Casting a Critical Eye on Church of Castoffs

God himself pulled the needle out of Sonny Arguinzoni's arm, or so the story goes.

Grateful, the high school dropout, part-time purse snatcher and hope-to-die heroin addict repaid the miracle with one of his own.

From an apartment in a Boyle Heights housing project, Arguinzoni started a Christian ministry. He called it Victory Outreach International and became Pastor Sonny to a flock that over three decades has swelled to 30,000.

His followers are society's castoffs and dropouts: ex-gang members, drug addicts and prostitutes with nowhere else to go, people desperate for a miracle of their own. To them he offers what few other drug treatment programs can claim: an unheard-of 85% success rate, plus community, faith and purpose.

But as with all miracles, there are reasons to doubt.

Former pastors and ex-members say Victory Outreach exploits its vulnerable followers and exacts from them blind loyalty to rake in millions of dollars at their expense.

They accuse the ministry of being a "spiritual pyramid scheme" that profits from the slave labor of followers, spending the proceeds with little accountability. The money, they say, is used to support a high lifestyle for Pastor Sonny and other top church leaders.

They contend that the church flouts labor laws and encourages members to defraud the welfare system.

State officials in the early 1990s found many church rehabilitation homes to be unsafe and unsanitary. After only four of the 70 or so Victory Outreach facilities in California got a state license, the church withdrew all its license applications.

But what some followers call exploitation, others say is the only approach tough enough for these hard cases.

The church's message is redemption through sacrifice and obedience. The lifestyle demanded of followers is spartan because that's what church leaders say it takes to break the powerful grip of drugs and alcohol.

"It is authoritarian. It is dictatorial. It is tough. It's worse than prison and boot camp, and if they don't like it, they can get out the door," said Victory Outreach spokesman Robert Alvarado, describing the regimen at the church's drug rehabilitation homes. "You have very few choices. You come in and you surrender all. Either you want your life changed or you don't."

Even a veteran pastor who quit the church because of his concern over its financial practices defends its larger mission. Victory Outreach is "reaching out where no one else is… . It's not an easy mission," he said. "I think that the souls they have reached outweigh the dirty laundry."

The backbone of the church is its network of rehabilitation homes--also known as special services homes--that are, typically, low-rent houses and apartments whose residents are packed five and six to a room.

There are Victory Outreach churches in almost every major U.S. city and more than a dozen in South America, Europe and Africa--235 congregations and 310 rehabilitation homes worldwide. The congregations are concentrated in Southern California, with 58 churches from San Diego to Los Angeles. Last year, church officials said they treated 10,520 men and women, though they have little evidence for their claimed rates of recovery.

Victory Outreach recruits new members at street corner rallies and from jails and prisons. Los Angeles judges sometimes allow defendants, ordered to drug programs, to move into church rehab homes.

Residents are supervised 24 hours a day by staff members, most of whom are recent graduates themselves.

Outside Conventional Christianity

Although it receives mainstream praise, Victory Outreach lies well outside conventional Christianity. Its pastors, who mirror the more roughhewn of Jesus' disciples, talk and swagger like recovering street thugs, which many are.

One pastor describes prayer as "getting loaded on the Holy Ghost." Another compares loyalty to the church to "walkin' the yard" with one's homeboys in prison.

It is an image Arguinzoni embraces.

"I'm a household name in the ghetto," he said during an interview at the church's 15-acre headquarters in La Puente.

Arguinzoni said men and women at his rehab homes expect to be cured by God.

"They're told in the very beginning when they come in that the difference between us and a secular program is that we provide spiritual help," he said. "We want to encourage them to come into their own personal experience with God. We feel that once that happens, that's when they begin to get stronger and they begin to get victory over the drugs."

Arguinzoni began his missionary work in 1967, five years after kicking his heroin habit. He had moved from New York to Los Angeles to attend the Latin American Bible College, an Assemblies of God institution in La Puente. He met his wife, Julie, while both were divinity students.

Later, the couple moved to Aliso Village, a sprawling Boyle Heights housing project. In time, the ministry he founded there won national recognition and praise.

"You are helping to create a brighter future for all of us," wrote President Clinton in a 1997 letter marking the church's 30th anniversary.

"My vision was to try to reach East L.A., the Boyle Heights area," Arguinzoni said. "Now it's the world."

Church officials say their drug and alcohol recovery programs are centered on prayer and Bible study, with an occasional carwash to teach discipline and help pay bills.

But there is much more work than prayer for residents of Victory Outreach homes, according to five former pastors, former members and court documents. Much of the church's harshest criticism is aimed at its unpaid work.

In recent years, rehab homes from San Diego to San Francisco formed crews, dispatching residents to work construction, paint houses and do landscaping.

James Pope, a contractor in San Francisco, said he hired a crew of eight men to paint houses eight hours a day for several months three or four years ago, paying the church $240 a day, in cash, for the labor. He said workers complained that they never saw any of the money.

Over the past few years, men from Victory Outreach rehab homes throughout Southern California were hired to clean up oil spills in Ventura County.

Pay for the work was turned over to the church, say former pastors.

"My impression is that a lot of these guys were expecting some money," said Chuck Rossie, a media consultant hired by Victory Outreach. "I guess this is the argument guys in jail make--that they want to be paid a salary."

Dean Fryer, a spokesman for state Labor Commissioner Jose Millan, said workers--whether or not they are in drug rehabilitation--must be paid for their labor.

"It sounds like what we're talking about here is not in accordance with state law," Fryer said.

In exchange for their work, residents are given bed and board--often a spot on the floor or a bunk and a meal of donated food.

Sometimes, they didn't even get that, said Gilbert Jaimez, who lived in a San Jose rehab home in the early 1990s. Jaimez said he was part of a 25-person crew sent from the home to work at the Great America theme park.

Although the workers were collectively earning about $1,000 a day, he said, all of the money went to the home.

"All I wanted was a decent meal, and I was willing to be a slave," said Jaimez, 29, who has since left the church. But sometimes, he said, "they wouldn't even give me that."

Jaimez said he had concerns about the way he was being treated, "but they put it in my mind that if I thought different, I was going against God."

Other allegations surround the enrollment of rehab home residents in welfare programs.

Brent Saupe, who ran a Victory Outreach rehab home in San Francisco until 1996, said that when he first joined the church, he and others in his rehab home were instructed by leaders to lie to welfare caseworkers, saying they could not work.

Later, as a rehab home director, he said, church leaders gave the same instructions to new recruits. That way, he said, residents could collect both welfare benefits and the income from odd jobs. The church, he said, demands all the money.

Lying on welfare applications and hiding outside income is illegal. Alvarado said the church does not advocate that practice.

Margaret Quinn, an administrator with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services, said there are an undetermined number of people in local Victory Outreach rehab homes who are receiving general relief payments.

"In all the meetings I've had with Victory Outreach, they have never mentioned the fact they refer their individuals out for employment and that there's income coming in," Quinn said. "They maintain their residents are unemployable due to their substance abuse problems."

Further criticism relates to the church's failure to get most of its facilities licensed. Victory Outreach officials boast on the church's World Wide Web site that their rehab homes constitute "one of the largest drug prevention and rehabilitation facilities in the world."

Health and Safety Problems Found

Although technically Victory Outreach is not required to license its homes because they use religion-based treatment, the ministry sought licenses for all its California facilities in the early 1990s, allowing state regulators a glimpse into the operation.

State officials found health and safety problems.

Richard Pullen, manager of the licensing and certification branch of the Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, complained at the time about Victory Outreach's "dismal track record," according to documents. Only four of 70 or so facilities had obtained licenses over a two-year period.

Among the problems, Pullen wrote, "local fire inspection authorities are often unable to provide fire safety clearances due to the condition of the recovery homes and the common problem of exceeding facility capacity levels."

The state also had received 17 complaints about Victory Outreach facilities, including overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, poor meals and forced labor.

Responding to the regulators' concerns, church representative Kenneth Mata wrote an August 1992 letter to Pullen asking to withdraw all the license applications. The letter shielded Victory Outreach from further government scrutiny, and none of its rehabilitation home in California or other states are now licensed.

"We submitted these documents in error," Mata wrote. "Victory Outreach is not a drug abuse and alcohol treatment program… . Our solution to the drug problem is found in a spiritual experience with Jesus Christ."

State health department officials are now debating whether to require religion-based treatment centers to obtain a state license, said Maria Caudill, a spokeswoman for the Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs.

Beyond the allegations of legal misconduct by the church are questions about its ethical practices, in particular, its tendency to glorify Arguinzoni, while at the same time maintaining a cloak of secrecy over its considerable financial dealings.

Once men and women graduate from the rehabilitation homes--usually after six to nine months--they are expected to live in church-sponsored, single-family homes with other members for nine to 12 months. Victory Outreach collects rent, said former members, as well as a 10% tithe from everybody's pay.

Church members also are expected to donate a dollar a day under the United We Can campaign to sponsor new churches. The ultimate goal is to send converts back to the streets to establish their own churches.

"Everyone is encouraged to duplicate what Sonny started," said Saupe, the former rehabilitation home director. "I often refer to it as a spiritual pyramid scheme."

Victory Outreach pastors repeatedly tell congregants that they are bound--to each other and the church--by the nature of their past sins. Members are reminded how Victory Outreach pulled them from the gutter.

"If it wasn't for God raising up Pastor Sonny in the first place, if it wasn't for God raising up the ministry of Victory Outreach, and if it wasn't for your pastor going to your city, you'd still be a sinner," church elder Ed Morales, the head of the 1,000-member San Jose church, said in a tape-recorded sermon sold through the church's bookstore.

"You'd still be sticking that needle in your arm. You'd still be standing out on that corner, giving your body for a $5 bag."

Loyalty and money, say church leaders, are little to ask in return.

Arguinzoni preaches that God's work will, in time, bring material blessings.

He is a good example. The scarred-over needle marks on his arms are covered by tailor-made suits. He wears a Rolex watch, drives a BMW and travels the world on church business. He lives in a four-bedroom house with a pool in West Covina. He keeps an apartment in New York City and has a 30-foot powerboat.

Arguinzoni, 59, is the author of three church-related books and the founder and president of All American Network, a religious programming network with TV stations in 11 cities outside California, reaching millions of viewers from Hawaii to Florida.

His wife and five grown children all draw paychecks either from the TV operation or the church.

"I think he's dishonest," said former pastor Peter Belaustegui. "I think he's misappropriated finances."

Victory Outreach is required to disclose little about its finances because it is a church. Arguinzoni receives a salary of $70,000 a year, officials said, and the church raises about $1 million in revenue each year.

But critics, including several former longtime church pastors, say the church earns a lot more.

A former financial official who quit in 1992 said most churches contributed $18,000 to $20,000 a year to Victory Outreach headquarters, which, if true, would amount to a total of more than $4 million a year.

Belaustegui, in a 1996 resignation letter he posted on the World Wide Web, said he sent $21,467 in 1995 to church headquarters.

Former pastors said they collected money for churches never built, as well as for tiny overseas facilities that members raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support.

Alvarado, the Victory Outreach spokesman, said that the average church gives far less than $20,000 a year and that many new churches survive only with financial help from headquarters.

He said church officials are preparing a report for the public on how money is spent. Overseas missions and domestic programs, he said, account for the bulk of the expenditures.

Victory Outreach does not belong to any outside organization that monitors fiscal accountability, as many churches do. But, Alvarado said, "I think it would behoove us to do so in the future."

Ex-pastor Belaustegui and others said the church shields itself from financial questioning by fostering devotion that is the product of conditioning that begins in the rehabilitation homes.

Saupe, the former rehab home director, said he went to Victory Outreach when he was most vulnerable.

"I was pretty hopeless, no future, no goals whatsoever," Saupe recalled. "They said, 'God's got a plan for your life.' So I said, 'Great,' and I stayed… . You're just so focused on God using you to do mighty work, helping people who are lost and hurting, that you don't realize that you're the one who's lost and hurting and that you're being used."

2 Lawsuits Allege Intimidation

Two lawsuits filed against the church allege that its leaders intimidate members who resist its call to absolute devotion.

In 1993, a San Diego man sued Victory Outreach after suffering injuries in a traffic accident while traveling in a church van. He said in court papers that he was subjected "to lengthy lectures relating to his Christian faith precluding him from taking any action or filing any claim against the church, with … threats of expulsion from the recovery facility … and with other tactics intended to cause [him] to abandon his free will."

Two years ago, church members told a resident of a women's rehab home in La Puente that it was God's will that Arguinzoni's dog, Samson, bit her earlobe off while she was working at a party, according to court papers, and that it "would be evil for her to sue Pastor Sonny."

Both lawsuits, whose allegations the church denied, were settled out of court.

Rebecca Jaimez, the sister-in-law of Gilbert, said she joined Victory Outreach when she was 14 and devoted the next 13 years to Morales and his San Jose church. She worked as a part-time bookkeeper, cleaned Morales' house and baby-sat his children.

She left the church in 1993, after Morales allegedly disapproved of her marrying. She said she grew tired of seeing people being taken advantage of by the church.

"So many people looked up to this church," she said. "And they let 'em down."

In an interview, Arguinzoni discussed church history and philosophy. But he declined subsequent requests that he answer the allegations of former members and pastors.

'I Really Love Our Ministry'

Other church leaders dismiss both the allegations of legal problems and of ethical breaches. Lies from the devil's own mouth, they say. Who else, they ask, is trolling America's streets, retrieving "treasures out of darkness," an Old Testament phrase that Arguinzoni often uses to describe his tough and tattooed following.

"I really love our ministry," said John Figueroa, a follower for four years. "If it wasn't for Pastor Sonny and Julie and their faithfulness, I wouldn't be here today."

Figueroa earns $250 a week as a clerk at the church's bookstore in La Puente. From that money, he said, he donates 10% in offerings and $30 a month to the United We Can campaign. He is also working to pay off a $1,000 pledge to the church building fund.

Figueroa said he is now eager to join the church's 500 Club, by pledging another $50 a month.

Arguinzoni is advancing toward what he says is a God-ordered goal of 1,000 churches by the year 2000.

"If it wasn't for God rescuing me, I wouldn't be alive," said Arguinzoni, speaking with the accent of his Brooklyn hometown, where he stole to support his heroin habit more than 30 years ago. "This is what I was called to do."