. Ruth Mendez said even now he is leading Bible studies and prayer groups in prison.
Last winter at First Step, Mendez went to work on the most belligerent drunk in the room.
“Are you gonna blow that smoke?” about the Bible, asked a man named Jimbo. “I’m crazy, you know.”
Mendez was unfazed.
“I’m crazy too, man,” he said.
Later, while Jimbo gobbled a free meal at the church, Mendez told his story and worked at whittling away decades of alcoholism and homelessness.
Jimbo left the next day.
“Sometimes that’s all you can give these guys,” Mendez said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 8 Color photos
Click here to comment on this story »